The emergence of the Ducks and Corey Perry (10) as a 50-goal scorer and bona fide Hart Trophy (MVP) candidate are among the many late-season surprises and thrills on tap this year. (AP Photos)
By Stu Hackel
There are times when a hockey blogger struggles to find something worthwhile to write about. You just run out of ideas. But now, 1,200 games have been played, only 30 remain, and when the regular season dwindles to a precious few days and the races for playoff positions -- so hotly contested these last six months -- hang on every shift, there is no shortage of storylines. In fact, there can be too many. Today is one of those days.
The NHL has taken to releasing daily fact sheets on the ultra-competitive nature of this season. One mind-boggling release shows just how wide-open the playoff races are four days shy of the finish line. Wanna know where your team will end up and who it might play in the first round? Fuhgetaboutit. It will go down to the last day.
Here are today's standings of the teams that are still in the hunt and where they can potentially finish in each conference:
Capitals: 1st or 2nd
Flyers: 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th
Bruins: 2nd or 3rd
Penguins: 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th
Lightning: 4th or 5th
Canadiens: 6th, 7th or 8th
Sabres: 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th
Rangers: 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th
Hurricanes: 9th 7th, 8th or 9th
Sharks: 2nd or 3rd
Red Wings: 2nd or 3rd
Kings: 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th or 8th
Predators: 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th
Coyotes :4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th
Ducks: 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th
Blackhawks: 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th
Stars: 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th.
The Flames were extinguished on Wednesday night, but the Stars behind them are still shining because they have two additional games left to play.
But look at the rest of this mess: 97.6 percent of the schedule has been played and only one of these teams -- only ONE -- can't potentially move up or down. Many hockey fans and observers grumble about the loser's point and lowest common denominator-enforced parity in today's NHL -- and not without justification. We can have a good debate on the worth of having dynasties in the game and how they help build team and player recognition as well as fan interest. But it's pretty damn dramatic when so many fates are still undetermined and so many fan bases have reasons to stay interested this late in the regular season.
What this all means when the pucks are dropped is that the games reflect the unpredictable and fluid nature of the standings. How else can you explain teams roaring back almost every night it seems from one, two and three goals down to grab two points when they need them most? Or star players showing why they are star players, turning up their game to push their clubs ahead?
Take Corey Perry. His amazing offensive explosion during his last 28 games -- 25 goals, 21 assists -- has kept the Ducks in the race as they bobbed up and down the Western Conference standings. Anaheim had dipped to a low point 20 games ago -- the 11th spot -- but has since gone 14-5-1. In the process, Perry took over the league's goal-scoring lead from Steven Stamkos, and on Wednesday night became the first player to hit 50 this season while showing great skill, strength and determination with this hat trick against a very good San Jose team:
It was a game the Ducks needed to win to avoid a third straight defeat and stay ahead of the Blackhawks, who also won. Anaheim fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" for Perry, whose very impressive second half could give him top-of-mind awareness when voters decide the Hart Trophy. And earlier last night, Chicago's fans roared for their team's leader, Jonathan Toews, whose overtime goal against the Blues...
... sealed a victory the Hawks needed to reverse their own bad patch of having lost three of their last four. Chicago had to rally from an early deficit to do it, and the play that had everyone talking was the one that got them started: the goal awarded to Marian Hossa when the Hawks trailed 2-0. Here's the video of that one in real time and the long review with lots of angles and lots of reversing of opinions by Ed Olczyk on the Hawks' telecast:
The two main questions were: did the puck cross the line and how? Was it kicked by Hossa or did he manage to graze it with his stick before it went in? On the first part, there's no clear angle and, as we discussed and showed a week ago, the ruling on the ice stands when there is no conclusive video evidence to overturn it. In this case, referee Dan O'Halloran called it a goal and no angle indicated otherwise.
As for whether Hossa tipped the puck, here's the best view we've found:
At the nine-second mark of this video, we assume, those who reviewed the play determined that Hossa's stick blade grazed the puck and thus negated his kicking it, which would have made it a no-goal call.
All of this accomplished something we thought we'd never see: It left Jeremy Roenick speechless.
Well, mostly speechless.
The craziness continues tonight, but don't expect to see J.R. go mute again. Maybe ever.