Veteran defenseman Steve Staios knows as well as anyone just how tough the Western Conference was from top to bottom this season.
Staios and the Calgary Flames won 41 games and compiled 94 points in the standings, yet found themselves in 10th place, three points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, when April 10 rolled around and the final line was drawn under the top eight in the conference.
"Ninety-four points and we didn't get in -- I think that tells it all," Staios told NHL.com during a stop through the League's Manhattan headquarters on Tuesday. "We got off to a poor start and it's difficult to make up those points, especially in the Western Conference at the end. We had the second-best record or third-best record in the NHL from Dec. 23 on and we still couldn't get in."
In fact, only one of the Flames' rivals from the Northwest Division qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- but the Vancouver Canucks did so in dominant fashion, racking up a franchise-record 54 wins and 117 points. They captured the Presidents' Trophy as the League's best regular-season team and stood poised to end the Blackhawks' bid for a repeat with a 3-0 series lead heading into Tuesday night's Game 4 of their conference quarterfinal.
The Detroit Red Wings also hold a 3-0 lead in their series against the Phoenix Coyotes, while the Nashville Predators have a 2-1 edge on the Anaheim Ducks and the fourth Western quarterfinal between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings is even at one game apiece.
"I'm maybe more surprised with Detroit-Phoenix," Staios said. "Phoenix plays a very structured game and because they took Detroit to seven games last year, I thought maybe they had an outside chance of pulling an upset -- and even if they didn't upset, that it'd be a tighter series.
"I don't think Chicago is the team they were last year. I think if you look at their roster, they're completely different. They only have, four, maybe five healthy forwards right now that played on the Cup team last year that were in the lineup for the game two nights ago. So they're a completely different team and I think with the depth and the overall skill and goaltending and everything that Vancouver has, that one doesn't surprise me as much."
Staios, who turns 38 in July, is a former second-round pick of St. Louis in the 1991 Entry Draft who has nearly 1,000 combined games of regular-season and postseason experience playing for Boston, Vancouver, Atlanta, Edmonton and Calgary. He was part of the 2006 Oilers team that, as an eighth seed, made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final before falling to Carolina.
Along the way, the Oilers came back from a 2-0 series deficit in the West semifinals against the Sharks and rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Hurricanes in the Final to force a seventh game.
"You have a belief in your team, and I think leadership has a lot to do with that," Staios said. "You have to continue to send the message that there's always a chance. We had come so far in '06 that at that point, down 3-1, we still felt we had a serious chance of getting back. … You just show up at the rink every day expecting to win the game."
In making that improbable run, Staios learned about what it takes to compete for a Stanley Cup and the grind of four rounds of playoff hockey that become the second season.
"That run was a life-changing experience for me," he said. "You learn a lot about yourself and your teammates, about the game of hockey and what it takes to become a champion. That whole experience for me was a good life lesson. It takes everything from everybody, everything that you can bring every night in the playoffs to get to that level.
"It just kind of flies. I mean, it's grueling, but -- the biggest cliché I used a lot, if you just concentrate on that day, whether it's a practice day or a rest day or a game day, take everything you can out of that day. Take everything you can out of the practice. If you have a rest day, get as much rest as you can. Game day, it's full on. So you just try to take it as it comes."
During his visit, NHL.com also picked Staios' brain on various aspects of each first-round series currently going on in the West:
(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Chicago
What makes the Canucks even more lethal this season than in years past? It was hard for Staios to pick a place to start, but he mentioned goaltender Roberto Luongo reaching the next level in his maturity from a hockey sense, the mental state of the team that is a tribute to coach Alain Vigneault and the depth of their defense corps.
"When you listen to that team talk, they're very composed, very confident, but also very focused on their goal," Staios said. "I think mentally they're in the right frame of mind. It's going to be a long playoff run. And their defense, they have six defensemen who can play against any top line. So as far as matchups on the road, I know coaches like to try to get their top lines out against a weak defense pair -- well, they don't really have one."
And that's not even mentioning Daniel Sedin or Henrik Sedin.
"You know you have to focus on them, you know what you have to do -- you have to try to take away their time and space -- but with their instincts, it's tough to get to them before they make those plays, and spin plays and through their legs," Staios said. "They just seem to know where each other are and they can throw anybody on that line to go to the front of the net -- Alex Burrows should probably be paying part of his salary to those two guys."
If the Canucks end up steamrolling through the Blackhawks, is there an opponent out there -- be it during the West playoffs or in the Cup Final -- capable of knocking them off, or are they just too strong?
