Five teams entered Wednesday's games within four points of the final three playoff spots, currently held by the Flyers, Canadiens and Bruins, but the standings seem to change by the day, as the hotly pursuing Thrashers and Rangers are nipping at their heels.
The only one of the five in action Wednesday night is the Canadiens, who host the Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET, TSN, RDS).
Philadelphia leads the race right now, but have multiple issues that could just as easily see the Flyers sliding rapidly down the standings. They dressed their sixth goalie of the season Sunday against the Devils, but managed to beat New Jersey to snap a five-game winless streak and jump ahead of the Canadiens by a tiebreaker, even though both teams have 82 points.
The Flyers have been off since then, which allowed some banged-up bodies to rest, but also allowed the teams behind them to creep closer in the standings.
"The schedule for March was really tough and every week was four games in six nights," coach Peter Laviolette told CSNPhilly.com. "To get three days off, we're able to get a couple rest days for some players."
"We're fighting for our lives right now. It's pretty obvious that those points are huge. That first point gave us something and we really had to work hard to get that second. Look around the League tonight. Teams that are chasing us also won. Every game has to be about desperation." -- Bruins coach Claude Julien
The Canadiens went on a 7-1-0 surge coming out of the Olympics, but have returned to earth since then, going 1-2-2 heading into Wednesday night's game with the Hurricanes. They'll be playing it without leading power-play scorer Glen Metropolit, who will miss at least the next two weeks -- and as long as 6-8 weeks -- with a shoulder injury.
That burden might not be as hard to bear, however, as the Canadiens will face just two playoff teams over the final five games, including another game with the Hurricanes and a home game with the Maple Leafs to close the season.
The Bruins gutted out a 1-0 overtime win in New Jersey Tuesday, allowing them to keep pace with the contenders and hold onto eighth place with 80 points.
"We're fighting for our lives right now," Boston coach Claude Julien said after the win. "It's pretty obvious that those points are huge. That first point gave us something and we really had to work hard to get that second. Look around the League tonight. Teams that are chasing us also won. Every game has to be about desperation."
They can enjoy the win until Thursday, when they start their final six games. They're split evenly home and road, and they're toughest games -- two against the Eastern Conference-leading Capitals -- will be on the road, which is good. The Bruins are 19-13-6 on the road, but just 16-16-6 at TD Garden.
Nik Antropov's third-period goal gave the Thrashers a 3-2 win in Toronto, allowing Atlanta to stay within two points of the final playoff spot with five games left. Those five games, however, are a mine field -- at the Capitals, at the Penguins, home for the Devils, at the Capitals and home for the Penguins. It's a backbreaking -- and possibly hope-crunching -- stretch of games. The Thrashers are a combined 1-8-0 against those teams this season.
Also in the race are the Rangers, who rallied from 2-0 deficit to beat the Islanders, 4-3, Tuesday to stay two points behind the Thrashers and four out of a playoff spot.
"We definitely needed the two points tonight," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "We didn't get any help tonight. It's a huge win for us."
That win sets up a final stretch that will see the Rangers play four of their final six games on the road, where an anemic offense dips to downright starvation -- their 83 goals on the road are the fewest in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers open their stretch with a back-to-back set against the two Florida teams. They also have to play in Buffalo and they close the season in Philadelphia in the back end of a home-and-home set.
So who will grab the last playoff spot in the East? The Flyers, Canadiens and Bruins have the advantage because they're already there, but a hot streak by the Thrashers or Rangers could propel them right up the standings. The only sure thing is that a lot still can change between now and April 11.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com