Teams fight back from seasons of doom

Back on New Year’s Day, things were looking grim for the Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference and the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames in the West.

The five clubs struggled through the first half of the season and found themselves outside the NHL playoff picture.

Some, like the Sabres, Flames and Devils, were so far down in the standings that fans and pundits were calling for their respective managements to avoid waiting for the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 28 and start shipping out veteran players in exchange for young players to begin the process of rebuilding their rosters.

But since Jan. 1, these five teams have moved up in the standings and are either holding down a playoff spot or in striking distance of reaching a berth.

The Hurricanes spent more than two months mired in ninth overall in the East but a combination of their improved play — led by team captain Eric Staal, goalie Cam Ward, wingers Erik Cole and Tuomo Ruutu and rookie sensation Jeff Skinner — and the recent struggles of the Atlanta Thrashers and New York Rangers had them entering this week two points up on the Thrashers for eighth overall and only two points behind the Blue Jackets for seventh overall.

Right behind the Hurricanes and Thrashers were the Sabres, who seemed to have found new life in recent weeks while in the midst of being sold to billionaire Sabres fan Terry Pegula. Although still missing top forward Derek Roy (broken leg) and defensive blueliner Steve Montador (concussion), the Sabres have been on a tear of late, entering this week winners of seven of their last 10 games to move within four points of the final playoff spot.

Goaltender Ryan Miller’s numbers aren’t of the same caliber they were for his Vezina Trophy performance last season, but he went 8-2-1 in January, which was a big factor in his club’s recent improvement. Winger Drew Stafford had 30 points in 35 games and was on pace for a career season while sophomore defenseman Tyler Myers appeared to have overcome a poor first half and is close to the form which made him rookie of the year last season.

The Devils still have the deepest hole to climb out of. As of mid-February, they sat 14 points out of eighth overall. But in late December, they were more than 20 points out and dead last in the East.

The playoffs remain a long-shot for the Devils but under Jacques Lemaire, who replaced John MacLean last month as head coach, they’ve regained their winning ways. From Jan. 9 to Feb. 12, the Devils went 12-1-2, including winning six of seven in the first half of February.

Of course it’ll help their chances if some of the clubs still ahead of them in the standings struggle down the stretch, but what appeared far-fetched for the Devils now seems plausible.

Meanwhile, the Sharks are still well below their accustomed place near the top of the Conference standings and a six-game losing skid in early January had them seemingly on the verge of collapse. But since then, they’ve been on a roll, going 7-2-1 to move into seventh in the very tight Western playoff race, only two points behind Dallas for the division lead.

One reason for their improvement is the goaltending of Antti Niemi, who has regained the form that backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to last year’s Stanley Cup title. He’s been outstanding during the Sharks recent run, which included recent back-to-back 2-0 victories over Boston and Washington. Another factor has been the play of rookie forward Logan Couture, who had a seven-game point streak going during that period, which included three game-winning goals.

Finally, there’s the Flames, who in late-December were jockeying with long-time rival Edmonton for last place in the conference.

But since taskmaster Darryl Sutter was fired as general manager and replaced by affable assistant Jay Feaster, it’s as though a huge weight were lifted off the Flames. They’ve become – no pun intended – one of the hottest teams in the league, entering this week winners of seven of their last 10 games. They went 7-3-3 in January and 4-1-2 thus far in February.

Two months ago there were calls for the Flames to shop core veterans like goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, defenseman Robyn Regehr and team captain Jarome Iginla. Feaster however stuck by his core players and has been rewarded for his loyalty.

These five clubs cannot rest on their recent laurels down the stretch and have no assurances they’ll clinch a playoff berth by season’s end.

But if they can carry over their recent performances for the remainder of the season they’ll certainly make the playoff race more interesting, and provide their fans with entertaining hockey. For these teams, it’s already playoff time and every game the rest of the way counts.