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The NHL’s fight to the finish

by Archives March 18, 2008

This year’s NHL has been a wild ride. With the end of the regular season less than three weeks away, the fight for a playoff spot has intensified.
In the Eastern Conference, the Habs, Senators, Devils, and Penguins are all battling for first place overall. With each passing day, the top spot changes hands, a point separating these teams from each other.
The NHL playoffs are structured such a way that the leaders of each division are given the top three spots for the playoffs. What this means is that, just like last year, the team leading the weaker Southeast Division can make the playoffs with fewer points than the team in ninth.
For a while it looked like Carolina was poised to do just that, but with strong play in the last 15 games, the Hurricanes appear to have solidified their team and are playing some really good hockey.
In the Western Conference, it’s little surprise that Detroit is running away with first place with their 9th straight 100-point campaign. After rocketing to an incredible start, the Red Wings stumbled slightly following a rash of midseason injuries. Now with most of their key components back and healthy, they are starting to steam roll their opposition once more.
The Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks are battling it out for 2nd spot overall in the West. Both teams have had strong seasons thus far, and have been on fire down the stretch.
After second place, the standings start to get a little bit crazy. In the Northwest division, the Minnesota Wild are in first with 84 points. But right behind them are the Colorado Avalanche (also with 84 points but fewer wins). That leaves Calgary and Vancouver both with 82 points. So two points are separating third place and 8th place in the West.
And with Nashville sitting in ninth place with 80 points, any of these teams can miss the playoffs if they lose a few games a row.
This is simply the reality of Gary Bettman’s new NHL. In the post lock-out era, the league has experienced parity like never before. Virtually any of the 30 teams have a chance of making the playoffs heading into the season, and as the year progresses, the race tightens making it really exciting for fans to watch.
Gone are the days of being able to predict who will make the playoffs and who will miss them.
A perfect example is this year’s edition of the Montreal Canadiens. After losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the final game of the season last year, and missing the playoffs by only two points, many analysts and experts predicted that not only would the Habs miss out again this year, but that they’d finish near the bottom of the conference.
Well that’s not exactly the way things have worked out. With ten games remaining the Habs are battling it out for top playoff seed in the conference.
Nothing is certain in this year’s NHL, as the Ottawa Senators are finding out the hard way. After losing to Anaheim in the Stanley Cup finals last year, many had picked the Senators to make a repeat appearance.
But they have slumped severely down the stretch, winning only seven of 21 games in January and February. That led to head-coach John Paddock being fired and replaced by GM Brian Murray. Nobody would have predicted that happening at the start of the season.
It seems that the only thing certain is that the NHL has upped the excitement level in recent seasons. ‘Silly season’, as some may call it, is in full swing. And with each passing game teams can go from being in first place, to in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
But from a fan’s standpoint, there are few sports that can attest to being this exciting and entertaining before the playoffs have even begun.

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