The NHL goes back to work Tuesday night on 13 fronts, the players renewed and revitalized by a week off in the middle of the dog days of winter, and ready to gear up for that frantic, final push for playoff spots.
As usual in the NHL, where parity rules, just a handful of teams are so far gone that they are already thinking next-season thoughts. And even those with just the slightest mathematical hint of a hope can point to the 2009 NHL all-star break, when the 15th-place team in the Western Conference standings that year, the St. Louis Blues, climbed all the way to sixth spot by season's end and qualified for the playoffs with a fabulous final push.
The Blues made up nine points in the final 10 weeks, and that rally will hearten Randy Cunneyworth's Montreal Canadiens, who find themselves 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, eight points back of a playoff spot, and needing the same sort of alchemy that St. Louis manufactured three years ago to play themselves into contention.
Or think about last season, when the Buffalo Sabres were sitting 10th at the all-star break, six points behind the eighth-place Atlanta Thrashers. Ultimately, Buffalo surged, Atlanta faded and the Sabres gained a whopping 22 points on the Thrashers in the final 10 weeks of the season.
That's good news for the former Thrashers, now residing in Winnipeg and known as the Jets, who are ninth in the East and just five points back of the three teams tied for the final two playoff spots in the conference – the Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs, all settled in at 55 points. If Buffalo could do it last year, Winnipeg can manage it this year.
That 55-point total is also the magic playoff number in the Western Conference, where the eminently vulnerable Minnesota Wild (3-6-1 in their past 10 games, but coming off two consecutive wins) are trying to hold off the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes, all of whom are within striking distance, three or fewer points back.
Last year, the West was similarly tight at the all-star break, with just two points separating six teams (Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado, San Jose Sharks, Minnesota, Los Angeles Kings and Calgary). San Jose was technically ninth at the break, Los Angeles 11th, and both teams made it, knocking out Dallas and Colorado, respectively. Dallas had an especially hard fade. With Brad Richards out for a great deal of time because of a concussion, San Jose put up 19 more points than the Stars did down the stretch, and Los Angeles gained 13. Dallas was eliminated on the final day of the season.
It was a tight race down to the wire, and Richards' injury last year is instructive to any team hoping to qualify because player health is the one factor beyond any team's control. If you lose a key cog to injury, he cannot be replaced, no matter how much trade chatter you might hear between now and the NHL trading deadline, 27 days from now.
(One of the teams likely to be selling this year, the Carolina Hurricanes, took their No. 1 trading property off the market Monday by signing defenceman Tim Gleason to a four-year, $16-million (U.S.) contract extension. Carolina could still make pending unrestricted free agents Tuomo Ruutu and Bryan Allen available to the highest bidder – and the price for rentals could go sky high this season, with only the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers completely and irrevocably out of playoff contention.)
The math never changes – 16 teams qualify for postseason play, 14 miss.
But hope is a seductive quality and history contributes to it. Every year, somebody seems to catch lightning in a bottle and comes from off the pace in a mad rush to the finish line – and then, who knows what can happen? In 2009, the Anaheim Ducks just scraped it as the No. 8 seed and carried that momentum into the first round, where they knocked off top-seeded San Jose, a 117-point team.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett calls the teams clustered around the cutoff line in the West "a pack" and says the goal now is "to get yourself at the top of that pack. And it seems like the pack expands every year by a team or two. So that's where we're at – and we know the challenge ahead of us."
So does everybody else in the West. A little luck, a little good health, somebody having an off year that catches fire at the right time ... it all adds to the intrigue and the drama as the NHL heads for home, with so much still to decide.