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Grab points early and often

by Phil Coffey /

After falling just one point shy of the playoffs last year, Mats Sundin and the Toronto Maple Leafs don't have to be reminded of just how important regular season games in October can be.
The NHL Premier series in London provided a tasty appetizer of what to expect when the puck drops tonight for eight more NHL teams.

The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are each atop the pack for the moment, sporting two points each and 1-1 records.

With four games tonight – Montreal at Carolina (7 p.m. ET, RDS), Anaheim at Detroit (7 p.m. ET, Versus), Ottawa at Toronto (7:30 p.m. ET, TSN) and Dallas at Colorado (9:30 p.m. ET, Versus, NHL Network) the chase for points will begin in earnest.

Teams starting off 2007-08 ought to take a quick look back at last season’s standings. Tight playoff races in both conferences should add a little spring to their respective steps to start padding their points totals in October.

The Leafs don’t need to be reminded they fell one point short of a playoff berth, the Canadiens two points. The Hurricanes, Stanley Cup winners in 2006, didn’t defend their title, missing the postseason by four points.

In the West, the Nashville Predators fell three points short of the Central Division title, thus earning the fourth seed in the West and not the top spot. The Minnesota Wild fell a point short of the Canucks in the Northwest, 105-104 and ended up as the seventh seed instead of the third.

And the Avalanche came up one point shy of a playoff berth, 96-95, and were left on the outside looking in. The lesson? Get those points early because they count as much as the ones earned in April.

And for the “Doubting Thomas” types out there, statistics back up the real value of winning games in October.

For instance:

* The past three Stanley Cup champions have a combined October record of 23-2-5. Tampa Bay went 6-0-1 in October, 2003; Carolina went 8-2-1 in October 2005; Anaheim went an astounding 9-0-3 in October, 2006.

* The past 10 Stanley Cup champions have a combined October record of 78-17-14.

* The past two Presidents' Trophy winners have a combined October record of 21-1-1. The Detroit Red Wings went 11-1-0 at the start of the 2005-06 season and the Buffalo Sabres went 10-0-1 last October.

Here are some additional numbers that should provide that extra bit of motivation to grab your points early, grab them often.

* Just eight points separated the top 10 clubs in the League's overall standing in 2006-07.

* All six division titles, both conference titles and the Presidents' Trophy were still up for grabs with less than a week remaining.

* The Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils earned a League-high 14 points in games they trailed in the last five minutes of the third period. The Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs, who missed the playoffs by one point in their respective conferences, earned two and three points, respectively, in such games.

* The Vancouver Canucks, who captured the Northwest Division by one point, won 12 games in overtime -- at least double the total of all but two clubs. The Atlanta Thrashers and Minnesota Wild each had seven such victories.

* The Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, went 10-2 in shootouts. They would have finished 11th with a 6-6 shootout mark.

The start of the season seems to put an extra spring in a player’s step. Optimism permeates the rosters, rookies are excited, coaches haven’t gotten grumpy yet, the fans are chuffed to see the season start. The start of the season creates an atmosphere of unfettered joy.

"It feels great that we're able to come up with a competitive team every year," Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom said of his Red Wings. "Last season, people on the outside looking in didn't think we were going to be that good. But we were a confident group, and we had a good regular season and went deep into the playoffs. This year, we feel the same way."

The Avalanche feel a renewed sense of optimism that they will more than make up for that lost point in the standings. Colorado ices some of the most impressive young players in the NHL and the club signed two marquee free agents over the summer in forward Ryan Smyth and defenseman Scott Hannan.

"With the (salary) cap going up so much, you had a lot of teams out there looking at those guys," Colorado GM Francois Giguere said. "To get two was unbelievable. Both Scott and Ryan bring a lot of what we're looking for."

In Ottawa, the Senators are a perhaps a tad more serious, remembering their painful loss to the Ducks in the Final. If you’re going to have a short season, make sure you have the Stanley Cup to show for it.

"The little taste we got of going to the Final last year, that's our main goal again," Senators right wing Dany Heatley said. "We're hungry, we're skating well and everyone's excited to get going again."

There is also great anticipation in Dallas, where Mike Modano is just seven points shy of becoming the leading scorer among United States-born players. Modano begins his 18th season with 507 goals and 719 assists for 1,226 points.

Modano isn’t the only player approaching milestone territory. Here’s a list of players closing in on various marks.

Chris Chelios, Detroit Red Wings (24th season) -- Chelios needs two games to tie Red Wings’ legend Alex Delvecchio (1,549) for eighth place on the NHL's all-time games list.

Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche (19th season) -- Sakic is one point behind Phil Esposito (1,590) for eighth place on the NHL's all-time points list.

Mats Sundin, Toronto Maple Leafs (17th season) -- Sundin is one goal shy of Maple Leafs’ legend Darryl Sitter (389) for first place on the franchise's all-time goals list and seven points away from tying Sittler's all-time points mark (916).

Jaromir Jagr, New York Rangers (17th season) -- Jagr is three points behind Paul Coffey (1,531) for 11th place on the all-time points list.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils (15th season) -- Brodeur needs two shutouts to tie 1920s-30s star George Hainsworth (94) for second place on the all-time shutouts list. He also is six wins shy of becoming the second goaltender in NHL history to reach 500, joining Patrick Roy (551).

And five players -- Roman Hamrlik (15th season), Bryan Smolinski (15th season), Alex Kovalev (15th season), Owen Nolan (16th season) and Mike Sillinger (17th season) -- are likely to play their 1,000th games in October. Three of the five (Hamrlik, Smolinski and Kovalev) are teammates on the Montreal Canadiens.

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