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8 days, 7 playoff berths left

by Staff
With eight days remaining in the regular season, nearly half of this year's 16 playoff berths have yet to be determined.

Nine teams -- San Jose, Detroit, Calgary, Vancouver and now Chicago in the West; Boston, Washington, New Jersey and Carolina in the East -- are assured that they'll still be playing when the Stanley Cup Playoffs get under way. However, none of that group knows exactly where it will finish within the conference standings.

Here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up:

Eastern Conference:

Boston (Northeast) has long since wrapped up its division title and clinched first in the East by blanking the Rangers 1-0 on Saturday. Washington (Southeast) has clinched its division.  New Jersey inched closer to an Atlantic Division title as it got back on track with a 3-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres.

But only four sports in the East remain up for grabs. Carolina joined the playoff party with a 3-2 overtime win against Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia earned another valuable point with Saturday's 4-3 shootout loss at Ottawa. With 95 points, the Flyers remain in fourth place in the East, ahead of Carolina since they have a game in hand.

The Flyers host Florida on Tuesday, visit the Rangers on Thursday and the Islanders on Saturday before finishing against the Rangers at home on Sunday.

Carolina is the hottest team in the League, as Saturday's win against the Penguins was its eighth in a row. The Hurricanes have also won 11 straight at the RBC Center, which is the longest home streak in the NHL. Goalie Cam Ward was the NHL's Player of the Month for March after going 10-1-2 with a 1.98 goals-against average and has been the biggest factor in his team's surge.

The Hurricanes host the Islanders on Tuesday and Buffalo on Thursday before ending their season at New Jersey on Saturday.

Pittsburgh (93 points) has been nearly unbeatable since changing coaches in mid-February. The Penguins are 15-2-4 since Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench after Michel Therrien was let go. GM Ray Shero found some wingers for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin by landing Bill Guerin from the Islanders and Chris Kunitz from Anaheim.

Marc-Andre Fleury has stepped up his play since the coaching change, and Crosby had a 16-game points streak snapped on Saturday night. Bylsma's up-tempo style has been a much better fit for the Pens' personnel, and they've climbed from 10th in the East into the middle of the pack.

The Pens visit Florida on Sunday and Tampa Bay on Tuesday before the Islanders come to Mellon Arena on Thursday. Pittsburgh finishes at Montreal on Saturday.

Montreal (92 points) has a firmer grip on a playoff spot as it cruised past Toronto by a 6-2 score at Air Canada Centre. The Canadiens struggled after the All-Star break, leading GM Bob Gainey to fire coach Guy Carbonneau and go behind the bench himself. After a 1-3-2 beginning under Gainey, the Habs are 5-0-1 in their last six, alone in seventh place, and appear to be back on track.

The Canadiens play four games in six days, starting at home against Ottawa on Monday and continuing with visits to the Rangers on Tuesday and Bruins on Thursday before the Penguins come to the Bell Centre on Saturday.

The New York Rangers (89 points after a 1-0 loss at Boston on Saturday) have had an up-and-down season. They rode an easy early schedule and a raft of shootout wins to a fast start, struggled badly enough to get coach Tom Renney fired and were playing better under John Tortorella -- at least before a 4-2 loss at Carolina on Thursday and Saturday's loss at Boston. The Rangers still have the inside track on the last spot, but need more from their power play and better performances in the third period.

The Rangers have home games against Montreal on Tuesday and Philadelphia on Thursday before visiting the Flyers on Sunday.

Florida (87 points) is desperately trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. The Panthers' hopes looked all but gone 10 days ago after they blew a 3-1 third-period lead in a 5-3 loss at Buffalo, with a visit to Philadelphia looming 24 hours later. But coach Peter DeBoer switched goalies, turning to Craig Anderson after Tomas Vokoun couldn't hold the lead in Buffalo, and was rewarded with three consecutive wins to get back in the race -- only to stumble at home against the pesky Thrashers on Friday.

The Panthers host Pittsburgh on Sunday, then play at Philadelphia on Tuesday and Atlanta on Thursday before finishing at home against Washington on Saturday.

Buffalo (85 points) came up short on Saturday in a 3-2 loss to New Jersey and may have seen its playoff hopes irreparably damaged when starting goaltender Ryan Miller went down with a high ankle sprain in a win over the Rangers on Feb. 21. The Sabres went 4-7-2 without Miller, then won twice over the weekend when he returned before losing 3-2 in OT to Atlanta on Wednesday. However, they rallied to win 5-4 at Washington on Friday, keeping their hopes alive.

