SUN Hockey Pool

It's rush hour in NHL East

Former Leaf Kris King, now vice president of Hockey Operations, monitors NHL games in the NHL War...

Former Leaf Kris King, now vice president of Hockey Operations, monitors NHL games in the NHL War Room in downtown Toronto. The NHL standings haven't been this tight since the lockout which makes King a very busy man these days. (SUN FILE PHOTO)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:08 PM ET

If you ever rode the Tokyo subway at rush hour, you’ll know how crowded the National Hockey League standings have become.

The difference here is those who can’t squeeze into the cab won’t get another train to take them further down the line to the playoffs.

Whether it’s salary cap parity, similar playbooks or a lack of productive or healthy stars, all 30 teams seem to be inching ahead in giant blob formation. A look at the NHL standings on this date confirms it’s the tightest race since the lockout, at least in the Eastern Conference.

Toronto is one of those unable to break free, but after its six-year exile from the playoffs, it’s no longer in its familiar Christmas position at the back of the pack, either. The Leafs are closer to the conference lead than ninth place as they reach the one-third mark of the schedule, on pace for around 96 points. But as one of three teams to have missed the post-lockout playoffs more than once with 90-plus points, no one need tell them what happens if they hit a bump.

Tuesday night’s 10-game NHL slate saw eight contests settled by one goal, including the Leafs’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Devils. There have been 181 such close results in 401 games, not including games settled by empty net goals.

Kris King, the league’s vice-president of hockey operations, not only sees nightly evidence of the mad scramble to the playoffs, he’s hearing about it from coaches and general managers. They make impassioned arguments about video review in King’s war room that don’t usually get emotional until February and March.

“We consider every goal and review to be important, but with everything so close now, it’s understandable there’s more (arguing) in November,” King said Wednesday. “You tend to hear a lot more when teams are in a tight race. These games are just as important now as maybe the playoff games themselves.”

Less than 20 points separated first to worst in both conferences before Wednesday.

King says the games are also zipping along for the most part with little fighting. The Leafs have not used bruisers Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill much, preferring to keep the multi-faceted Mike Brown in the lineup on a semi-regular shift. And when Brown was hurt a couple of weeks ago, the Leafs kept employing players such as penalty killer Philippe Dupuis.

Toronto just completed a stretch of 17 games in 34 nights, but now with one game in the next four, the Leafs expect another crush around them by next week.

“Every night, you see movement top to bottom,” King said. “There is almost no difference between the playoff teams and those in 12th or 13th place.”

Carolina, Washington and Anaheim made recent coaching changes, after St. Louis turned its season around by bringing in Ken Hitchcock a few games earlier. No team has written off its season.

“I think it’s been great,” said King. “No blowouts, lots of lead changes and then all the one-goal games. I would guess that 65% to 70% of games are one-goal through much of the night, though the score doesn’t always end up that way.

“I look at a team such as Phoenix, because I’m a bit of an alumnist there, and they tend to play that way all the time. One night, about a week and a half ago, we had five games that were going to potential shootouts. We were firing around all the cell phone numbers of all the video goal judges, trying to be prepared.”

Toronto has a record of 7-2-3 in one-goal games, on pace to beat last year’s 20 wins and far removed from the 39 it lost in the two previous seasons. The league-leading MInnesota Wild have fashioned 11 one-goal victories.

“It used to be a sprint, now it’s a marathon,” King added. “That tends to make it harder on us to make sure everything is done the right way, but that’s the way it should be.”

TIGHT STANDINGS

(It’s official, the tightest Eastern Conference race at this time of year since the lockout. Before Wednesday’s games, Toronto was grouped with six clubs split by six points. A look back at how close the East has become at the top.)

Dec 5, 2005

10 teams separated by 14 points (2nd through 9th by 11)

Dec. 6, 2006

12 teams separated by 16 points (2nd through 12th by 10)

Dec. 6, 2007

11 teams separted by nine points (2nd through 11th by five)

Dec, 5, 2008

11 teams separated by 13 points, (3rd through 10th by nine)

Dec. 7, 2009

11 teams separated by 15 points (4th through 10th by six)

Dec. 6, 2010

11 teams separated by 15 points (1st through 7th by seven)

Dec. 7 2011

12 teams separated by nine points (2nd through 10 by seven)

— lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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