Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That Elusive Eight Place in the NHL Conference Standings

It’s crunch time. April is looming and there are a number of National Hockey League teams teetering on the edge of a playoff spot. On any given night, one team gets in, another gets knocked out.

The conference races have been extremely tight the last couple of seasons – so tight, that the final lineup will come down to the last game.

In Alberta, there is the tale of two teams. The Edmonton Oilers couldn’t have had a worse season and is dead last in the league’s standings.

Enter defenseman Steve Staios. In a history-making trade between Edmonton and Calgary (these teams have never entered a direct transaction with each other before), Staios found himself looking down a very long and dark tunnel and is now right up to the edge of the opening with the light beaming in.

“Just a feeling of waking up, knowing you have a chance to play in the playoffs, it feels great. It’s been a long time since I felt that.”

Staios was surprised at how many familiar faces he saw in the Flames’ locker room – players he played with in World Championships and other teams. He observes the playing system is similar to Edmonton’s and feels like his comfort level is on the fast track – much needed for this time of year.

“It’s a great situation. I know from the outside, it’s unique. As a player, you don’t have control over a lot of things, but I can control the way I prepare and the way I play.”

Because every game counts at this point, it’s a difficult balance for the players to maneuver.

Eric Nystrom: “We obviously have to be confident. There’s no time to be tense. No fighting the puck. We’ve got to play like we’ve just won 10 in a row, when we’re feeling confident and the pucks are going in. When you’re playing like that, that’s when you feel great with the puck and you’re confident and making the right plays, as opposed to just getting rid of the puck.”

Staios adds: “They’re all like playoff games for us. If you start looking too far ahead, you can wear yourself out. You can’t look past the game in hand.”

Jarome Iginla reads and hears that a lot of people have already written his team off.

“Lots of teams are further out and don’t have a chance. Sometimes you get frustrated as a group when it doesn’t go in. You put your hands up. You have broken sticks with good chances. There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. If we’re getting five scoring chances, or seven in a period – we need eight.”

At this point in the season, even a single point from an overtime game can make or break a team’s chances for the post-season. And if any two players know about the anything-can-happen scenario once you make the playoffs, it’s Steve Staios and Jarome Iginla. In 2004, the Flames were a sixth place team that went to seven games in the Stanley Cup final. In 2006, the Oilers were the only eighth seeded team to ever play in a Cup final, and they, too, went to a seventh game.

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