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Points becoming precious as NHL reaches halfway mark of regular season

January 12, 2016 - 3:00 PM

The playoff bubble is a crowded place as the NHL rounds the halfway mark of the regular season.

In addition to telling Calgary to get busy on a new arena for the Flames earlier this week, league commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out to the city's business community that the parity among teams midway through 2015-16 could make for some interesting post-season races.

"This past Saturday we reached the statistical halfway point of our regular season. Twenty-three out of our 30 teams were either in playoff position or within five points of a playoff spot," Bettman boasted.

It's true that it's shaping up to be a photo finish, with the Pacific the tightest of the four divisions. Just nine points separated second from seventh Tuesday.

The Calgary Flames yo-yoed from last in the Pacific on Dec. 7 to third last week before falling to sixth Tuesday after two straight losses.

"It's crazy the ebbs and flow and the movement in the standings," agreed Flames forward Josh Jooris.

The Washington Capitals (32-7-3) and Los Angeles Kings (27-12-3) were the only teams with sizable cushions atop the Metropolitan and Pacific divisions respectively.

The Dallas Stars (29-11-4) leading the Central wasn't a surprise, but the Florida Panthers (26-12-5) sitting in first in the Atlantic was.

Of the Canadian teams, the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks had tenuous holds on the third and final playoff berths in their respective divisions, while the Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets and Flames were five points or less out of a wild-card berth in their conferences.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, one of just two teams yet to play 41 games this season, and Edmonton Oilers were further out of post-season contention, but the gaps were not insurmountable.

The Habs started hot with nine straight wins, but dropped into the pack losing 13 of their last 18.

"First take a step back and think how many teams are in the position we're in," Montreal captain Max Pacioretty said. "We're not in a horrible position.

"We had a great cushion before and we had a big gap between the teams, but let's take a step back and realize this season has a lot of games left and if we play the right way, we'll like the results."

The Leafs were also still optimistic as they had games in hand on almost every club in the Atlantic.

"For us, I don't think it's a big-picture thing," Leafs forward Brad Boyes said. "I think it's small stuff right now. Even looking at the standings, if we're eight back with three in hand, you've got to take them one game at a time as cliche as that is.

"We don't have six points coming up tomorrow. We've got to get those two."

How much the players trained last summer and how well coaches manage the workload of their stars from here on in becomes magnified. Flames head coach Bob Hartley gave goaltender Karri Ramo the day off from practice Tuesday.

"You're going to see this more and more going forward," the coach said. "We want to make sure that little bumps and bruises, we take care of them. That's the way it's going to be until the end."

Hartley was still bemoaning two points that got away in a 5-4 loss the previous night to division-rival San Jose. Even a single point for an overtime or shootout loss could be the difference between a playoff berth or golf come April.

"The biggest thing is going to be making sure you capitalize on those points, when A, you have a one-goal lead going into the third, and B, when you're down a goal in the third and you need to at least get into overtime," Flames forward Joe Colborne said.

"It seems like there are three-point games every night. If you're (losing) and not getting any points at all, it seems like no matter who it is, whether they win or lose in overtime, teams are making ground on you."

— Bill Beacon in Montreal and Dhiren Mahiban in Toronto contributed to this story.

Follow @DLSpencer10 on Twitter.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Joe Colborne's last name.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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