Montreal missed its chance to clinch. Philadelphia took a giant step toward the playoffs and the New York Rangers saw their postseason hopes take a big hit.
Such was the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night.
The Montreal Canadiens could have locked up a playoff berth with a win on Long Island -- and were within 2:01 of doing just that. But the New York Islanders spoiled the party, tying the game on a goal by Frans Nielsen and winning 4-3 in a shootout.
Philadelphia took over seventh with a 2-0 win at Toronto, bumping Boston to eighth. The Rangers' 5-2 loss at Buffalo kept New York stuck in ninth, three points behind Boston.
Here's a closer look at how the night went in the playoff race:
Montreal was just 121 seconds from locking up a playoff spot before Nielsen erased a 3-2 deficit and then scored one of two goals in the shootout against Jaroslav Halak as the Habs lost at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
"It's disappointing," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said. "There were only a couple of minutes left in the game. I thought we were in a good position."
Martin Biron made 28 saves for the Islanders (34-35-10), who were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs on Monday night when the Boston Bruins reached overtime at Washington. Biron is 7-0-2 in his last nine starts and helped the Isles avoid a season-series sweep by Montreal.
"We didn't beat them all year so we wanted to come out and get a little bit of revenge," rookie center John Tavares said. "It was a good win by us. I thought we dominated, especially in the third period."
Habs lose to Isles in shootout (Getty Images)
Blake Comeau continued his torrid scoring pace 12:29 into the game when he one-timed a nice backhand feed from Sean Bergenheim past Halak as the Isles grabbed a 1-0 lead. It was Comeau's 17th goal of the season and fifth in his last four games, and snapped Halak's shutout streak at 156:30 -- Halak came to Long Island after consecutive shutout wins over Philadelphia and Buffalo.
"I thought he played well," Martin said of his goalie. "He didn't have a chance when you look at the goals."
Montreal tied it when Tomas Plekanec notched his 25th goal of the season at 7:08 of the second period. Plekanec, an unrestricted free agent on July 1, took a pass from Andrei Kostitsyn and fired a wrister from the left circle that beat Biron through the legs to make it 1-1.
Brian Gionta gave the Habs a 2-1 lead when he scored on the power play just 2:36 later. After Josh Bailey was whistled for his second penalty of the night, Gionta pounced on Josh Gorges' rebound and slammed it past Biron for his 26th goal of the season.
"They came out pretty strong and we came out fairly flat," Gionta said. "I thought the second period we played pretty good, and the third period we sat back too much."
Indeed the Habs did, as Bergenheim tied the game 2:01 into the third. With the teams at even strength, Bergenheim made a nice move around Habs defenseman Roman Hamrlik and fired a laser past Halak to make it 2-2. It was Bergenheim's 10th goal of the season.
"Right now, I think even though we're out, everybody's loose," said Bergenheim, who had a three-point night and was named the game's first star. "We're playing with more of a positive atmosphere with winning games. When we're down and we still get the win, I think it shows that this team has grown."
But Lapierre put Montreal back in front at 6:20, when Mathieu Darche sent him in on a breakaway. Lapierre, who entered with just six goals in 73 games, beat Biron with a backhander to make it 3-2.
Nielsen tied the game with his 12th goal of the season. The Danish center, who has established himself as a solid two-way player, took a pass from Richard Park and ripped a wrist shot from the slot past Halak to make it 3-3. The Isles outshot Montreal 12-9 in the third period.
"I was looking at the scoreboard in the third period," Plekanec admitted. "I saw the Rangers were down (in Buffalo). But we were trying to focus on our game."
The Islanders had a golden opportunity to win the game in overtime when Andrei Kostitsyn was whistled for hooking with 1:49 remaining. But they failed to convert and the game went to a shootout.
Montreal came up empty in the shootout, as Biron denied both Lapierre and Mike Cammalleri. Matt Moulson scored in the opening round before Nielsen beat Halak via the backhand.
"It's just an empty feeling knowing that we let that extra point slip away," Gorges said. "We didn't play our best tonight, and that's the disappointing part. It's frustrating right now because that was a big extra point."
The Flyers appear to have found their game just in time.
With a playoff berth slipping away after a slump that saw them lose seven of eight games, the Flyers got a 23-save performance by Brian Boucher to beat Toronto in the Leafs' last home game of the season.
The win, which followed Sunday's 4-3 victory over Detroit, gave the Flyers 86 points and lifted them into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, four ahead of the ninth-place Rangers. The Flyers end their season with a home-and-home series against the Rangers, who play Toronto at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday before the Flyers come to town two nights later.
"They're all big right now and we can't afford to take our foot off the gas," Boucher said. "We've been guilty of doing that lately and we're paying for it now to try and scrape into the playoffs."
Meanwhile, the Leafs are preparing for another early spring. Despite improvement in the final few weeks of the season, they haven't made the playoffs since 2004.
