This is a great time of the year. It's getting warmer (at least, here in the Northeast) and the playoffs are drawing closer. The playoff races have been awesome to watch, and the last 10 games are going to be enjoyable for all hockey fans.
Let's take a look at where we're at this week.
The tight playoff races are a perfect example of how the new salary cap has been successful. Remember the days when we had all of the talent just within the top 8-10 teams with the highest payrolls? Those days are gone. Instead, we have a player like Paul Kariya in Nashville. We have 10-13 teams in each conference fighting for playoff positions. The cap has made for a level playing field.
I just love the way that we're seeing competitiveness on all levels this late in the season. New Jersey can beat Ottawa; San Jose can lose to Columbus; struggling Toronto can pull out a win against high-ranking Philly. Just when a team thinks it has an easy night, it gets beat by the Caps or Isles or Pens. The teams that are basically out of the playoffs, for the most part, are not surrendering. They are not allowing the teams in the playoff hunt to have an easy night.
One of the teams finishing on a good note is the Florida Panthers. It's great to see. Some might be saying, too little, too late, but remember, the Panthers haven't been a healthy team until now (Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts had issues early on). Also, the signing of Olli Jokinen sent a huge message to the rest of the team: The Panthers are committed to winning. If they let Jokinen go, the team would have self-destructed. The move also betters the chances of Roberto Luongo staying put, as well. If the goalie sees how good the team can be, he might want to stay.
In a bigger market, the Rangers still are reaping the benefits of having Jaromir Jagr on their team. He was an NHL superstar we all went after because of his past horrible play (deservedly so), but he is now playing with passion and he's leading the Blueshirts to their first postseason berth since the 1996-97 season.
One last good point for you: I was glad to see the Stars re-sign their coaching staff to new contract extensions. At this time of the year, we're usually hearing about firings, so it's good to see some coaches being rewarded.
One of the few bad things about this time of the year is injuries.
Coaches don't want injured players around. They don't want to see healthy players watching three or four injured players hobbling around the locker room. It's just not good for confidence. Injured players become ostracized during the season. As a coach, you want your focus going to the healthy players. It's a tough situation.
At the same time, I don't like seeing some players quitting too early. I've seen a few older players on bad teams bailing out on their teams. If the team was in the playoffs and the player had a hand injury, he'd likely say "It hurts, but I'll play through it, no big deal." But since their team isn't in the playoffs, they'll say "It hurts," and not play.
They are not applying the same playoff attitude to the last few weeks of the regular season. They are not looking at the big picture. If that veteran player would stick through it, just think of what he could teach or what example he'd set for a younger player? That veteran could teach a young player something he'll carry with him for the rest of his career.
There was also a lot of talk after Scott Gomez 's controversial shootout goal. I think this is another example of how the shootout rules should be tweaked this offseason. Now, don't get me wrong; overall, the shootout has been 99.9 percent positive and has been a great addition to the game, but take these revisions into consideration:
• I'd like to see there be five shooters instead of three. It would add more excitement and the five-shooter format has worked well in the minor leagues.
• This stick-measuring thing is a mess. Either eliminate the rules on curves or have the referees and linesmen measure the sticks while the Zamboni is on the ice to cut down on the break in between overtime and the shootout. One ref and linesman can measure one team, and the other pair can work on the other.
• If we are going to keep the rule on the curves, make the punishment more severe.
Again, overall the shootout is a positive, I just think the league needs to make a few small tweaks to make the shootout better for TV.
The Buffalo Sabres' six-game skid is just downright ugly. This is not the time to have a stretch like this. Winning is habit-forming, but so is losing.
I've always believed that how you're playing going into the playoffs is more important than being the top team in your conference. Rarely do you see a No. 1 team go all the way to a Cup win.
Why is this happening? I'd be the smartest coach out there if I knew the exact answer. Buffalo is a good team, the same good team that won eight straight before this losing skid.
It's been a tough time for coach Lindy Ruff, especially with the fact that he's had to deal with his daughter's illness and surgery. A little bit of confidence can swing things back in the right direction for him and his team. The Sabres' only way out of this hole is hard work. Continue to work, work, work the opposition both mentally and physically. It might take a few more losses for them to snap out of it.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.