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Thrilling Presidents' Trophy race goes down to wire

Friday, 03.27.2009 / 12:00 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

If you're like us, you spend part of your day dissecting what's left on the schedule for Detroit and San Jose, trying to determine which team will win the fascinating race for the top seed in the Western Conference and, most likely, the Presidents' Trophy.

But if you're like Detroit coach Mike Babcock, you laugh at the people trying to do just that, and for good reason.

The Wings have been the top seed in the West in each of Babcock's first three seasons, but won the Stanley Cup only once. They haven't played a Game 7 under Babcock, either, and that's truly when home-ice advantage matters most.

"Don't get me wrong, I like looking at the standings when you're near the top; but in saying that, we're just going to play our games," Babcock told NHL.com. "Even when I got this text from (Wings' Senior Director of Communications) John Hahn that this is what you wanted to talk about, I thought this is you thinking this is bigger than San Jose, or we do. From my perspective, we never thought about it one time."

OK, no one is arguing with you, Mike. To be honest, no one ever should argue with Babcock. The guy is pretty darn strong in his beliefs, and he's right a lot of the time.

Even so, neither Babcock nor San Jose coach Todd McLellan can deny how captivating these final two weeks can -- and should -- be from a Red Wings vs. Sharks perspective.

"If coaches tell you they're not watching the standings at this time of the year, they're lying," McLellan told NHL.com. "We keep an eye on it individually, but we don't talk about it in the locker room. Our focus is on getting healthy and getting our game going."

The Wings and Sharks entered Friday's action tied atop the West, each with 107 points through 74 games. They lead Boston by five points in the race for the Presidents' Trophy.

Detroit would be the No. 1 seed now by virtue of its 49 wins; the Sharks have 48 victories. Overall wins is the first tie-breaker after number of games played. The next is head-to-head results, and the Sharks and Wings split their season series, winning two games apiece.

McLellan argues that the No. 1 seed doesn't matter now because the race at the bottom is just as tight as it is at the top.

"When you look at the race for (seeds) seven and eight, there are five or six teams in there and no distinct seven or eight seed yet, so does (the No. 1 seed) matter now?" McLellan said. "I think it matters later on in the playoffs if you can get that far. If you get home ice against Detroit, than it has more of an impact."

San Jose had a chance to gain ground on the Wings this week, but the Sharks lost both of their games in hand -- Wednesday at Chicago in a shootout, 6-5, and Thursday at Nashville, 3-2.

They played those games without Rob Blake, Jonathan Cheechoo, Ryane Clowe, Marcel Goc, Claude Lemieux, Kent Huskins, Tomas Plihal and Torrey Mitchell -- all are out with various injuries.

"We are finding ways to be competitive and to expose some players to a higher level of game in roles expanded somewhat, but that experience is essential for them to grow," McLellan said. "We don't know how deep we're going to need to go in the playoffs, and by that I mean depth not rounds, so for them to get that experience is important."

How, though, will that affect them in the race for first place? Because no matter what anyone says, Babcock and McLellan want that top spot.

Six of the Wings' final eight games are at Joe Louis Arena, where they are 26-5-4.  Detroit is a combined 12-3-0 against the six teams remaining on its schedule -- the Islanders, Blackhawks, Predators, Sabres, Wild and Blues.

Only four of the Sharks' final eight games are at HP Pavilion, where they are 30-3-4. San Jose is 16-5-1 combined against the six teams it still will play -- Phoenix, Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim, Colorado and Los Angeles.

"We just try to win the games we're playing," Babcock said. "We don't worry about our playoff matchup."

Instead, Babcock said, the Wings "hope for distance." By that he means the shortest distance traveled in the playoffs always is the best route. So playing St. Louis or Nashville in the first round would be more beneficial than playing Anaheim or Edmonton.

"Distance was the greatest thing (last season), because we got to play Nashville so we barely traveled in the first round," Babcock said. "The year before, we played Calgary, San Jose and Anaheim, and with all those time zones and distances, that's a huge wear and tear on you.

"We have been the top seed every year I have been here. One year it worked out and two it didn't. I don't think if you're a good team it makes a lick of difference unless it's a Game 7."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.

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