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Devils, Stars and Ducks looking for fortune's smile

Friday, 03.04.2011 / 10:39 AM / Countdown to the Playoffs

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

With 38 days left in the regular season, the playoff races in each conference are simply on fire. With points at such a premium as teams jockey for position, every game has added significance. NHL.com is here to give you a Down the Stretch daily that will highlight what you need to know about that night's games.

Here is the installment for Friday, March 4:


Maybe not such a Devilish time: Saying the Devils are in the playoff race might seem like a reach, considering they're 10 points out and in 12th place; but a closer look at their upcoming schedule reveals maybe there is reason for hope in Newark.

New Jersey hosts Pittsburgh tonight, a team that has obviously struggled without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and is still dealing with injuries to Brooks Orpik and Chris Kunitz. The Devils beat the banged-up Penguins 2-0 on Jan. 20 in Newark. Pittsburgh hasn't won in regulation since Feb. 4 and is just 3-6-3 since.

After that, the Devils next six games will be against teams that, like them, are outside of the top eight in the East. They play two each against the Islanders, Senators and Thrashers.So, the schedule is favorable and they're still one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Plus, they hold three games in hand on the eighth-place Rangers. BuT, New Jersey must continue winning to have its chance to fashion a comeback of epic proportions.

Star gazing: Anaheim's 2-1 overtime win Wednesday against Detroit can not be overstated for its importance to the Ducks playoff push. Instead of falling backward, the Ducks built on a 3-2 win against Colorado with a significant win against one of the West's best teams. They can't stop there.

Dallas has won three in a row heading into tonight's game and believes the return of star center Brad Richards is near. The Stars are coming off Tuesday's thrilling win in Phoenix. A win against the Ducks will lift the Stars back into the top eight in the Western Conference.

What's interesting to note is how difficult the Stars schedule is going to be down the stretch. Yes they have a seven-game homestand upcoming, but every game they play between now and April 5 is against a team that, as of today, is still in the middle of the playoff race.

Anaheim will again be without Jonas Hiller, who remains out with vertigo symptoms. The harsh reality is that the Ducks' playoff hopes might rest on his recovery.

The Ducks and Stars will get quite familiar with each other as they play three times before the end of the regular season. It's possible that one knocks the other out of the race.

East-West tussle: Carolina did itself a small favor Thursday night by beating Buffalo in overtime. The 'Canes needed the two points, but would have liked to get them in a regulation win. Nevertheless, they moved into sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference on the strength of that win, coupled with the Rangers' loss to Minnesota.

Chicago is starting an odd stretch in which they'll play five consecutive games against Eastern Conference foes they have not yet seen this season. The Blackhawks have won six in a row to climb into fourth place in the Western Conference. For the second-straight game, the Blackhawks are catching an opponent that played the night before.

However, their hold on the fourth spot is obviously fairly loose. In fact, the Hawks could potentially drop to seventh with a regulation loss. Calgary would have to beat Columbus and Dallas would have to win in Anaheim for that to happen, but the mere fact that it can tells you all you need to know about how fluid the West race is right now.

Adversity calls Calgary: The extent of Brendan Morrison's knee injury suffered Wednesday in Chicago is still unknown, but you can pretty much bank on the fact that the Flames' surprising No. 1 center won't be in the lineup tonight -- and that is a crushing blow.

Morrison has been excellent this season and his play has ignited Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. Calgary is expected to slot rookie Mikael Backlund in the middle of that top line, a tough position for the 21-year-old Swede. He has skill, but Morrison plays in all phases of the game and Iginla seriously loves playing with the guy.

Newest Flame Fredrik Modin will likely go into the lineup if Morrison can't go. Modin was acquired at the deadline for a seventh-round draft pick, but he's been a healthy scratch in the past two games because coach Brent Sutter didn't want to disrupt the chemistry in his lineup. Now he might not have a choice.

Calgary is still in a good position with 75 points. Columbus is not. The Blue Jackets are six points back and falling. Their loss in Edmonton on Thursday night could serve as the death blow to their playoff hopes. Of course, it's all about how they respond now and a win in Calgary puts them back in the thick of it, though time is running short.

Odds are, based on coach Scott Arniel's brutally honest assessment of his squad's effort in Edmonton -- he used the words "awful" and "ugly" in his postgame answers -- the Blue Jackets will bring the energy tonight.

It has to stop: The Rangers have lost three in a row and are just 4-10-1 during their past 15 games. If Buffalo, Toronto and New Jersey weren't such slow starters in this playoff race, the Rangers probably would be on the outside of the top eight right now.

If they keep going like this they will be.

So, Friday night's  game in Ottawa becomes a must-win for the rangers, who have to get some confidence back.

The Senators are playing out the stretch with a lot of guys who weren't on the opening-night roster. It would be foolish to think they're going to just roll, but the Rangers have to be able to figure out a way to score more than a goal or two against one of only five teams in the NHL that allows more than three per game.

Goal scoring has been an issue for the Rangers all season; but with Marian Gaborik still sidelined with concussion symptoms it has become a pressing problem. They scored only four goals during a 0-3 homestand. Actually, maybe getting away from Madison Square Garden is the elixir they need considering the Blueshirts have won only 14 of their 33 home games this season.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

It's hard to walk into that locker room and look those guys in the eye when they've played -- clearly, that was our best game we've played in the series -- and I thought we deserved a better fate tonight.

— Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on his team's 3-2 loss to the Canadiens in Game 3 on Sunday