ATLANTA – And now the fun starts with the race for playoff spots and battle for home ice.
“Besides the playoffs, this is the most fun part of the year after the all-star break,” Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla said after all-star weekend wrapped up. “You get a bit of a breather at the break.
“Mentally you get ready for the big push.”
The NHL resumes play after the four-day all-star break with 11 games Tuesday night. Most clubs have about 30 games left to play. The daily jostling will likely go right to the end in the amazingly tight Northwest Division where only three points separate Minnesota, Calgary, Vancouver and Colorado – all sitting in playoff spots. The first-place prize is a key top-three seeding in the tough Western Conference.
“That’s huge,” Canucks forward Henrik Sedin said of the division crown. “But you can’t start thinking about it now.
“I think it’s going to come down to the last game of the season. There’s a way to go yet.”
Sedin’s Canucks, who host Dallas on Tuesday night, continue to be hammered by critics for their offensive woes. They rely too much on star goalie Roberto Luongo and GM Dave Nonis will likely try to add some offensive punch before the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
“It’s been a problem for a lot of years,” Sedin said of the offensive issues. “But we’ve got a great goalie back there, we play a defensive style, we know we’re going to win games 2-1 or 3-2.
“So for us players, it’s not a big deal. We know we can win every night. That’s the way we have to play in the playoffs to be successful, too.”
The Edmonton Oilers don’t want to be counted out of that Northwest race. They’re last in the division and five points behind the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference held by Colorado. Oilers all-star Shawn Horcoff says his team needs a good run right after the break.
“That’s what it’s going to take for us, in February we’re going to need to put together a string of probably seven or eight wins out of 10 games or so,” said Horcoff. “That would put us right back in it.
“As we know every year we’re kind of fighting for that last playoff spot and it’s tough to make up points in March unless you’re within two or three. Four or five points ,then it’s starts to get a little tough. This month of February is going to be huge for us.”
Like the Oilers, Canada’s other division cellar dweller insists it hasn’t given up. The Toronto Maple Leafs sit last in the Northeast and 14th in the Eastern Conference – six points back of a playoff spot.
“If you look at the standings, a lot of teams could be in if they get on a little bit of a run,” said Leafs all-star defenceman Tomas Kaberle, whose team hosts St. Louis on Tuesday night. “That’s what we need to do.
“We have 31 games left and we have to turn it up and do our best to get back in the top eight.”
If they don’t, interim GM Cliff Fletcher may move out some bodies come Feb. 26.
The surprising Montreal Canadiens, whose 60 points are second-best in the Eastern Conference at the break, host Washington on Tuesday night as the Habs look to continue to defy pre-season expectations. The Ottawa Senators are doing exactly what was expected of them. They’ve been first in the conference all season long but in the next few weeks will finally get a peak at who might await them in the first round of the playoffs.
“The more you see the standings shape up, you start to figure which 3-4 teams you may end up playing,” said Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson, who leads his team into Long Island on Tuesday night. “It is the most fun time of the year, there’s no question.
“We’re looking forward to it but it is a grind and you want to make sure you play all the remaining games real hard. We’d like to put ourselves in a good position by being first in our conference. If we do that, I really like our chances.”
The Sens, however, limped into the all-star break by dropping five of their last seven games. A once mighty lead in the conference is down to six points over Montreal.
“It will make it competitive for us down the stretch for sure,” said all-star centre Jason Spezza. “I think it’s human nature to take the foot off the pedal a little once you get out in front like that.
“This is a tough time of the season on top of the injuries we had. We’re looking forward to guys getting rested and guys getting healed up so that we can have a good push and get some momentum getting into the playoffs.”