There is something distinctly un-American about standing up and happily proclaiming, "We're Number 2!" Good things come in threes, cleanup hitters bat fourth, sevens are lucky, and love potions are number 9. But the wondrous possibilities of being second-best seem to be valued only in hockey, as the hot Detroit Red Wings and the wounded St. Louis Blues attested when they convened at Savvis Center last Saturday. On the NHL master schedule it was simply Game 1,023. On the ice it was Arch Madness. Separated by one point in the Central Division standings and battling for the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western Conference, the Red Wings and the Blues played emotional and occasionally superb hockey in a 2-2 tie. Before the match, St. Louis coach Joel Quenneville called it the biggest game of the year. Afterward, many observers said it was perhaps the best game of the year.
The teams had come from different directions (the Red Wings had lost only once in their last 15 games, the Blues had been stumbling in an injury-induced 2-6-2-2 haze), but they met at the right time of year with a lot on the line. Even if it seemed that this unusually important regular-season match would be overshadowed by estranged Philadelphia Flyers center Eric Lindros—when news leaked last Friday that the Blues and the Red Wings were on the expanded list of teams he would accept a trade to, everyone reacted as if Godot had shown up looking for change for a twenty—players kept their eyes on the consolation prize of heading into the postseason in the slot right behind the loaded Colorado Avalanche. Playoff positioning is critical, and not simply because only three of 20 regular-season conference winners have reached the Stanley Cup finals over the past 10 years while five second seeds have made it. You don't have to be Stephen Hawking or even Steve Yzerman to do the math.
For the first five months of the season most players are content to stick to simple arithmetic—goals, points, the amount of withholding tax on their paychecks—but in March, as the weather and the playoff races warm, they fashion intriguing equations from the standings, like: 2 vs. 7 - X = Colorado. In other words, Detroit or St. Louis would benefit by finishing second in the Western Conference and starting the playoffs against the No. 7 seed, which, assuming no upset in the first two rounds (the X factor), would equal a match with the Cup-favorite Avalanche no earlier than the conference finals.
"There's a logic to it," Yzerman, the Red Wings' captain, says of nailing down the second seed. "No question Colorado is the top Western team. You have to guess the Stanley Cup will go through them. The common wisdom is, try to avoid playing them until the third round."
For those dropouts who think an isosceles triangle is the offense Michael Jordan executed in Chicago, we will review the playoff math (and show our work). There are tangible benefits to being second in the conference. The most obvious are home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds and the opportunity to open against a presumably softer touch, which at week's end would be the Edmonton Oilers. (The fourth-seeded team, which would be St. Louis, would play the surprisingly strong Vancouver Canucks in Round 1.)
Then the math gets more complicated, courtesy of the NHL format that awards the top three seeds in each conference to the division winners and seeds the remaining five clubs in order of regular-season points. If there are no first-round upsets in the West, then the No. 2 seed (Red Wings, 94 points) would meet the No. 3 team ( Dallas Stars, 83), which, at week's end, would have fewer points than the No. 4 seed (Blues, 91). However, the primary benefit is putting off a meeting with the Avalanche (101), which eliminated the Red Wings in the second round each of the past two years.
This is not the same as delaying a visit to the dentist or starting a diet tomorrow—there are sound hockey principles behind skirting Colorado early. While the Avalanche is absurdly talented, it has been a two-line club, and its shortened bench and normal playoff attrition have helped keep it out of the Stanley Cup finals since 1996. The Red Wings regularly roll four lines, keeping fresher players on the ice. "Because of the way we use our lines," says Detroit winger Brendan Shanahan, who sent last Saturday's game into overtime by scoring with 50 seconds to go in regulation, "I think our club gets stronger as it gets deeper into the playoffs."
St. Louis would be a four-line team too, if Quenneville could find enough healthy players amid the rubble. The Blues have been ravaged by injuries to their high-end talent, most notably to star defensemen Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis. Like a cartoon character who charges off a cliff and remains suspended in midair because he doesn't look down, St. Louis soldiered on capably for a brief spell without Pronger, who returned after left knee surgery for two games last month before breaking his left forearm, and MacInnis, whose vision in the wake of a left eye injury sustained in late January fluctuates between 20/100 and 20/200.
However, as was bound to happen after a win in Colorado and a hard-fought tie in Dallas last month, the depleted Blues finally looked down—and dropped in the standings. The back line pairings have been continually shuffled; the once crisply executed breakout plays that were a Blues specialty have become a puck whipped around the boards. With other key injuries to forwards Pavol Demitra, Michal Handzus and Tyson Nash, some players were forced to play extra minutes and were put into circumstances that overwhelmed them.
"This wasn't easy considering some guys who have been here just the last couple of years hardly ever saw us lose two games in a row," says St. Louis center Craig Conroy. "We stopped instigating, taking the body, doing what the good teams do."