Twenty-seven days ago the New York Islanders were in last place in the Metropolitan Division. Today, they are one point out of a playoff spot.
The New Jersey Devils have gone 5-4-1 in their last 10 games and are within five points of a wild-card spot. The Detroit Red Wings are in last place in the Eastern Conference and they are only seven points out of the playoffs.
“The parity is something,” Devils general manager Ray Shero told USA TODAY Sports. “Every team has four lines and six defensemen who can play and even your (minor league) call-ups help you stay afloat when you have injuries. There are so many good players.”
With eight weeks left in the regular season, the 16-team Eastern Conference is too close to call when it comes to sorting out playoff spots. No team has dropped out of the race and the bottom 10 teams are within nine points of each other going into Monday’s games. In the West, four teams out of the playoffs are within six points of the final wild-card spot.
“Every game has massive implications,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “For fans, every game, every night, means a ton.”
The race has added importance for the Red Wings because they are trying to extend their playoff qualification streak to 26 seasons.
To Holland, the key to making the playoffs for every team is staying healthy.
“Over five years, we all have the same amount of injuries,” Holland said. “But we all have different injuries at different times.”
He said every season he watches team’s fortunes rise and fall depending upon the one factor that is out of everyone’s control.
“I think it’s the biggest advantage if you are fortunate enough to be able to put out the same lineup night after night,” Holland said.
The other key is putting together win streaks or lengthy runs of success. The Islanders have climbed back into contention by going 6-2-2 in their last 10.
“You need the 8-2 run,” Shero said. “But it’s probably more important not to do what we did.”
The Devils started the season 9-3-3, and then won three of their next 17. “You have to have consistency and we have not had that consistency,” Shero said. “We’ve had the ups and downs. You need the consistency because it’s hard to make up ground. We’ve had to work hard to get back in the race.”
While players feel pressure at this time of year, there is also enjoyment of playing games that are meaningful every night.
“It’s my favorite time of the year,” Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith said. “You are trying to make a playoff push. I love that grind.”
Another factor in the tightness of the race is the reality that some games are worth two points and others are worth three because games that go to overtime carry an extra point.
Although there is no movement to change the system, there is always debate about whether the NHL should switch to a system where all games are worth three points. A win in regulation would be worth three points, and a win in overtime or a shootout would be worth two points, with the losing team picking up the third point.
“I was in favor of that 10 years ago,” Holland said. “But after watching the races I have no interest. Why would you want more separation? The races would be boring.”