TORONTO - Several teams that were on the outside looking in during last season's NHL playoffs have made early strides to avoid the same disappointment this spring.
If the playoffs had started on Tuesday, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and the New York Rangers would be among the Eastern Conference participants while Dallas, Columbus and St. Louis would have qualified in the West.
The margin for error is as narrow as it's ever been. Three-point games have bunched teams together in the standings, but they've also made it tough for those chasing a playoff spot to pass teams in front of them.
"That's why it was so key for us to get a quick start this year," said Lightning forward Steven Stamkos. "In previous years, we were behind the 8-ball. It's so tough. You look at the Leafs the past couple years, you look at Carolina last year—tough starts and then you really pour it on at the end and sometimes it's not enough.
"It's a really tough hole to climb out of."
But hope shouldn't be lost in every city that has seen its team get off to a mediocre start. Detroit was one of four squads a year ago that was on the outside of the playoff picture on Nov. 30 and still managed to qualify in the spring—and the Red Wings did it with plenty of room to spare.
San Jose and Los Angeles are prime candidates to follow a similar path this season after recently dipping out of the top eight in the Western Conference, where the top-11 teams were separated by just six points heading into Tuesday's games.
None of the NHL's resurgent teams play in a Canadian city. Calgary and Edmonton sat at the bottom of the Western Conference prior to Tuesday's play while the Maple Leafs were 13th in the East. Even Ottawa, a playoff team last spring, was out of the post-season picture.
The biggest surprises in the early going are Dallas and Columbus, which were ranked No. 2 and No. 4 respectively in the West on Tuesday morning. Both have received solid goaltending—with Kari Lehtonen resurrecting his career in Dallas and the tandem of Mathieu Garon and Steve Mason carrying the load for the Blue Jackets.
Every team has roughly 55 to 60 games remaining in the regular season, so players are less fixated on the standings now than they'll be in a month or two. But there is still a sense of accomplishment for some of the teams that managed to bank a lot of wins in October and November.
"Points towards the end are very tough (to earn)," said veteran Tampa forward Martin St. Louis. "There's always a lot more on the line at that time."
After a couple years of struggling (which helped the Lightning draft Stamkos with the No. 1 pick in 2008), he feels like order has been restored.
"It's very nice to be a (member of the) Lightning again and see our team in the top half," said St. Louis.
The Lightning are one of the teams on the rise in our weekly rankings. Here's a look at how we see the NHL from top to bottom (with last week's ranking):
1. Detroit (1): Daniel Cleary has scored nine times over an 11-game stretch. That puts him well ahead of pace to surpass his career high of 20 goals in a season.
2. Washington (3): The deal for Scott Hannan wasn't particularly sexy, but it could be just the kind of move this team needs. Not everyone has to score for them to be successful.
3. Philadelphia (2): No wonder the Flyers are so eager to get Ville Leino's signature on a contract extension. He's been a key contributor for one of the NHL's highest-scoring teams.
4. Pittsburgh (8): Sidney Crosby remains on pace to best his career high of 120 points. It's probably no coincidence the Penguins have won seven in a row.
5. Montreal (4): Can't decide what's more amazing: Carey Price's stellar play this season or the fact he's already received roughly 150,000 write-in votes from fans who want him to start at the all-star game.
6. Tampa Bay (9): The ageless Martin St. Louis leads all players on the team in ice time. Not too many forwards around the league can say that.
7. Dallas (20): How long can they keep it up? The Stars have scored only six more goals than they've allowed, but they're still at the top of the Pacific Division.
8. Columbus (6): Derick Brassard seems to be coming into his own while centring a No. 1 unit that features Rick Nash. He's been an unsung hero so far.
9. N.Y. Rangers (15): The team's leading scorer is Brandon Dubinsky with 12 goals and 20 points in 26 games. He's a restricted free agent in the summer.
10. Vancouver (10): A tough stretch didn't turn into a tailspin. Kudos to Canucks GM Mike Gillis and his staff for supporting Rick Rypien during a personal leave of absence from the team.
11. Chicago (12): What kind of year could Marian Hossa have if he stayed healthy? He's out another couple weeks after getting injured in practice.
12. Phoenix (13): It's good to see Shane Doan back from injury and making an impact on the scoresheet. The classy captain had three assists in a game against Anaheim last week.
13. St. Louis (7): They're going to have to fight tooth and nail to remain in the playoff picture. The Blues have been playing a lot of one-goal games lately.
14. Atlanta (22): Perhaps the biggest testament to Dustin Byfuglien's impact is the fact he's often facing the best players on other teams. He and Andrew Ladd have been big acquisitions.
15. Colorado (11): Injuries continue to hamper the hard-luck Avalanche. Chris Stewart's absence over the next few weeks with a broken hand will be tough to overcome.
16. Boston (14): The salary cap world isn't sitting well with coach Claude Julien. He was upset to see defenceman Matt Hunwick dealt away—a move that had to be made to clear space for Marc Savard's return.
17. Anaheim (17): Happy birthday, Cam Fowler. The defenceman scores his second NHL goal just a couple days before turning 19.
18. Los Angeles (5): Where has the scoring gone? They've got four goals in the last four games, all losses.
19. San Jose (16): The focus will be on Dany Heatley's return to Ottawa, but the bigger story is about how badly the Sharks need to start winning. It's been a tough stretch.
20. Minnesota (18): It will be a welcome sight to see forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard back on the ice this week. He's set to return after almost 14 months on the sidelines with a concussion.
21. Carolina (23): Canada's world junior team could use Jeff Skinner, who will instead remain with the Hurricanes. He leads all NHL rookies with 19 points.
22. Nashville (21): It's been a steady slide for Barry Trotz's team, which has four wins in its last 14 games. They need to reverse the trend soon.
23. Ottawa (19): Ever-optimistic owner Eugene Melnyk sees his team as a contender. The results haven't been in line with that view so far.
24. Buffalo (25): Minority owner Larry Quinn was quick to dismiss a report the team is close to being sold. It's the second time in three years he's had to do it.
25. Calgary (27): It's looking more and more like there will be a second spring without playoff hockey in Calgary. The clock is ticking.
26. Florida (26): No one on the team has more than 13 points through the first 22 games. It's clearly a rebuilding season for new GM Dale Tallon.
27. Toronto (24): Ron Wilson is desperate for some offence. The latest experiment sees rookie Nazem Kadri centring the top line before playing his 10th career NHL game.
28. Edmonton (28): Tom Renney referred to his team as a "joke" and the players responded with a win. That's a good sign for a squad that is likely headed for another lottery pick.
29. New Jersey (29): Another week passes without Ilya Kovalchuk scoring a goal. His current drought stands at seven games.
30. N.Y. Islanders (30): Times are extremely tough on Long Island. With one win in 15 games, the team is on pace for a dismal 56-point season.