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No room for error

"They're comfortable playing tight games. That's why they're successful."

Brendan Shanahan was referring to his former team, the Detroit Red Wings, during our weekend conversation, but it turned out that he was foreshadowing his current one: the New York Rangers. Shanahan's dramatic overtime goal against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday ended a tense, hard-fought game that was 0-0 after regulation time. His tally also punctuated the perfect example of where the NHL is right now.

We were initially chatting about all the streaks around the league and what they mean at a time when the parity is as even as it has ever been. Shanahan's goal snapped the Devils' nine-game winning streak and the Rangers' four-game slide. Meanwhile on Sunday, the Red Wings won their sixth straight, 5-2. The Chicago Blackhawks lost their fourth in a row, 3-2. The Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa Senators have had winning streaks of five and eight, plus a losing skid of seven. The Lightning have lost six, won five and lost six in succession. These are but a few examples.

Aren't all these streaks counterintuitive when any team is able to beat another on any given night? "Not when you consider that all your best players are now defensively responsible", offered Shanahan, an engaging personality who was actively involved in the effort to improve the game during the 2004-05 lockout. He remains a great gauge of what the league is like from a competitive standpoint.

"The referees seem to be letting a little more go in the way of physical battles in the corners and in front of the net," he noted. "So it is tough to score goals."

These weren't gripes. "Look, every night is a tough game," he said. "If you're off just a little, you won't win. That's why you can't press in tight situations. Detroit is so experienced that they have patience to play their style no matter what the score is. When you get away from that, teams capitalize."

In other words, nobody -- save maybe the Wings -- can expect to win without bringing their A game. That's where I think schedule plays a part in the streaky nature of this season. Game clustering on weekends leads to fatigue, and tired teams on the road can be fodder for mismatches with fresher opponents. These things help perpetuate quick winning bursts and hasty mini-slides. And, of course, streaks in either direction are easily extended due to the shootout. Gone from the NHL vernacular are the euphemisms "winless streak" and "unbeaten streak." Now it is simply winning or losing, even though 60 minutes of equal scoring guarantees each team a point in the standings.

I guess what surprised me most -- pleasantly I might add -- was Shanahan's outlook on scoring. After all, here's a premier scorer who thinks things are fine the way they are. The league has opened up the game from a one-on-one perspective, thanks to a tougher standard of officiating, but scoring is trending downward due to a preponderance of teams that are resorting to zone defenses. Isn't that the next frontier for the league to conquer? What good is enhancing one-on-one freedom if players still have little room in which to operate?

Personally, I think it is an item for future debate. I even believe a viable option is adding a line 10' to 12' from the blueline in each zone that defenders would be required to stay above in order to cover the point men. It would limit a team's ability to pack all five defenders down around their goal, as most now do, and promote three-on-three action below the tops of the circles. That in turn would allow offensive players more ice and increased one-on-one situations in which they could really benefit from the anti-obstruction officiating standard.

Too radical? Maybe. The recent Board of Governors meetings yielded only vows to monitor the game. There is little desire for too much tinkering. But in conversation, one NHL GM acknowledged that there have been discussions about the "ringette line" concept, which I find very refreshing and encouraging. Nothing imminent, though, and that's O.K. For now, if the game is good enough for Shanny, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

The Calgary Flames are in the midst of a season-high six-game road trip. They started nicely with a 3-2 win at Chicago on Sunday night. The rest of the week finds them touring the Southeast with games at Florida (Tues.), Tampa Bay (Thurs.) and Carolina (Fri.). They finish up in the Central, where the trip began, with tilts in St. Louis (Sun.) and Columbus (next Tues.). The Flames are perfectly set up for one of those runs we discussed above.

The same holds true for Calgary's divisional rival, Minnesota. The Wild remain on the road after games in the Central, this week making stops against the three California teams: Sharks (Tues.), Ducks (Fri.) and Kings (Sat.). How the Flames and Wild fare on the road could significantly shape the Northwest standings.

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