The playoff chase in the Eastern Conference changes rapidly as the days click off the calendar. There are tight races for first overall, for first in the three divisions and, of course, for eighth in the Conference as the Devils and Maple Leafs add their hats into an already crowded field around the periphery of the playoff field.
Around the East this week focuses on the races that will leave you trying to catch your breath:
Hot on Philly's heels:
For months, it appeared the Flyers were a lock for the top spot in the Eastern Conference; but those days are long gone. The Bruins, Penguins and Capitals are nipping ever so close with 84 points apiece.
Boston, in fact, could take over first in the Conference on Tuesday. The Bruins would have to beat Montreal at Bell Centre and the Flyers would have to lose to Edmonton in regulation on their home ice. Boston would own the tiebreaker aginst the Flyers because it has more points in the season series.
Philadelphia has lost four straight for the first time this season, and is coming off a 7-0 loss to the Rangers that prompted captain Mike Richards
to say the players are not just on a different page, but "different chapters, maybe."
Boston closed the gap on the Flyers with its seven-game winning streak that finally got snapped this past Saturday in an overtime loss to Pittsburgh. Bruins center David Krejci
has 11 points during the 7-0-1 stretch.
Washington won its fifth straight game Monday to jump into a virtual tie with the Bruins at 84 points. Philadelphia and Boston have two games in hand on the Capitals.
The tie-breaking scenarios don't look good for the Penguins either. Pittsburgh has played two more games and has five fewer non-shootout wins than the Flyers. The Penguins obviously have to overtake the Flyers to finish any higher than fourth.
Habbin' it their way:
Montreal isn't going to roll over just because Boston has a shot at the top seed. The Canadiens are on their own mission to win the Northeast Division title and could close within three points of first place with a regulation win Tuesday against the Bruins. It would be Montreal's fifth straight win.
The Canadiens are doing it without Andrei Markov
, Jaroslav Spacek
and Josh Gorges
on defense, but Carey Price
has been excellent and Hal Gill
has been the unlikeliest of offensive stars with goals in back-to-back games. The Habs have scored 15 goals during the past four games.
has had a relatively quiet season and Scott Gomez
has struggled, but the Canadiens have stepped up anyway. They seem pretty secure in their playoff berth now, but a shot at a top-three seed is not totally out of the question, especially since they play the Bruins one more time after Tuesday's game.
The amazing race:
The race for first in the Southeast Division figures to go down to the wire between Washington and Tampa Bay. It's just too bad the Capitals and Lightning won't play each other again this season.
At least they finished their season series with some flair Monday night.
The Capitals got a late goal from Alexander Semin
to tie it and Alex Ovechkin
won it in the shootout. Braden Holtby
was the unlikely goaltending hero for Washington in relief on Michal Neuvirth
, who was struck in the mask by a hard shot from Nate Thompson
early in the first period. Holtby did not allow a goal in relief.
Washington has won five in a row and, according to coach Bruce Boudreau
, the team might have survived a huge scare Monday night. Nicklas Backstrom
left the game in the second period with what Boudreau said was a fractured thumb, but the coach was confident that it won't cost the Caps' No. 1 center any time.
Backstrom has never missed a game in his career (313 straight games). The Capitals play again Wednesday.
The Lightning are winless in their past four games despite allowing only nine goals in the stretch. It's been six straight games since they've scored more than two goals in a game. Steven Stamkos
snapped a four-game run without a point with an assist in Monday's shootout loss.
Using games in hand:
Buffalo jumped Carolina and moved into eighth with back-to-back road wins. The Sabres can build on their one-point lead Tuesday at Pittsburgh, and they 6-0-1 in their past seven road games.
Buffalo entered the weekend with three games in hand on the Hurricanes, and has already won two of them. Carolina doesn't play again until Wednesday against Atlanta. Sabres leading scorer Drew Stafford
has goals in two straight games after going eight straight without one.
The Sabres won Sunday without Ryan Miller
in net for only the second time since Nov. 24. Jhonas Enroth
has won his past two starts spelling Miller, who has started 39 of the last 41 games but didn't dress in the other two.
Devils still surging:
Still 12th and still eight points back of a playoff spot, the Devils are also still a threat to the teams ahead of them because of their historic surge. They are on pace to finish the regular season with the biggest points percentage differential from one half of the season to the next in NHL history.
Their points percentage for the first 41 games of the season was .268 (22 points gained out of a possible 82), but their points percentage in the first 24 games of the second half is .875 (42 points gained out of a possible 48).
The Devils have 17 games remaining, including eight against teams that, like them, do not currently occupy a playoff spot. They have won nine of their past 10 games against teams that as of Tuesday are inside the Eastern Conference's top eight.
has scored a goal in three straight games and has 14 goals during the current 24-game stretch. He is tied with Alex Ovechkin
for the League lead with nine game-winning goals.
Leafs lying in the weeds:
If the Maple Leafs are going to lose in regulation like they did Saturday, when James Reimer
was pulled after two periods and Tyler Bozak
was taken off the top line, at least they picked the right team to do it against. The blow is slightly easier to take against a Western Conference team like the Blackhawks because it does not influence the playoff chances of any of their direct competitors in the East.
That being said, the Leafs are still five points back of Buffalo with one fewer game remaining than the Sabres and Devils.
Toronto went 2-1 during a three-game stretch against top teams, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago. The Leafs are at the Islanders on Tuesday before starting another three-game stretch against playoff contenders -- Philadelphia, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. All three of those games are at home, where Toronto is 15-12-7 this season.
If the Leafs survive that three-game set, they will finish the season with eight of their last 12 games away from Air Canada Centre. They have a 14-16-1 road record.
The Rangers' offense has sprung to life this past weekend with 11 goals. Now they have to hope they left some of the goals for their final 14 games because while they have a hold on the No. 7 spot with 72 points, they also have played three more games than Buffalo and New Jersey and two more than Carolina, Toronto and Atlanta.
New York scored four goals in a win against Ottawa and then pounded Philadelphia with a well-documented seven goals, including four from Ryan Callahan
, in a Sundfay's shutout. The Rangers scored just four goals during a three-game losing streak prior to their win in Ottawa.
returned Sunday and played almost 15 minutes after missing two weeks with concussion-related symptoms. Gaborik has had a forgettable season (38 points in 48 games) by his standards, but he can still have some influence on the Rangers' season with a strong finish.
What's the deal with Atlanta?:
Atlanta won Sunday for just the third time in 14 games since the All-Star break and only the fifth time in the 23 games since they last won two in a row. The Thrashers are No. 11 in the East with 65 points, one more than the Devils.
However, the reason analysts like the NHL Network's Craig Button believe the Devils are a bigger threat in the playoff chase than the Thrashers is because of how the teams are playing. During the past two months, New Jersey is 20-2-2 while Atlanta is 5-12-5.
Atlanta does have an opportunity starting Wednesday to put in its claim as a true playoff contender. Four of the Thrashers next six games are against teams they are in direct competition with for a playoff berth, including two against the Devils and one each against Carolina and Buffalo. Those are four-point swing games that Atlanta has to win.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl