For the first time in this NHL lockout, the league and the NHLPA are finally engaged in serious negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

Since the NHLPA received a comprehensive 288-page CBA proposal from the league a week ago, the two sides have been engaged in daily talks, including consecutive face-to-face meetings.

This week’s negotiations were the first time NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA director Donald Fehr met face-to-face since late November.

It would be easy to dismiss the latest round of negotiations as having little impact in getting a season-saving deal in place. Indeed, optimism among fans, bloggers and pundits has been muted, which is understandable considering how the owners-players only meetings a month ago flamed out.

This time, however, there appears to be a level of seriousness which was lacking throughout the earlier negotiations. Lengthy internal meetings and conference calls have been conducted, and there’s been an ongoing swap of proposals between the two sides.

Significant issues remain (CBA term, contract term limit, escrow, next season’s salary cap, player pensions), but those appear the only ones left in getting a season-saving deal hashed out.

Time has also become a factor. Prior to the NHL’s proposal last week, the league hadn’t actually set a deadline to get a CBA done in order to stage a “season with any integrity”. Now, we know the league seeks a January 11th implementation date in order to stage a 48-game season commencing January 19th, coincidentally around the same time NBC was to commence televising NHL weekend games.

With less than two weeks to January 11th, there’s no time for posturing or emotional theatrics. That’s why Bettman and Fehr this week have engaged in short, subdued press conferences following each meeting, revealing no details, leveling no accusations and maintaining the mutual desire to keep talks going.

Hanging over this week’s negotiations is the threat of the NHLPA filing a disclaimer of interest by January 2. We’ll know later today if the NHLPA will go through with filing its disclaimer, but media consensus suggests that’s unlikely with talks currently at a critical juncture.

It’s been suggested the league might return to its hard line tactics if the PA decides not to file the disclaimer, but as several pundits have pointed out, they can file at a later date, so it wouldn’t make any sense on the league’s part to try that gambit.

The current urgency in this week’s talks doesn’t make it a certainty there will be a new CBA in place soon. Negotiations could still break down as they’ve done since the lockout began in mid-September.

Still, rumors persist the owners don’t consider cancelling the season a viable option, and we know the players want to play.

At the risk of being premature in this assessment, I believe we’re finally getting closer to a deal which will salvage what remains of the 2012-13 season.