"I would be frustrated if I would be them for sure," said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who made 21 saves. "You pay your ticket, (it's) very expensive and there's not much to show for it. I think people have to hopefully keep in mind the last little while here. Since March 3, we've been playing really well, I think there's a lot of hope in this dressing, a lot of good young guys with lots of talent.
"There's something to be enthusiastic about so hopefully we're not going to disappoint the fans next year."
Only 11 of the 20 players who dressed on opening night were in the lineup for Tuesday's home finale.
"We're a different team (now)," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "Whatever people want to say about our team, you can't compare the first half or the first two-thirds with the last third because it's an entirely different team.
"This team has an attitude when they go out, a little bit more of a swagger."
There wasn't a whole lot of swagger against the Flyers, who got a first-period power-play goal from Claude Giroux and an empty-netter by Mike Richards.
That was more than enough support for Boucher, who earned the 17th shutout and 100th win of his career. His best stop came late in the third period, when he dove across the crease to keep a rolling puck out of the net.
"It's nice to see him play well and nice to see him get his 100th, especially in this big a game," defenseman Chris Pronger said after Boucher ended a 50-game shutout drought.
Giroux gave the Flyers the lead at 10:59 of the first period, just six seconds after Mikhail Grabovski was sent off for roughing. He raced down the slot, took a nice pass from Danny Briere and dunked it past Giguere for his 16th goal of the season.
The Flyers preserved the lead by killing off all six of Toronto's power plays, extending the Leafs' drought to 0-for-30.
-- John Kreiser
The Sabres are going into the playoffs as the Northeast Division champions. The Rangers may not be going at all.
The Sabres wrapped up the Northeast title by beating New York in a game that dealt the Rangers' playoff hopes a severe blow. Rookie callup Tyler Ennis had a goal and set up two others as the Sabres officially eliminated Ottawa and assured themselves of no worse than the third seed in the East.
"After the past couple of years, to get back in and win the division is a big step for us," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
The Rangers, who had their 5-0-1 run ended, have to win at home against Toronto on Wednesday to have their home-and-home series against the Flyers this weekend mean anything.
Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller outplayed New York's Henrik Lundqvist, making 28 saves. Lundqvist stopped 13 of 16 shots before being lifted after Jochen Hecht's goal 5:17 into the second period put the Sabres ahead 3-2.
"Because I felt he needed to come out," was coach John Tortorella's response when asked why he lifted his star goaltender in a 3-2 game.
Lundqvist said he was surprised by the change. "It's up to John," he said. "I have to deal with it."
"We didn't play well enough. We have another game tomorrow, and we need to be better from the goaltender on out." -- John Tortorella
The Rangers got off to a fast start when Brandon Prust put in a shot from the slot off a broken play 6:57 into the game. Buffalo tied the game exactly three minutes later on a power-play goal by Derek Roy on a shot that beat Lundqvist high to the short side, then went ahead at 14:56 when Drew Stafford's wide-angled shot from below the right faceoff dot went through the five-hole on Lundqvist.
Rangers rookie PA Parenteau tied the game by nudging home a power-play goal at 18:18, capping an up-and-down first period that saw the teams combine for 25 shots -- 13 by New York.
Hecht put the Sabres ahead to stay and ended Lundqvist's night when he scored on a stoppable shot from the right circle. Miller preserved the lead at 9:16 with the save of the night, a diving stick-and-blocker stop on a wide-open blast by Marian Gaborik at the end of a 3-on-1 break.
Miller was rewarded with a lengthy standing ovation from the sellout crowd that turned out for the Sabres' last regular-season home game.
"That was one for the books," Ruff said. "That was an absolutely fabulous save. I think our guys built momentum off of that and we really went after them."
Defenseman Toni Lydman made it 4-2 at 13:22 when he came late on a 3-on-2 break following a turnover and a bad line change and beat replacement goaltender Alex Auld from the high slot.
The Rangers had problems all night coping with Buffalo's defense, which joined the play early and often.
"They made some good plays when they entered over the blue line and we had some problems coming back,” Lundqvist said. "They’re probably one of the better teams in the league to join the rush, and that’s how they beat us tonight."
Tortorella said the save by Miller and the bad line change that led to the fourth goal were the turning points of the game.
"Gaby throws it back towards the short side and gets it away quick enough, but Miller came across hard and it’s just a great save,” he said. "It was an important part of the game, and a real turning point, because a few minutes later we just have an awful line change that costs us a goal."
Ennis capped the scoring 2:06 into the third when he banged in a pass by Steve Montador, who had picked off a pass and carried down the right wing before backhanding a pass across the slot.
"It feels good," Miller said of the division title and a return to the playoffs. "It's something we were hoping to accomplish at the start of the season. It's one stop along the way."
The Rangers know they'll have to come up with a much better effort against the improved Leafs to keep their season alive.
"We didn't play well enough," Tortorella said. "We have another game tomorrow, and we need to be better from the goaltender on out."