Close games, bunched-up standings, parity is alive and well in the NHL

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Parity was a catchy word coming out of the NHL lockout as people pondered the possible effects of a salary cap.

No need to wonder anymore. A month into the third season under the current collective bargaining agreement, there's been a clear levelling of the playing field.

Games are close and the standings are bunched up.

"There's no easy game," Philadelphia Flyers centre Daniel Briere said Tuesday. "It's so amazing. One night you'll be playing one team and you can have it your way and then play the same team the next night and it will totally be the other way around."

The theory is that the salary cap has spread the talent more evenly around the league. The big-market clubs can't horde all the top players any more. More liberalized unrestricted free agency also makes it easier for struggling teams to reload in a hurry. There's no better example than Philadelphia, 30th in the league last season and now looking like a contender after GM Paul Holmgren changed half his roster.

The difference between the haves and the have-nots has never been smaller. This past Saturday was a perfect example. Six of the 11 games were decided by one goal, and only two of them by three or more.

"Every night is pretty much about whatever team works the hardest, executes just a little bit better, or even gets that power-play goal," said Montreal Canadiens forward Mathieu Dandenault, whose team has been involved in eight one-goal games this season. "It's the nature of our game right now and it's better for the fans. It's so close. It's good for hockey."

A look at the standings backs that up. On Tuesday morning, the Pacific Division had the top four teams separated by one point. The Atlantic Division had Philadelphia on top - but only four points ahead of the last-place New Jersey Devils.

"Apart from Ottawa, everyone else in the East is so close and they all have a chance of making the playoffs," said Briere. "It's amazing how close and how tight it is."

The East is especially close. Only six points separated the fourth-most points in the standings - 16 by Philadelphia - from last-place Atlanta and Washington at 10. Even in the West, last-place Phoenix and Edmonton, who had 10 points before Tuesday's games, were only five points behind sixth place in the conference.

"If you fall asleep in any game or play a bad period, you lose," said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. "There's not one game you can point to and say, 'Boy, I think that's going to be a little bit of an easier game.' You used to have a couple of teams where you thought, 'I think we got the upper edge here.'

"But not anymore. It's hard to tell the difference. I think the only team right now in the East that's proving they're above parity is Ottawa. They've done it consistently now for a year."

Don't tell that to the Senators. While they entered Tuesday night's game with Toronto with an sensational 12-1-0 record, GM Bryan Murray says his team has felt the parity just like anybody else.

"This year, I would say out of the 12 wins we probably had a real question about eight of those where for a period of time we're outplayed and the game is on the line," Murray said Tuesday. "And then maybe we get a break and score a key goal in the third period. The games are very competitive."

In fact, only two of Ottawa's 13 games before Tuesday were decided by three or more goals. They had a 5-0 record in one-goal games and a 5-1 record in two-goal affairs.

Out West, the first-place Detroit Red Wings are 11-2-1, but have had to slug out some games like Ottawa. Nine of their 14 games have been decided by two goals or less.

"People don't understand, every single night we're battling for our life," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "That's a fact. It's scary. Teams are so good in this league. That's how close it is."

Wings GM Ken Holland talked about the parity of the league in addressing his team on opening night.

"I told our guys, last year we had 113 points and we won the West," recalls Holland. "We thought we had a great regular season. Colorado missed the playoffs with 95 points. They were ninth, 18 points back of us - that's nine wins over 82 games. That's one extra win in October, two extra wins in November, one extra win in December, two extra wins in January, etc. It adds up.

"But it's a fine, fine line. If you start blowing games and let games slip away, you can be in the pack and fall off so quick because there's so much parity and the teams are so close."



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