There is a new, underpublicized statistic in the NHL this season and it can be found in the expanded standings page on the league's website, listed just after points. Its acronym is ROW – regulation and overtime wins – and it represents the playoff tiebreaker adopted for this season after general managers recommended the change last March.
In the past, if two teams finished the regular season with the same number of points, the playoff spot went to the team with the most overall wins. This year, shootout wins have been eliminated from the equation; they no longer count in the playoff tiebreaker.
It matters to four of the seven Canadian-based teams, all hovering at the edge of playoff contention – the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets in the East, and the Calgary Flames in the West. Going into Sunday games, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg were seventh, eighth and 10th, respectively, in the conference standings. The team between, the Washington Capitals, led them all in regulation and overtime wins with 28. Toronto was next with 26, Ottawa had 25 and Winnipeg 24.
In the West, the news is better for the Flames, who found themselves holding down a playoff spot in the Western Conference for the first time in 11 months. Technically, they were tied in points with the Los Angeles Kings, but the Flames hold the first tiebreaker – most ROWs, 25, compared to 23 for the Kings – so if the playoffs started today, Calgary would be in and L.A. would be out.
There wasn't a lot of celebrating this important breakthrough in the Calgary dressing room because there are almost two months to go in the season, but for a team that has spent the entire year chasing a playoff spot from behind, it mattered a little.
Team captain Jarome Iginla had the right perspective – happy enough that they were in the thick of the hunt, aware that last year's second-half surge got them all the way to fifth place at one point, only to fade in the final three weeks and miss out on playoffs altogether.
On the weekend, the Flames eked out a 1-0 win over the Kings in L.A, a team that cannot buy a goal right now. The Kings have been shut out in consecutive games, have sunk deeper into 30th place in overall scoring, and are hearing that Rick Nash siren song growing louder and louder.
Against Calgary, the Kings were foiled by goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who is on an exceptional roll for the Flames.
"What can I say? We love our goaltender," said Mike Cammalleri, the former King playing centre for Calgary at the moment because the Flames have five regular forwards (Curtis Glencross, David Moss, Lee Stempniak, Blair Jones and Mikael Backlund) on the injury list.
Calgary rode Kiprusoff's goaltending to the Stanley Cup final in 2004, a year in which he was honoured with the Vézina Trophy. According to Iginla, Kiprusoff is in the midst of an even better all-round season this year, and it would be hard to find anyone on the L.A. side prepared to offer a rebuttal.
Goaltenders can be scary difference makers in the playoffs, which is one reason that a lot of opposing teams would just as soon see Calgary on the sidelines when the postseason begins. Kiprusoff is a wild card who can tilt the playing field in any best-of-seven series.
"He's played as good as I've seen him play, and that's counting the Vézina year," Iginla said Saturday night. "All year he's been outstanding, and he's enjoying it, too. He likes this, climbing back up in the playoff race. He's into it, too. You can see, each game is tight and he doesn't mind that. He loves to compete."
Iginla tends to avoid hyperbole, just one of the things that makes him a good captain. But he can do the math and he knew how important Saturday's victory was.
"If you don't win," Iginla said, "you're looking at the standings and you're four out and so it's like, you get close, and then you get knocked back. So it feels good to get to the start of where we want to be.
"But it also feels like we're going in the right direction. It feels like we're getting better as a team, and more confident. Last year, we got into this position, but we weren't able to beat the teams with above .500 records. This year, we've been able to do that and we want to keep that going.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs and then build on that."
And maybe they can, too, just so long as they keep those ROWs coming.