When the NHL playoff races came down to the wire last season, much was made of the fact that California produced more playoff teams than Canada did. In fact, it was a clean sweep for the Golden State. All three California-based teams – the San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings – qualified, as the No. 2, 4 and 7 seeds respectively.
Meanwhile, north of the border, the old 'Woe Canada' headline got a serious workout.
Sure the Vancouver Canucks won the President's Trophy going away as the NHL's top team, but the Edmonton Oilers bookended them by bringing up the rear for the second consecutive year. The Calgary Flames were in their usual close-but-no-cigar mode (10th in the conference, three points out) and in the East, the Montreal Canadiens snuck in as the sixth seed, but the Toronto Maple Leafs (10th) and the Ottawa Senators (13th) missed completely. And just for scorekeeping purposes, the soon-to-be Winnipeg Jets, then still the Atlanta Thrashers, were right in between at No. 12.
So fast forward to the 2012 stretch drive and you'll see that whatever has been ailing Canada's teams continues to trouble, and maybe it's afflicted the Californians as well. The race – CAN vs. CAL – is coming right down to the wire, with only Vancouver and the Ottawa Senators in the top eight, while the Kings are the only one of the three California teams currently in the top eight; and that's just by a whisker.
This is how close the West is: At one point on Thursday, three different teams held down top spot in the Pacific Division – the Dallas Stars at the start of the day, the Phoenix Coyotes for about an hour after a regulation win over the Colorado Avalanche and then, at the end of the night, Los Angeles, by virtue of a 1-0 shootout win over the visiting St. Louis Blues. With Jonathan Quick earning the shutout, the Kings have now won six games in a row and 10 of their past 13 – and all that gives them in a chance in a conference where six teams are separated by three points. The most puzzling of the bunch: San Jose. Despite a 2-1 victory over the Boston Bruins (a sweet victory for Joe Thornton, the ex-Bruins' star), the Sharks remain 10th in the West and in danger of finishing as the year's most disappointing team, ahead of even the free-falling Toronto Maple Leafs and the lottery candidates from Montreal.
What happened to San Jose? The Sharks were a 105-point team a year ago, won two rounds, qualified for the conference championship for a second consecutive year and then ultimately lost to Vancouver, in part because Thornton, their top centre, was injured and could hardly play in the third round because of a separated shoulder.
The Sharks were so convinced of their championship potential that they worked even harder to tweak the lineup in the hopes of leapfrogging the Canucks this season. GM Doug Wilson made two separate trades with the Minnesota Wild. In one, he brought in defenceman Brent Burns to add scoring from the blueline. In the other, he added Martin Havlat to replace Dany Heatley, thinking the chemistry change would revitalize Havlat and the team.
But Havlat got off to a slow start, missed more than two months with a torn hamstring, and since his return he has been one of the better Sharks' players. Burns has been okay too. After scoring 17 goals and 46 points for the Wild last year, he had 10 goals and 35 points through 72 games for the Sharks – playing about 22 and a half minutes as opposed to the 25 he played a year ago. Surprisingly, Thornton is actually having a better statistical year this year than last, with 69 points in 74 games after scoring only 70 in 80 a year ago. Logan Couture is up too, but Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and especially Ryan Clowe have seen their numbers drop; and no secondary scoring has emerged to take the pressure off the big boys. Suddenly, it looks as if every step the Sharks have taken to get closer to playoff success has actually moved them half-a-step back.
They looked listless in dropping back-to-back games to the Kings and Ducks earlier this week, and about the only good news is that they finish with back-to-back games against the Stars and the Kings, which means that if they can stitch together one good week at the end of the season, they can still catch a playoff spot.
In the larger scheme of things, however, they are approaching an organizational crossroads – likely too good a team to miss the playoffs, which they've made seven years in a row and in 12 of the past 13 years. For that matter, if they do make them, they automatically become the sort of dangerous nothing-to-lose wild card, waiting in the lower-echelon weeds. But if they do fall short, and if the stumbles and false starts of October to March are a harbinger of things to come, then changes – from top to bottom - will almost certainly be in the offing.
