In the NHL, first place matters

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

Up by five points on the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings with a game in hand sure sounds good, but offers no guarantee to the San Jose Sharks.

Same for the Boston Bruins and their 10-point bulge on Washington prior to last night's play.

But as NHL teams ready for the stretch run, it is worth paying special attention to the battle to finish atop the respective conferences.

To debunk the misconception that the long and gruelling regular season lacks meaning, one only needs to look at the nine most recent Stanley Cup winners.

Under the current conference configuration, teams that have finished first overall have won the Cup four times while a fifth finished first in its conference. The other four champions were no worse than tied for second in their conference.

The Sharks, while not exactly a surprise given their form in recent seasons and some key upgrades in the summer, have been the most impressive thus far.

While they started last night tied with the Bruins with 73 points, the Sharks had played two fewer games. That has them on pace to pass the Montreal Canadiens' single-season points record of 132. (An asterisk is necessary, however, given that the 1976-77 Habs didn't earn cheap points for overtime losses.)

Much has been made about San Jose flameouts in the second round each of the past three seasons, a performance that freed up Ron Wilson to become the Maple Leafs coach. But the Sharks have yet to finish first in the conference.

The 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning had the least regular-season points by a Cup winner since the league went to its six-division format in 1998-99. The Bolts were hardly a shock, however, having finished first in the East with 106 points.

"I think we need to finish first if we can," Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle, who was on that winning Lightning team, said this week. "It definitely is an advantage."

It certainly would be in the Shark Tank, an arena that has been an intimidating venue this season.

TOUGH AT HOME

The Sharks have lost just one home game in regulation. That said, the prospect of a showdown between the Wings and Sharks in the Western final is a tantalizing one.

Despite their lead, oddsmakers aren't convinced that San Jose will hang on. According to online sports book, Bowmans.com, the Sharks are 1.4-1 favourites to win the West followed closely by the Wings at 1.5-1.

In the East, those wondering when the Bruins' bubble might burst could be waiting for a while. The B's reloaded yesterday for a difficult stretch of games, including a home showdown against the Sharks on Feb. 10.

Forward Patrice Bergeron was cleared to return after missing 15 games because of his second concussion in two seasons. Bruising forward Milan Lucic, who missed seven games because of a shoulder injury, also was given the green light.

"The next three weeks are huge for us," Bruins coach Claude Julien said yesterday. "Dictating how the second half will go, we are not a team that looks too far ahead, but they are going to be tough wins.

"That won't be a bad thing for our team, a chance to fine-tune."

The Bruins are 2-1 favourites to win the East followed by Washington at 5-1. As for the Cup, oddsmakers are squarely in the corner of the Western powers, however, with the Sharks slight 2.75-1 favourites over the Wings at 3-1 and Bruins at 8.5-1.

And as recent history confirms, those odds get better for those teams who win their conference.


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