DENVER -- This is the gruelling race before the real chase. There are more scars on the faces of the Winnipeg Jets and more aching body parts as the club pushes for a coveted playoff spot.
And seeing this crew fight through the mental and physical grinder that is the sprint to the post-season only makes you appreciate how difficult it is to be the last team standing in late June.
That's the big storyline in Jetsville right now -- the pursuit of meaningful hockey in April -- but there are also some interesting sidebars worth weighing in on here. So, once again we trot out a piece we like to call 'Nobody asked me, but...'
Some may say it's unhealthy because it could lead to friction, but it says here this current goaltending debate/controversy unfolding right now can be a good thing for the Jets.
Ondrej Pavelec, who got the rest Monday night in Denver while Al Montoya started, still has the support of head coach Paul Maurice and management -- even if it seems like they have had to come to the defence of the organization's No. 1 netminder more than ever over the last couple of months.
But what of Montoya, who has superior numbers to Pavelec but is an unrestricted free agent following this season? Does every start he earns from now until the end of the year become a referendum on whether he should return?
The same could be said about Pavelec, who won a Calder Cup with the Chicago Wolves in 2007-08 but has a career save percentage of .906 and a goals-against average of 2.96. But here's where things get sticky for those out there who are pushing for a Pavelec buyout... Montoya has never played more than 31 games in an NHL season during his career and there are no guarantees the goalies scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer -- Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott, Jonas Hiller and Ryan Miller -- will either make it to market or sign with the Jets.
Barring a trade, that likely means the Jets go forward with the Pavelec-Montoya combo while waiting for one of the prospects in their system such as Eddie Pasquale, Michael Hutchinson, Juho Olkinora, Connor Hellebuyck, Jason Kasdorf, Jamie Phillips or Eric Comrie to step in -- and that could be a while.
Hard not to cheer for guys like Jim Slater or John Albert, who were getting opportunities to step up their games Monday in Denver, Slater centering a line featuring Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler and Albert, called up from St. John's, in the middle of the fourth line with Eric Tangradi and Anthony Peluso.
In essence, though, both are in similar situations: Bottom-six centres trying to impress a new coach. Albert, in particular, is auditioning for a man who -- prior to Monday night -- had only seen film and read scouting reports on him.
"It's exactly what it is: a good opportunity for me," Albert said Monday. "I'm just going to go out there and do my best and help the team win. Obviously, if I help myself out at the same time it's a bonus."
How can anyone not be impressed with Colorado rookie Nathan MacKinnon? He was holding court with the media Monday morning, talking about moving from wing to centre in Paul Stastny's absence, when the subject of him breaking a Wayne Gretzky record -- he had his 13-game point streak snapped on Saturday, one more than the Great One's record of 12 straight as an 18-year-old -- was broached.
"If anything happens, people like to hype it up... I've realized that pretty quickly," said MacKinnon. "I just took it with a grain of salt. It's just a point streak... it's a record, but it's a point streak at the end of the day.
"It's pretty cool. But I don't have a ton to say about it. It's just a byproduct of the team playing really well and I managed to put some games together with points."
FYI: While he plays and acts like a long-serving NHL vet, MacKinnon doesn't turn 19 until Sept. 1.
"He's dealing really well with everything," said Avs head coach Patrick Roy. "Since he's that high (holds hand at waist level), he's been compared to (Sidney Crosby). He's a very humble person and approaches every game the same way. He wants to perform. He should be a confident person right now, the way he's been playing."
And, finally, NHL GMs are tossing around some ideas at meetings in Florida this week, including tweaking the overtime format, an expanded video review that would give coaches a challenge and examining the rules around goaltender interference.
The main topic is possible change to the OT format in an effort to have fewer games decided by a shootout. According to NHL.com 14 per cent of games this season heading into Monday night had ended in a shootout, with 40 per cent of games that went to OT eventually leading to the skills competition.
Now, for as much as the shootout is popular with fans, coaches and GMs -- and especially goaltenders -- hate the thing and would like to see more games ended by a "real" hockey play. No argument here, although watching guys like T.J. Oshie and Patrick Kane shine in the shootout always has yours truly sliding to the edge of my seat.
What NHL GMs have to balance here, however, is resisting the need to constantly tinker with a fabulous game. Was a tie game really that evil? Personally, I'd rather see a winner-takes-all format in OT or have the two teams split two points after an extra session than these three-point contests.
"With every rule you've got to be so careful," Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill told reporters in Florida. "It's a great game. When you start making changes you think you've got all angles covered and something else seeps into it.
"It's never been faster, it's never been better or more competitive. We have to be careful every time we make a little tweak here and there."