A SCHEDULING NOTE: Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn't, but for the first time since the 1927-28 season, the NHL regular season will conclude on a Saturday, with all 30 teams in action on the final night. The shift, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, was made to put all playoff teams on an equal competitive footing going into the postseason, which couldn't be done if a handful of games spilled into Sunday. Playoffs themselves begin same as always – the first Wednesday after the regular season ends. According to figures supplied by the Elias Sports Bureau, the last season which did not end on a Sunday was 2005-06, which ended on a Tuesday.
FLAMING OUT: Of the six teams competing for the final three playoff spots in the West, the Flames now face the longest odds. They're at 83 points, with only seven games remaining, and if they miss, it'll be because of games such as Thursday night's, when they were in complete command against the Minnesota Wild, had a 2-0 lead and a chance to turn it into a three-goal on an extended five-on-three advantage, but failed to capitalize. The Wild comeback came out of nowhere – on their first power play of the night when Heatley ended an eight-game point-less streak by scoring a goal. Calgary ultimately lost in a shootout, marking their third consecutive shootout loss. They are 3-9 in the shootout overall and even if coach Brent Sutter took some heat for gambling with a different look against the Wild's goaltender Josh Harding, it is hard to blame him, based on how little success the regular shootout guys have had. In their past four games, the Flames have gained just three of eight points – or to put it another way, left five points on the table in games against Colorado and three of the conference also-rans Columbus, Edmonton and Minnesota. And while their injured players are getting back – Lee Stempniak, Blake Comeau, Blair Jones and Chris Butler – have all returned in recent days, the most important absentee is Mike Cammalleri, who could be back as early as Saturday's date with the Stars.
The exodus from sick bay also required the Flames to send rookie Sven Baertschi back to his WHL team in Portland hurt their overall game. Baertschi was providing scoring and enthusiasm, which is missing now.
Havlat's strong play notwithstanding, players returning from injury usually need a week or more to find their stride. Calgary doesn't have a week or more. It's best hope now is to start picking off opponents, beginning with a home-and-home against Dallas that starts Saturday. With a regulation sweep, that's at least one team they can leapfrog without help from anywhere else.
SINGING THE BLUES: On some level, it probably wasn't a great surprise that St. Louis and Los Angeles played 65 minutes of scoreless hockey Thursday night before the Kings won the game in a shootout. The Blues and Kings are 1-2 in overall team defence, and depending upon how the Pacific sorts itself out (currently, four teams are separated by two points), there is a chance they could meet again in the first round. Playoff pool pickers, beware. It could be a series without goals, although the L.A. offence has perked up since the Jeff Carter acquisition. It isn't that Carter is lighting it up exactly, but his acquisition coincided with vast improvements in both Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown's play (and scoring totals). Right now, they are the Kings' offensive leaders; and L.A. has gone from the NHL's least productive scoring team to relatively respectable in the past three weeks.
Meanwhile, St. Louis now has 101 points, which is still good for the overall NHL lead, though coach Ken Hitchcock sees room for improvement after the team failed to pick up a victory in southern California.
"You can't find your game in March," said Hitchcock, a lesson for all playoff-bound teams. "If your game is not in order in March, there's no chance it'll be there for a playoff series, no chance at all. You're going to have cracks in your game and those cracks are always going to come out in a seven-game series. If you can't defend, there's going to come a time when it's pretty emotional and you're going to fall apart. Or if you can't kill penalties, all of a sudden, it isn't going to change because it happens to be playoffs.
"I think the players have really bought into that. We are how we play now and the way we play now, that's not going to change in April. And if we get beat playing this way in April, then we get beat. But we're not going to go and beat ourselves. That's why, when we practice, it's all-out, it's to get our tempo as high as we can. You practice every game-like situation you can, so we're not surprised or worked out about something that we haven't seen before."