Life in the Ontario Hockey League's Eastern Conference is not as comfortable for some teams as it was only a few short weeks ago. Suddenly, there's a playoff race due to an impressive surge by the Toronto St. Michael's Majors, property of Eugene Melnyk, who also owns the Ottawa Senators.
Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Majors moved into contention for the post-season when nobody gave them a chance at the start of the second half of the season.
For the other teams in the conference, including the Ottawa 67's, there is no room for complacency during the final five weeks of the regular schedule.
"Every game is going to be a battle between a lot of teams," said coach/GM Brian Kilrea. "Every point you lose or every point you gain is going to make a difference."
That might explain why the 67's were so frustrated after last Thursday's 2-1 loss in Peterborough. Despite outshooting the Petes 39-32 and producing many scoring chances, Ottawa had difficulty beating Petes goalie Jeff MacDougald, who played brilliantly.
Even more unnerving for the 67's -- and other teams in the conference -- is the danger of losing a playoff berth that not long ago appeared to be guaranteed.
Now if any one of six teams goes into a slump to end the season while St. Michael's continues to roll, the faltering team would miss the post-season and the Majors would be in.
Bud Stefanski, the Majors coach and director of hockey operations, told the Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan recently that he figured the team would make a charge during the second half of the season.
"We're at the point now where everybody can smell the end of the season,'' Stefanski said. ''But no team is going to lie down.
''We have to continue to push ourselves."
On Friday, the Majors had a five-game winning streak snapped by doing something that most teams in the OHL have already done -- lose to the London Knights.
Despite the setback, St. Michael's, which won three straight road games during its recent streak, were ranked ninth in the conference prior to last night's games, two points behind eighth-place Belleville. The top eight teams in each conference earn a spot in the playoffs.
The Majors have an advantage heading into the stretch run: Ten of their last 15 regular-season games will be played on home ice at the small St. Michael's Arena.
So congested are the Eastern standings that, with the exception of the Oshawa Generals who have fallen out of playoff contention, most teams -- such as the 67's -- can be worried about missing the playoffs while at the same time being encouraged that a series of victories could earn the conference championship.
"It's a matter of whether you're hot or not right now in the Eastern Conference," said 67's goalie Danny Battochio. "All these games are important, and we've got to get as many points as we can in every game.
''You have to come to play almost as if it was a playoff game."
Everybody can thank St. Michael's for making this season's playoff race one of the best in the OHL in recent memory.
"They've come alive in the second half and they've played really well," said Kilrea. "Give them credit. They won last week on the road and gave themselves this opportunity to get close."
- 67's: Today vs. Belleville, 2 p.m; Thursday @ Oshawa, 7:05 p.m.; Friday vs. Peterborough, 7:30 p.m.
- Olympiques: Today vs. Chicoutimi, 4 p.m.; Tuesday @ Drummondville, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday @ Victoriaville, 7:30 p.m.; Friday vs. Val-d'Or 7:35 p.m.
- CJHL (highlighted games): Today -- Ottawa @ Nepean, 2:30 p.m. (Nepean Sportsplex); Gloucester @ Cumberland, 7 p.m. (Navan Arena); Tuesday -- Pembroke @ Nepean, 7:30 p.m.