When the NHL Players' Association was dancing around the idea of having a negotiating session with the owners minus Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman, few thought there would be any chance for significant progress.
On the surface, it looked like the players were up against it. They did not appear to have the command of the facts to stay with the owners, who had long studied the issues and knew them intimately.
But the players figured there was a chance to make progress, especially since Bettman would not be in the room.
After two full days of talks, it appears the NHL and the NHLPA have reached a point where a deal appears to be on the horizon.
There is quite a bit of work to be done to reach that horizon, but the finish line is clearly within their field of vision.
The NHL has moved its make-whole offer to $300 million from $211 million and the NHL is not asking for any changes in the salary arbitration process and unrestricted free agency.
Bob McKenzie of TSN reports that the NHL is insisting on five-year contract limits (seven years for a team's own free agents) with no more than a five percent variance in salary between individual years on the contract.
Will the NHL and NHLPA reach an agreement and end the lockout?
When negotiations go to 1 a.m. and then are scheduled to resume the next day, there's every reason to be optimistic. Especially when Toronto Maple Leafs owner Larry Tanenbaum said the league's owners would "continue to talk up until we get a deal," according to Yahoo! Sports.
However, there are no guarantees that the two sides will reach the finish line even though it is within sight. The key to reaching an agreement is making sure the moderates on both sides prevail and don't get overwhelmed by the hawks.
That means that owners like Tanenbaum and Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle must find a way to keep Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and Bettman in check. According to SI.com, Jacobs was ready to leave yesterday's negotiating sessions, but cooler heads prevailed and the Bruins' owner was not able to scuttle the talks.
It also means that the players must stay focused on getting the deal done and not responding to any of the shrapnel that may be fired by rogue owners. If Jacobs looks at Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller the wrong way, for example, Miller can't let loose with a slew of expletives.
Negotiations are at a critical stage.
It is no longer 18 players and six owners in a room. Bettman and Fehr will be back at the table and they have to act like leaders.
The time for brinksmanship and intimidation is over.
The time for making a deal is here.
If the two sides don't have a deal shortly, it may be unlikely that the season gets saved.