Welcome to a new era in playoff hockey.
Well, maybe anyway. If the real thing is anything like the playoff stretch drive, this will be a Stanley Cup tournament like no other.
In the past seven days, we've seen four three-goal comebacks (one of which was settled by a penalty shot in overtime) and one four-goal rally – all coming in games with critical playoff implications.
Will the four-overtime game be replaced by the four-goal comeback as the must-see event of the postseason? That remains to be seen. The league says games will be called just as tight in the playoffs, which would all but eliminate the prospects of multiple-OT games.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. It's one thing for the league to issue a directive. It's another thing entirely to be the first referee to raise an arm to call a hook in overtime.
Well, we'll get to that later. There are some crucial regular-season games to be played. On to the rankings:
(Records and rankings through Thursday, March 23.)
1. Detroit Red Wings (48-15-6; Previous: 2) – Soon-to-be Norris Trophy winner Niklas Lidstrom comes home from Italy and promptly piles up 18 points in his first 11 post-Turin games, logging fewer than 25 minutes only twice. So much for those fatigue concerns.
2. Ottawa Senators (47-15-6; Previous: 4) – Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson combined to score 40 percent of Ottawa's goals from October through December, then just 28 percent since. No harm in having some balance entering the playoffs.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (46-17-6; Previous: 1) – They slipped a bit, but playing nine of 10 on the road in March will do that to you. It will get better. Carolina plays Washington five times in its final 13 games.
4. Buffalo Sabres (44-19-5; Previous: 3) – Buffalo was outshot 22-5, 8-3 and 9-8 in the first periods of consecutive losses to Ottawa, Atlanta and Carolina. No shame in losing to those teams, but the lack of jump out of the gate is puzzling.
5. Dallas Stars (46-20-3; Previous: 5) – You cannot let this team hang around. Dallas has an NHL-record 11 third-period comeback wins, the most recent another ho-hum, three-goal-in-six-minute outburst to surprise Minnesota Wednesday.
6. Nashville Predators (42-19-8; Previous: 7) – They're on another one of their streaks. The Preds are in the midst of an 8-0-2 run, marking the third time this season they've earned points in nine or more consecutive games.
7. New York Rangers (39-20-10; Previous: 6) – It felt like a playoff game and rookie Ryan Hollweg loaded up for a playoff hit when Flyers forward R.J. Umberger entered his crosshairs Wednesday. His timing was just off. The resulting five-minute major and game misconduct turned the tide of the game – the Flyers scored twice on the power play to erase a 2-1 Rangers lead – and earned Hollweg a three-game suspension.
8. Philadelphia Flyers (39-21-10; Previous: 10) – If it's possible for something to quietly rage, then there's a goalie controversy quietly raging in Philadelphia. Coach Ken Hitchcock says he won't name a playoff goalie until he is "good and ready." All the uncertainty doesn't seem to bother the team on the ice.
9. Calgary Flames (39-22-8; Previous: 12) – Perhaps it was a sign when Jordan Leopold broke his goalless streak at 82 games Thursday. Maybe Miikka Kiprusoff will get some offensive support in the playoffs after all. Probably not, though.
10. Colorado Avalanche (38-25-7; Previous: 9) – Alex Tanguay may miss the rest of the regular season, Marek Svatos will miss the rest of the regular season and goalie Peter Budaj is battling consistency issues. With a healthy Jose Theodore in net, this is a dangerous playoff team. They just need to get there first.
11. New Jersey Devils (34-26-9; Previous: 8) – We haven't heard much from the Patrik Elias-Brian Gionta-Scott Gomez line lately, so coach Lou Lamoriello broke up the unit. Risky move with precious few games remaining to develop chemistry.
12. Vancouver Canucks (38-27-6; Previous: 14) – Todd Bertuzzi doesn't seem to mind life down on the third line. He had his first multi-point game since early February in Thursday's critical win over Edmonton.
13. Anaheim Mighty Ducks (35-21-12; Previous: 17) – How about this: With a win Friday the Ducks can move into fifth in the Western Conference and set up a possible first-round playoff matchup against Paul Kariya and the Nashville Predators.
14. Edmonton Oilers (34-24-12; Previous: 13) – As mediocre as Dwayne Roloson has been since joining the Oilers, his .886 save percentage still ranks tops among the four goalies Edmonton has employed this season.
15. Atlanta Thrashers (35-29-6; Previous: 18) – The Thrashers had no business winning Thursday after trailing 4-1 in the third period against Martin Brodeur and the Devils. They did win, allowing Atlanta to sweep the season series with New Jersey.
17. Florida Panthers (30-30-9; Previous: 19) – The new NHL schedule is still a mess, but it'll make for some compelling action down the stretch. Florida plays Atlanta and Tampa Bay, two teams it's chasing to make the playoffs, five times in the final three weeks.
19. Los Angeles Kings (37-28-5; Previous: 13) – From potential division champs to out of the playoffs, it's been quite a free-fall for the Kings.
20. Montreal Canadiens (33-27-9; Previous: 15) – It's now or never for the Canadiens. Montreal faces six straight non-playoff opponents beginning Saturday.
21. Minnesota Wild (32-31-7; Previous: 21) – Minnesota has the best goal differential among non-playoff teams. Given the roster flexibility they'll have in the offseason, it won't be a surprise to see the Wild right back in the thick of the race in 2006-07.
23. New York Islanders (32-32-4; Previous: 22) – A pair of rookies – 2002 first-round pick Sean Bergenheim and 2003 first-rounder Robert Nilsson – are playing key roles in New York's desperate playoff push. Pass or fail, chalk it up as good experience.
24. Boston Bruins (27-31-12; Previous: 23) – Tuesday's loss was a crippler. Boston led by two goals on three different occasions but eventually lost in a shootout to Atlanta. It marked the fourth time in five games that the Bruins – a team that can't afford to let points slip away – had seen a two-goal lead evaporate.
25. Phoenix Coyotes (33-33-4; Previous: 27) – The Coyotes are expected to give 22-year-old goalie David LeNeveu a long look in the season's final four weeks. He was sharp Thursday in his first NHL start in more than three months.
26. Columbus Blue Jackets (26-40-3; Previous: 25) – Columbus has converted seven of its last 76 power-play opportunities. Things aren't likely to get much better with point man Bryan Berard set to undergo back surgery next week.
27. St. Louis Blues (20-37-11; Previous: 24) – They had a nice run, then Curtis Sanford got hurt and St. Louis ran into a string of playoff-hungry teams. The new Dave Checketts ownership group has its hands full.
28. Washington Capitals (22-38-9; Previous: 28) – The Washington Times, quoting anonymous sources, reported that Alexander Ovechkin was benched Monday for failure to abide by team rules regarding defensive assignments and shift length. No word if those sources were tied to the Crosby Calder Coalition.
29. Chicago Blackhawks (21-38-9; Previous: 29) – There's still fight left in the Blackhawks. Teammates Martin Lapointe and Matthew Barnaby squared off at practice Wednesday. Currently the second-most penalized team in the league, Chicago clearly is gearing up for a run at the top spot.
30. Pittsburgh Penguins (17-40-12; Previous: 30) – OK, it's official now. Pittsburgh was eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday.