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Published: Tuesday, 1/29/2008

All chasing Red Wings, but best-record team hasn't won Cup since 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATLANTA - Unless you are the Detroit Red Wings, there is plenty of work to be done just to get into the NHL playoffs before thoughts drift to making a run for the Stanley Cup.

As hockey returns tonight from its four-day All-Star break, teams will be gearing up for the stretch drive that has a little more than 30 games left per club. Parity is prevailing, and virtually no one is out of the running.

The only team that is truly safe is Detroit, which has a 22-point lead in the Central Division, a 17-point edge in the Western Conference, and a 12-point cushion in the chase for the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

Finishing on top doesn't ensure postseason success, however. Just ask the Buffalo Sabres, who stormed through the Eastern Conference a year ago but were knocked out in the semifinals by the Ottawa Senators.

"Being first in your conference and playing the eighth seed, you have nothing to win really," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "If you lose in the first round, you're a dog. That's probably the toughest round.

"Detroit is running away with their conference, for sure, and probably the Presidents' Trophy. Do they have much to play for down the stretch? You can find pros and cons with pretty much everything."

The Red Wings were eliminated a step away from the finals last year by eventual champion Anaheim after finishing tied with Buffalo for first in the NHL's overall standings.

The Presidents' Trophy winner hasn't captured the Cup since 2002 when Detroit did it. The Red Wings flamed out twice in the previous three seasons after finishing with the best record in the NHL.

"Yeah, there's no guarantees - having a good regular season to then play well in the playoffs," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "We as a team try to do whatever we can to prepare ourselves for the playoffs to have a good playoff run again.

"It starts in the regular season. You can't just turn a switch on once the playoffs start and expect to play well. You have to play well going into the playoffs."

The next biggest division lead is in the Northeast, where Ottawa is six points ahead of surprising Montreal.

There are two tied divisional races, and another where first and second place are separated by one skinny point. New York's Islanders and Rangers are tied for eighth - the postseason cutoff - in the Eastern Conference, 12 points below Ottawa but only nine in front of last-place Tampa Bay.

"It is hectic," Philadelphia forward Mike Richards said. "Every game counts. I looked at our schedule and we play our last five or six games against our division opponents. Coming down the stretch here, every game is going to be so important."

Tell that to Pittsburgh, which is a point out of first in the Atlantic, but facing the prospect of being without defending scoring champion Sidney Crosby for several weeks due to his high ankle sprain.

Behind Detroit in the West the race is tight throughout. The Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks are tied in points atop the Pacific Division but only five ahead of the eighth-place deadlock between Colorado and Columbus.

"Everyone is so close to each other, you fight so hard to get into the postseason and if you have a tough first-round opponent you might get knocked out right away," Sharks forward Joe Thornton said. "

Last place today could be first place in a week, and vice versa.

"Anybody can beat anybody," said Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal, the MVP of the Eastern Conference's 8-7 victory over the West in Sunday's All-Star game. "Right now for our team it's about stringing together a bunch of wins."

The Hurricanes, two years removed from their only Stanley Cup championship, come out of the break in first place. The Southeast is one of the NHL's most balanced - some say weak - divisions where seven points separate first place and fifth.

Carolina is one point ahead of Washington, with MVP contender Alex Ovechkin, two in front of the Atlanta Thrashers, three above Florida, and seven ahead of Tampa Bay, which at 20 wins is tied for the fewest in the NHL.

With the trade deadline only a few weeks away, tough decisions whether to be buyers or sellers will have to be made. The Thrashers need to figure out if they can sign Marian Hossa or deal the prospective free agent away. What makes it more difficult to catch teams are games that go into overtime which award two points to the winner and one to the loser. If a matchup of two teams ahead in the standings is tied after regulation, then a trailing club will lose ground to both.

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Teemu Selanne returned to Anaheim after missing the first half of the season while contemplating retirement.

The unrestricted free agent signed a one-year deal and then practiced with the team.

"It was a pretty hard practice. I almost forgot how tough it is," said Selanne, 37, who had 48 goals and 46 assists last season, when he ranked third in the NHL in goals, and led the league in power-play goals with 25.



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