The Sabres host Detroit on Monday, visit Toronto on Wednesday and Carolina on Thursday, then finish at home against Boston.

Western Conference:

San Jose (Pacific) and Detroit (Central) have long since wrapped up their divisions. The Sharks have a six-point lead over the Wings for first in the conference despite Saturday's 5-2 loss to Anaheim. Calgary and Vancouver both clinched playoff berths on Thursday. The Canucks and Flames have 94 points, but Calgary owns the Northwest Division lead thanks to Vancouver's 5-3 loss at Edmonton on Saturday. Calgary, which lost 4-0 at Minnesota on Friday, has two more victories than the Canucks. They meet at G.M. Place on Tuesday night, with the winner likely having the inside track to third place in the West.

The loser will battle Chicago (95 points) for fourth place and the last home-ice berth in the opening round.

Columbus (89 points) can almost taste its first playoff berth since entering the NHL in 2000 following Saturday's 5-4 overtime loss to Nashville. Rookie goaltender Steve Mason has more shutouts (10) than any first-year netminder since Tony Esposito. He's been helped by the tight-checking style of play used by Ken Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup in 1999 while coaching Dallas.

The Jackets have four games remaining, starting with a home-and-home series with Chicago Sunday and Wednesday. They visit St. Louis on Friday and host Minnesota on Saturday.

Anaheim is on a roll, winning nine of its last 10 to climb into seventh in the West, including an impressive 5-2 win at San Jose on Saturday night. Coach Randy Carlyle has turned to Jonas Hiller (28 saves against the Sharks) instead of Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal, and the Ducks' big guns -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger -- have been producing offensively. Getzlaf had four assists on Saturday.

Anaheim finishes a home-and-home with San Jose at the Honda Center on Sunday. The Ducks then get four days off before hosting Dallas on Friday and visiting Phoenix on Saturday.

St. Louis (86 points) fell into ninth place on Saturday due to a 5-4 overtime loss at Dallas. The Blues have battled their way from last in the West near midseason into contention for a playoff berth despite a M*A*S*H unit's worth of injuries. The biggest reason for the surge has been the play of Chris Mason, who's led them to a 14-5-3 record in their last 22 games.

The Blues have two of their last three on the road. They visit non-playoff teams Phoenix on Tuesday and Colorado on Sunday, sandwiched around a home game against Columbus on Saturday.

Nashville (86 points) moved into eighth place with a 5-4 shootout win against Columbus on Saturday. The Preds don't have a lot of talent, but they do a lot with what they have. In another season, rookie goaltender Pekka Rinne would be the talk of the NHL; this season, he's been overshadowed by Columbus' Steve Mason, who was on the losing end on Saturday. Jason Arnott returned from a concussion to score twice and add an assist.  David Legwand will be back soon after the Predators lost one of their best forwards, Martin Erat, to a broken leg in Sunday's win at Detroit. Nashville and St. Louis are tied in points, but the Predators have one more victory.

Nashville hosts Chicago on Tuesday before ending the season with visits to Detroit and Minnesota.

Minnesota (83 points) will have to get hot to make the playoffs -- something the up-and-down Wild haven't been able to do down the stretch. Marian Gaborik has contributed much-needed offense since his return from hip surgery, but the Wild haven't won back-to-back games since late February and went 6-6-4 in March. They will probably need to win out to have a chance.

The Wild visit Detroit on Sunday afternoon, then host Dallas on Tuesday and Nashville on Friday before finishing at Columbus on Saturday.

Edmonton (83 points) kept its slim hopes alive with a 5-3 win against Vancouver at Rexall Place on Saturday. The Oilers had dropped six of their last seven and needed a 51-save performance by Dwayne Roloson at Anaheim last Friday to get that one win.  Despite a lot of young talent, the Oilers have struggled to score, and that lack of offense could be what dooms them; like the Wild, they'll likely have to win out to have any hope of making the top eight. Sam Gagner had a goal and two assists against the Canucks, while Roloson made 43 saves.

The Oilers don't leave Alberta for the rest of the season. They host Los Angeles on Tuesday and Calgary on Friday, then visit the Flames on Saturday in the back end of a home-and-home.

Dallas (80 points) edged St. Louis in a 5-4 overtime win but was officially eliminated from playoff contention on Saturday. It is the first time the Stars have missed the playoffs since the 2001-02 season.



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