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Atlantic, East will come down to the very last minute

by Chuck Gormley / NHL.com

The Flyers have needed extra time to decide four of their last five games and all four were against division opponents.    Watch Flyers video
So, you want to make travel plans for the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, right?

Good luck.

Let's see. We've got the eighth-seeded Bruins visiting the top-seeded Canadiens next week, right?

Scratch that.

Make it the eighth-seeded Flyers visiting the top-seeded Penguins, right?

(Erase, erase)

OK, we've got the fifth-seeded Rangers visiting the fourth-seeded Devils, right?

What's that? The Senators just won and knocked the Rangers from fifth to sixth?

If the NHL schedule makers wanted mass confusion over the final week of the regular season, they succeeded.

One look at the final seven days of the Atlantic Division schedule is enough to make your head spin.

"I said a month ago no team is really out of it and no team is safe," Rangers forward Brendan Shanahan said. "Yeah, there might be a couple teams out of it now and there might be one or two teams safe, but there's a lot to be decided yet."

While the mathematic possibilities are virtually endless, one thing appears clear heading into the final week: the Penguins and Canadiens will win their respective divisions and one of those teams will earn the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Aside from that, anything goes.

The Capitals could catch the Hurricanes and win the Southeast. Or, they could fall just short and miss the playoffs altogether. The Flyers could catch the Devils and earn the fourth seed and home ice in the first round. Or they could miss the playoffs altogether.

The Bruins could make a late push and catch the fifth-place Senators. Or they could miss the playoffs altogether.

"It's been like that the last couple years," said Rangers center Scott Gomez when asked how he feels about facing the Penguins twice, the Islanders twice and the Devils once in the final five games. "If anything, you're kind of sick of seeing these teams. As much as you hate seeing them, you know you have to play them to get where you want to go."

And more than likely, play them again in the playoffs.

By the time all is said and done and Conference finalists are determined, there is a very good chance two teams will meet each other 15 times in one season -- eight times in the regular season and seven more times in the playoffs. And we're not even counting preseason games.

"I think it's great," Flyers goaltender Marty Biron said. "It makes every point that much more important."

Biron should know. The Flyers have needed extra time to decide four of their last five games and all four were against division opponents.

In a span of eight days the Flyers saw:

* Jeff Carter beat Rangers goalie Stephen Valiquette with a game-winning shootout goal;

* Mike Richards fend off Rangers defenseman Marek Malik and beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in overtime;

* Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner beat Biron for a shootout game-winner;

* And Daniel Briere fake the stick out of the hand of Islanders goaltender Wade Dubielewicz for a shootout game-winner.

If your pulse wasn't racing in those game, well, you don't have one.

"I just like the character of this team," Briere said of the Flyers, who have gone 10-3-4 since a franchise record 10-game losing streak. "I know it's been questioned a lot this year, but when everything is on the line, this team has been showing up and it's exciting to see."

What will be even more exciting will be the final weekend of the regular season when it is entirely possible that all eight playoff positions change hands in a span of 48 hours.

In those final two days, the Bruins may have their playoff fate determined at home against the Sabres.

The Canadiens could clinch a conference title at home against the Maple Leafs.

The Capitals could clinch a playoff berth at home against the Panthers.

The Rangers could climb past the Devils with a win in New Jersey.

And the Penguins could clinch a conference title with a win in Philadelphia.

So don't book those playoff flights just yet. The NHL's week of musical chairs is just getting started.

Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Richards  shoots the puck past New York Islanders goalie Wade Dubielewicz on Saturday, March 29, 2008 in Uniondale,NY.
Around the Atlantic -- If it's getting close to playoff time, you better believe guys all around the NHL are playing with aches and pains. Gomez is playing with extra padding around his bruised ribs. Briere is playing with extra padding on a bruised shoulder. Asked the other day if he is close to 100 percent, Gomez replied: "I don't know about that. This time of year there aren't many guys 100 percent. It is what it is." … One person who will be happy when regular-season shootouts give way to playoff overtimes will be Biron, who has allowed 13 goals on 20 shootout attempts this season. That's why it was amusing to see Biron offering advice to his teammates on how to beat Islanders goalie Wade Dubielewicz in the Flyers' shootout win in New York on Saturday night. "I wanted to warn the guys that Dubie is a good goalie in shootouts and he uses the poke check a lot." Sure enough, Dubielewicz successfully poke checked the puck from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter before missing on Briere. Did Briere heed Biron's advice? "I don't know. Danny's a smart player, but if you want to give me an assist, go ahead." … Can you imagine a team general manager tailgating with fans before a game? That's what Islanders GM Garth Snow was doing prior to Saturday night's game with the Flyers. Snow and Isles defenseman Bruno Gervais were joined by team broadcasters Howie Rose and Billy Jaffe for a pre-game parking lot party with members of Islandermania, the official message board on the Islanders' Web site. "There was a great showing at the tailgate party," Snow said. "Islandermania has put together a first-class site that we're proud to have as our official message board." …  There is a movement afoot in Pittsburgh to make veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar a bona fide candidate for the Norris Trophy. "He definitely should be (a finalist), and the media needs to recognize that," Penguins teammate Ryan Whitney told The Tribune-Review. Gonchar, now in his 13th NHL season, entered the weekend with 61 points and a plus-13 rating while logging a team-high 25:54 a game. Gonchar has never won the Norris, placing fourth in 2001-02. … Fans who attended the Penguins-Islanders game on Thursday night could find themselves on the big screen. Dreamworks SKG shot live footage during the game for its newest romantic comedy, She's Out of My League. The two main characters in the script are Penguins fans, and the lead actors attended the game in Penguins gear for crowd shots.



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