As the lockout-shortened NHL regular season winds down, play-off spots are still open for teams that have not advanced in the last few years, writes Gregg Patton.
NHL: Several teams enjoying new-found hope as play-offs near
With one week to go in the NHL's regular season, half of the 16 play-off spots are still up for grabs.
And happily, for those who like surprises, the closing scramble will include some of the league's traditional post-season no-shows.
The NHL's lockout-shortened regular season has opened the door for six teams that have missed the play-offs for at least the past three years, including Toronto Maple Leafs, whose postseason drought dating to 2003/04 is the league's longest running disappointment.
Also giving their fans new-found hope are New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets (each working on five-season droughts), each battling for one of the bottom-tier spots in the Eastern Conference.
In the Western Conference, Dallas Stars (four seasons out), Minnesota Wild (four seasons out) and Columbus Blue Jackets (three seasons out) are in a five-way dogfight with a couple of traditional winners who have struggled this season, Detroit Red Wings and St Louis Blues, for the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds.
"It doesn't matter who you play right now, every game is a big challenge," Mikko Koivu, the Minnesota captain, told WildTV. "We have to keep building our game and trust it brings good results."
Good results or bad, the Leafs, who seemed like shoo-ins a week ago, were not going to make it easy on their large, long-suffering fans.
On the verge of clinching a coveted spot last week, Toronto failed to win any of their three games.
Winger Joffrey Lupul told the Toronto Globe and Mail, "We're not competing or outplaying the guy across from [us]. It's kind of a recipe for disaster."
If the Leafs were slumping toward the finish, the Islanders were sprinting, riding a 7-1-2 streak and finding themselves in the seventh spot, just in front of New York Rangers and the Jets.
Not only have the Isles missed the play-offs every year since 2006/07, they have gone the longest of any franchise without winning a play-off series, since 1993.
Matt Moulson, the Islanders left wing, said he and his teammates were enjoying the fresh experience of "games that mean a lot at the end of the year. Each one is intense. It's a lot of fun to play in them".
As for supposed powerhouses Detroit, the short, 48-game season has caught them snoozing. They have reached the post-season in a league-best 21 consecutive years, but began the weekend in ninth place, two points off a play-off berth.
After a critical defeat to non-contender Calgary Flames, the Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard told reporters: "If you don't show up, if you have mental lapses, anyone can beat you."
Indeed, it seems to be the year of the "anyone".
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