The Buffalo Sabres are getting closer to a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, but they can still see the Carolina Hurricanes in the rear-view mirror.
The eighth-place Sabres improved to 83 points by polishing off the Florida Panthers 4-2 on Friday night at HSBC Arena. Drew Stafford had a pair of goals for Buffalo -- his second came 13 seconds after Jordan Leopold connected midway through the third period to put the Sabres ahead 3-1.
But the ninth-place Hurricanes won't quite. Carolina spotted Tampa Bay an early goal, then scored the next four and hung on for a 4-3 win in the front end of a home-and-home series. The 'Canes go for the sweep in Raleigh on Saturday -- while hoping visiting New Jersey can beat the Sabres.
Both teams also have the seventh-place New York Rangers in their sights. Buffalo trails the Blueshirts by two points, while Carolina is five back -- and both teams have a game in hand on New York. All three teams play Saturday.
In the West, Vancouver moved within three points of clinching the top seed in the conference with a 3-1 win at Atlanta.
Here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up after Friday night's games:
Philadelphia (98 points) didn't skate Friday as coach Peter Laviolette tries to keep his players fresh for games against the Islanders on Saturday and Boston on Sunday. Defenseman Chris Pronger, rehabbing after hand surgery, worked out by himself.
Washington (96 points after Friday's 2-0 loss at Ottawa) outshot the Senators 31-23 but couldn't get a puck past Craig Anderson and remained two points behind Philadelphia in the race for the top spot in the East. The Caps are still seven points ahead of Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division race and four ahead of Boston for the second seed in the conference as they prepare to visit Montreal on Saturday.
Boston (92 points) was still buzzing after Thursday's 7-0 demolition of Montreal on Thursday, a game punctuated by a 3-on-5 goal by Gregory Campbell in the third period. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they don't get to carry any of those goals over into Saturday afternoon's visit by the New York Rangers.
The next five:
Pittsburgh (96 points after Friday's 1-0 home shootout win against New Jersey) continues to chase Philadelphia for the top spot in the East. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 21 shots through overtime and three more in the shootout to move the Pens within two points of the Flyers for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. The Penguins have won three games this week, all in shootouts.
Tampa Bay (89 points after Friday's 4-3 home loss to Carolina) continues to struggle in March. The Lightning got the first goal against the desperate Hurricanes when Simon Gagne scored 7:13 into the game, but were dominated the rest of the way until scoring twice late in the third period to make it close. But the Bolts are now 2-6-4 this month as they head into Saturday's rematch in Raleigh.
Montreal (87 points) will try to turn the page after Thursday's 7-0 rout in Boston. The Habs are back on the ice when they host Washington on Saturday.
New York Rangers (85 points) will try to find its scoring touch when it visits Boston on Saturday, the opener of a four-game trip. The Rangers are 1-0-1 in their last two games, but have scored just two goals -- they beat Florida 1-0 on Tuesday and lost 2-1 in a shootout to Ottawa on Thursday.
Buffalo (83 points after Friday's 4-2 home win against Florida) helped itself by beating the sinking Panthers in the first of back-to-back home games this weekend behind two goals by Drew Stafford. The level of competition figures to rise on Saturday when New Jersey comes to Buffalo.
On the outside looking in:
Carolina (80 points after Friday's 4-3 win at Tampa Bay) looked like it would cruise to victory in the front of a home-and-home series, but needed some heroics by Cam Ward after the Lightning scored twice in less than a minute late in the third period. The 'Canes stayed three points behind Buffalo as they prepare to host Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Toronto (78 points) plays at Detroit on Saturday in its first visit to Joe Louis Arena since Oct. 9, 2008 -- when the Leafs spoiled the Wings' Stanley Cup banner-raising celebration with a 3-2 win. The wins by the Sabres and 'Canes on Friday make this even more of a must-win game for the Leafs.
Vancouver (107 points after Friday's 3-1 win at Atlanta) got 30 saves from Roberto Luongo and moved another step closer to wrapping up the top seed in the Western Conference and winning its first Presidents' Trophy. The Canucks have won nine of their last 10 and have Saturday off before visiting Columbus on Sunday.
Detroit (95 points) hopes to have forward Todd Bertuzzi in the lineup Saturday night when Toronto comes to Joe Louis Arena. He missed Wednesday's game against Vancouver with a back problem. Pavel Datsyuk (lower body), Johan Franzen (groin) and Jonathan Ericsson (flu) definitely won't play, according to coach Mike Babcock.
San Jose (95 points) hopes defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be able to play in Saturday's showdown game at Phoenix. He's listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury, but was able to practice on Friday.
The next five:
Phoenix (93 points) may be without forward Lauri Korpikoski for Saturday's showdown against San Jose at Jobing.com Arena. Korpikoski, one of three Coyotes with a team-high 18 goals, left Thursday's 3-0 win against Columbus with an upper-body injury. Phoenix recalled Ryan Hollweg from AHL San Antonio for depth.
Los Angeles (90 points) practiced Friday in preparation for a Saturday afternoon date with Colorado. Coach Terry Murray said Jonathan Quick will start against the Avs, but rookie Jonathan Bernier will play in one of the next two games, either at Edmonton or at Vancouver.
Nashville (90 points) will try to extend its winning streak to six games when Dallas comes to Bridgestone Arena on Saturday. A win and a loss by Detroit would move the Predators within three points of the first-place Red Wings in the Central Division.
Chicago (88 points) hosts Anaheim on Saturday to start a grinding stretch that will see the Hawks finish with nine games in the final 16 days.
Anaheim (87 points) plays its third game in four nights when it visits Chicago on Saturday. The Ducks recalled forward Matt Beleskey from AHL Syracuse on Friday.
On the outside looking in:
Dallas (86 points) starts a make-or-break trip with a game in Nashville on Saturday. The Stars play their next five games and seven of their last nine away from American Airlines Center.
Calgary (85 points) spent the day getting ready for Saturday night's visit to Edmonton, a must-win game for a team coming off an 0-1-2 swing through California.
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist