The hearts are beating faster and faster, pumping more and more adrenaline into every part of the body. The collisions are more physical, each and every battle testing the will and the body to its limit.
Hockey's best is down to four teams -- Dallas at Detroit and Philadelphia at Pittsburgh -- with the winners gaining the right to play for the Stanley Cup in a couple weeks.
There are differences to be sure.
The Red Wings and Penguins pride themselves on puck possession, while the Stars and Flyers try to win with puck pressure and pursuit.
But there's one familiar similarity, each team bettered its roster at the trade deadline.
At a time when paying the price to win on the ice comes into play on each shift, in each period of every game, we are just a little more than two months removed from a time when paying the price to make you team better was paramount for each of these teams.
Dallas and Pittsburgh made monster deals at the Feb. 28 trading deadline, while Detroit and Philadelphia added a couple of important pieces to make them better.
Risk and reward became the battle cry in every building around the National Hockey League as whispers grew louder and louder until a record number of transactions were consummated as the clock tick, tick, ticked to the deadline.
Last year, there were those who pooh-poohed the importance of making a deal to help a team's chances before the deadline because Anaheim only added bit player Brad May
at the deadline and still won the Cup.
This year, different story.
Take note, every team that got to the final eight made some sort of deal this time around.
I'll never forget the buzz in the hallway between the St. Louis and Dallas dressing rooms hours before the teams began their morning skate on Feb. 28.
"Did you hear that Brad Richards
is going to Dallas?" one guy asked.
"I hear that San Jose is going hard after Brian Campbell
," said the next guy.
"Colorado already has Peter Forsberg
. Now, I hear they are also trying to bring Adam Foote
back," said still another.
. Christobal Huet. Sergei Fedorov
. Brad Stuart
. And many, many more names were being bandied about in this buzz of excitement in St. Louis. It was a process being replayed in other dressing rooms all across North America.
Fever pitch? Yeah, that pretty well describes the feeling as teams were trying to make their last roster changes to for the stretch run and the playoffs.
It’s all about paying a price to win. That's the bottom line. Time is frenetic when you are trying to make a deal. Time stands still for others who are right up against the clock and can't get a deal done.
I'll never forget hearing Brett Hull
's raspy voice on the phone when he was asked about the risk of messing with the Stars’ chemistry by trading backup goaltender Mike Smith
and role players Jussi Jokinen
and Jeff Halpern
to Tampa Bay for Richards and backup goalie Johan Holmqvist
"Risk? Risk?" Hull barked. "I see absolutely no risk at all in making this deal. As far as I'm concerned, Brad Richards
is a sure thing."
The 27-year-old Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 2004 when the Tampa Bay Lightning
won the Stanley Cup. He added a career-high 91 points in 2005-06 and has always shown big-game productivity.
Hull and his co-GM partner Les Jackson may have gulped a little bit in Dallas at taking on Brad's $7.8 million per year contract for the next three seasons, but they realized that the talented center was available because Tampa was struggling and had no complementary players for Richards.
"We can give Brad that fresh start. We can give him the help," Hull added. "To me, there's no risk with adding a playoff MVP in the prime of his career to our lineup."
The Pittsburgh Penguins
aren't complaining after having to give up big futures to Atlanta for Hossa and complementary winger Pascal Dupuis
. The Pens parted with young forwards Colby Armstrong
and Erik Christensen
, plus center Angelo Esposito
(Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2007) and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft.
Nope, no complaints after Hossa scored two goals, including the game-winner, in overtime of Game 5 to eliminate the New York Rangers
in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Nor will they cry about giving second- and fifth-round selections to Toronto for 6-foot-7 neutralizing defenseman Hal Gill
"There's a risk any time you acquire players," GM Ray Shero
said, talking specifically about the fact that the 29-year-old Hossa is in the final year of his contract and could become a free agent on July 1 and then skate off to the highest bidder.
But, Shero added on that late-February afternoon of the trade, "There's also a risk in standing pat. ... This gives us a better chance to win."
Detroit, with the best record in the NHL in the regular season, added to its top-four core on defense, trading a second-round pick in 2008 and a fourth-rounder in '09 for defenseman Brad Stuart
, who has fit in perfectly with Niklas Kronwall
on the Red Wings’ second defensive pairing behind Nicklas Lidstrom
and Brian Rafalski
The Philadelphia Flyers
made two minor deals before the deadline, re-acquiring forward Vinny Prospal
from Tampa Bay for prospect Alexandre Picard and a conditional pick, as well as getting defensive depth with Jaroslav Modry
from Los Angeles for a third-round pick.
You can bet there are plenty of teams that would trade places with the Red Wings, Stars, Penguins and Flyers now. And there's more to this theory of paying the price to win at -- or before -- the trading deadline.
Don't forget that San Jose, which lost in the Western Conference semifinals to Dallas, went 18-0-2 in an incredible stretch going into the final two regular-season games after acquiring the puck-rushing, highly skilled Brian Campbell
to spark their defense and transition game. The cost was winger Steve Bernier
and a 2008 first-round draft choice going to Buffalo. A short time earlier, GM Doug Wilson acquired toughness in a deal with Columbus for Jody Shelley
for a sixth-round pick in 2009.
The Rangers, who were ousted in Round 2 by Pittsburgh, also made two deals, getting defenseman Christian Backman
from St. Louis for a fourth-round draft choice, while also obtaining third-line speedster Fredrik Sjostrom
, along with goalie David Lenevu and forward Josh Gratton
, from Phoenix for winger Marcel Hossa
, goalie Al Montoya
and a conditional 2009 pick.
Colorado, which lost to Detroit in the second round, added Forsberg and Foote (from Columbus for a first-round pick this year and a fourth-rounder in 2009), plus defenseman Ruslan Salei
from Florida for defenseman Karlis Skrastins
"And while we always have an eye on the future, you have to take care of the present, as well. That's where the risk and reward comes in." - Sharks GM Doug Wilson
Montreal? The Canadiens made a deal, but they didn't add any players to the lineup. They traded Huet to Washington for a second-round draft choice. But that deal paved the way for the Habs to give the No. 1 job to rookie goalie Carey Price
, who carried the Habs to the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing to Philadelphia.
What we've known all along is that there are no guarantees, no promises of success. But when you see eight-for-eight making deals and making it to the conference semifinals, you have to admit that the hype is not overkill, that the price you have to pay can give your team a chance to win it all.
Worth the risk?
"In this business, you know what you want. But trying to acquire players to fill your needs doesn't always happen in the time frame you want," explained Doug Wilson. "We knew we were going to have to get a No. 1 defenseman and we knew we needed to add a physical element to our group. When it got to the deadline, we knew that sellers were going to ask for a lot in futures.
"And while we always have an eye on the future, you have to take care of the present, as well. That's where the risk and reward comes in. To me, there's a risk if you don't go forward, because you'd be sending a mixed message to the guys down in the locker room that you don't care. You have to give them the tools to succeed. I don't believe in standing still or rebuilding, you simply reload."
And boy did each of our final four teams reload at the trading deadline.