"Right at this point they look pretty tough, but I think Detroit has a chance and maybe San Jose has a chance at well," Staios said, adding Vancouver is still the favorite. "As they look right now, they're a pretty dominant team."
(2) San Jose vs. (7) Los Angeles
After the Kings narrowly dropped the opener of the series in overtime, they came back with a dominant performance in a 4-0 win Saturday. Their young blue line sparked the Game 2 effort, as Jack Johnson opened the scoring and Drew Doughty finished with 2 goals and 2 assists. Staios simply marveled over the 21-year-old's performance.
"I think Drew Doughty completely took control of that game," he said. "He got beat by (Logan) Couture on a goal in Game 1 -- which happens as a defenseman, he's playing him aggressively and he just missed him -- but he completely took over in Game 2. He's got that attitude that, hey, I made a mistake. Now I want to come back. And I don't want just my team to come back and play well, I'm going to come back and I'm going to do this for my team. He took it all on his shoulders and he was by far their best player. He was the best player on the ice that night."
The Sharks played that game without the services of Ian White, who was injured on a hit by the Kings' Jarret Stoll in the opener. Staios and White were former teammates in Calgary and Staios spoke about how losing the steady defenseman could have impacted San Jose on the blue line.
"He's a great teammate. You could see it in his eyes -- it was his first playoff game and if you watch the first few shifts of the game, he was flying," Staios said. "He's going to be a big part of that team. He's got great composure. He's a good first-pass defenseman. He can make the plays coming out of the end. And when you have great forwards like the Sharks do, you hit those guys with speed and they're dangerous off the rush."
(3) Detroit vs. (6) Phoenix
As with the Sedins, every team has a game plan for trying to contain Red Wings' superstar Pavel Datsyuk. And as anyone knows who watched him turn the Coyotes' defense inside out during Game 2 with a highlight-reel play to set up a Darren Helm goal, having that plan is one thing. Executing it is another.
"Very difficult with him because he's got really silky, smooth hands and he can play that real finesse game. And then if you try to go and get the puck off of him and bump him up, he's maybe the most difficult guy to take off the puck in the whole National Hockey League," Staios said. "He's very, very strong, he protects the puck well and add that to the finesse that he has with the soft hands. … People don't realize how good this guy really is. He's never put up great numbers, but I think that's because he sacrifices the offense to be a great defensive player as well."
The Coyotes have also had their hands full dealing with Nicklas Lidstrom, who has three years on Staios but is showing no signs of slowing down with 2 assists and a plus-2 rating through the first three games of the playoffs.
"It's all about having a passion for the game and being focused, staying fit and just love going to the rink," he said, lumping another 40-year-old who's still dominating, Anaheim's Teemu Selanne, into the discussion. "They have a good situation where they have the respect of their coach and the organization, and they come in and have a passion for the game. You can't even put a number on how long they can play because they're still very effective players. And Lidstrom, with the type of poise he has as a defenseman, he still has all the tools to help that team out and be the leader back there."
(4) Anaheim vs. (5) Nashville
In their sixth trip to the playoffs, the Predators are halfway to their first-ever series win. They're showing the ability to light the lamp against the Ducks, with 11 goals over the first three games, but Nashville has built a team that contends year in and year out through defense and goaltending.
"They're just a very good team," Staios said. "When I say that, I think all their players are in situations where they can be successful. I think (coach) Barry Trotz does a good job of that and (General Manager) David Poile gets the right players to play in those situations. So as far as just a team overall, they're not flashy, they fly under the radar, but they have all the attributes that you need. They have a good top line, they have a second line, they have a checking line, they have a great top pair with (Shea) Weber and (Ryan) Suter, and in my opinion maybe there should be a tie for the Vezina Trophy winner, because I think Pekka Rinne has been just as good as Tim Thomas."
In order for the Ducks to come back and win this series, Staios believes they must first survive the damaging loss of top-line forward Bobby Ryan, who has one more game to serve in a suspension for a Game 2 kicking incident involving Predators defenseman Jonathon Blum.
"That line really makes the engine run in Anaheim and when you take Bobby Ryan off that line, I think it hampers them a little bit, even though you have Selanne and (Saku) Koivu on that second line who can do some damage as well," he said. "I think if Anaheim gets through this next game without Ryan I think they'll be OK in the series but if they go down 3-1 it's going to be a difficult task to come back against Nashville."