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Gotta Have the Grid

by J. Douglas Foster / Dallas Stars

There comes a time, roughly beginning in late February, where morning rituals change around competitive NHL teams.

Sure, the cup of coffee is essential heading into morning skate.

But an equally important part of the daily routine for coaches, PR types, media members and broadcasters involves “the grid.”

Started some years ago by somewhere else, and perfected by the Dallas Stars PR staff, “the grid” is a thorough breakdown of each team in the playoff hunt in an easy to read format. Each team’s record, point total and games remaining are listed on a header. Following that is a breakdown of games at home and on the road, back-to-backs, divisional games – any important stat concerning the squad’s schedule. And finally, an actual listing of each team’s remaining schedule. The beauty of the grid is being able to see just how many head-to-head matchups remain between teams vying for the same playoff position.

As far as printed minutia goes, it’s incredibly addictive. Anyone trying to calculate just where they will finish, and whom they will face in the first round, must have this updated sheet every day. Stars PR intern Matthew Clinkscales greets the Dallas media contingent each day, every member impatiently pacing with an outstretched arm, asking “where’s the grid?” The entire group waits, like Pavlov’s dogs, for our newly-printed information treat at the ringing of a bell. Sometimes, you can just stare at the sheet for hours, mapping out the most likely run all the way through the Western Conference and the best possible route for reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Even Stars head coach Dave Tippett – who lives by the mantra of worrying only about what’s going on within your own team, and not what’s happening anywhere else  – admits he must have his updated grid, before and after each game, to prepare for every possibility. Knowledge is power, you know?

Yes, Matthew Clinkscales is our Brian McNamee, brandishing a needle filled not with B-12, but with every potential playoff scenario. Mind steroids, if you will.

The one obvious observation from looking at this grid each day involves the strength – and potentially dangerous playoff positioning – of the top three teams in the Pacific Division.

Currently, Dallas, San Jose and Anaheim possess the second, third and fourth best records in the Western Conference. In fact, they are all among the top four teams in point total in the entire NHL. Of course, with division winners being the top three seeds, the Northwest Division champion moves into the third spot.

That means that, in all likelihood, the Stars, Sharks and Ducks will occupy playoff seeds two, four and five.

Knowing that, just how important is it to win the Pacific Division outright?

I would say incredibly important.

If you don’t win the division, you get to take on a team from your division, one that is undoubtedly capable of winning just about any other division in the NHL. Can you imagine the first-round pairing of Dallas vs. San Jose, Dallas vs. Anaheim or San Jose vs. Anaheim?

Surely it makes the rest of the conference happy. You are guaranteed to have one of the West’s best teams out after the first round. Even the winner of that series could be seriously drained, both physically and emotionally, entering the second round.

It’s a bit of a shame. But it’s also a pretty good warning. Win the division, and you don’t have to face either Anaheim or San Jose until the second round at best. The size and physical nature of both the Ducks and Sharks makes them a tough playoff matchup for anyone. Why not pit them against each other to start the postseason?

Works for me.

The NHL has – rightfully – been giddy about superkid Sidney Crosby’s explosion onto the NHL scene since his arrival following the lockout.

And why wouldn't they be? Last year, on his way to winning the Hart Trophy, Crosby became the first teenager in North American professional sports history to win his league’s scoring title. 

But he can’t carry hockey on his back for the next 20 years. Luckily, he’s got some help.

The one good thing to come out of Crosby’s high-ankle sprain this season, which cost him 21 games, was the proof the Penguins won’t just fold without him. In fact, it also became Evgeni Malkin’s coming out party.

In the 21 games without Crosby, all Malkin did was register 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) with a plus-9 rating. Very Crosbian numbers, if you will. During that stretch, he briefly took over the NHL scoring lead as well.

But he had that taken back, by another exciting young Russian. Obviously, you don’t need to be told about Alex Ovechkin, who has already registered his second 50-goal campaign in just three NHL seasons, and currently leads the league in both goals (54) and points (92).

The point is this: The list of the league’s top scorers is led by 22-year-old Ovechkin and 21-year old Malkin, while Crosby, despite missing those 21 games, still has 65 points (tied for 22nd in the NHL) and just turned 20 last August.

Can you imagine the possibilities for those three players over the next 15 years? They’ll all be on the ice, at the same time, Sunday when the Penguins take on the Capitals, and I can’t help but hope that both Pittsburgh and Washington become legitimate frontrunners in the Eastern Conference over the next few seasons (Pittsburgh appears to already be there).

Just picture those three, on the huge stage of an Eastern Conference Final, battling to lead their respective teams back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Now, imagine it happening three, four, maybe even five years in a row.

I’m in. Where do I sign?
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