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Conferences races getting tighter and tighter

by John Kreiser /
The NHL season is officially in the homestretch -- we passed the three-quarters pole on Friday with all but a handful of teams still in the playoff race.

Here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up after Friday night's games:

Eastern Conference

Division leaders:

Philadelphia (86 points) could be without ace defenseman Chris Pronger for Saturday's visit to Ottawa. Pronger missed the end of Thursday's 4-3 OT win against the Islanders with a hand injury, and the Flyers recalled Erik Gustafsson from AHL Adirondack just in case.

Tampa Bay
(79 points after Friday's 2-1 home win against New Jersey) is getting ready to hit the road for the first time in more than a month. The Bolts take a five-point lead over Washington into Sunday's visit to the Rangers after wrapping up a 12-game homestand with a 7-3-2 record by fending off the Devils.

(75 points) enjoyed the final day of a three-day break in Western Canada. Now comes the hard part -- a visit to Vancouver on Saturday and a trip to Edmonton one night later.

The next five:

(78 points after Friday's 4-1 loss at Carolina) added Alex Kovalev but is still struggling to score -- and falling down early against the Hurricanes didn't help. The Penguins won't have much time to lick their wounds; they're back in action Saturday night in Toronto.

Washington (74 points after Friday's 6-0 home loss to the Rangers) returned home Friday for its first game at the Verizon Center in 13 days -- and lost more than a game. All-Star defenseman Mike Green's return lasted only a couple of minutes before he was driven into the boards and left with an injury. The Caps, minus Green, will try to rebound Saturday night on Long Island.

Montreal (71 points) can't afford more performances like Thursday's 5-4 home loss to Toronto, in which the Leafs scored three times on the power play. Adding defensive defenseman Brent Sopel, obtained Thursday from Atlanta, should help when Carolina comes to the Bell Centre on Saturday.

New York Rangers
(70 points after Friday's 6-0 win at Washington) blew out the Capitals for the second time in their four meetings this season. Erik Christensen, known more for his shootout prowess, had a career-high 4 points (2 goals and 2 assists) as New York finished 2-1-0 on a three-game trip. The Rangers host Tampa Bay on Sunday and Buffalo on Tuesday.

(67 points after Friday's 4-1 home win against Pittsburgh) got a win it desperately needed by beating the injury-riddled Penguins. But the Hurricanes lost captain Eric Staal late in the second period -- he left with an upper-body injury after being leveled by Pens defenseman Matt Niskanen and didn't travel with the team to Montreal for Saturday night's game against the Canadiens.

On the outside looking in:

Buffalo (64 points after Friday's 4-2 win against Ottawa) has won back-to-back home games against the Thrashers and Senators, but faces a tougher test when Detroit comes to HSBC Arena on Saturday. The Sabres really need a win -- their next seven games will be in the road.

(61 points) dropped six points behind the eighth-place Hurricanes, but has two chances to help itself this weekend. The banged-up Penguins come to the Air Canada Centre on Saturday, and the Leafs visit struggling Atlanta on Sunday.

Atlanta (61 points after Friday's 2-1 home shootout loss to Florida) saw another much-needed point go sailing away when Florida escaped Phillips Arena with a 2-1 shootout win. The point was the Thrashers' first in five games, but they're just 1-7-2 in their last 10 games.

Florida (59 points after Friday's 2-1 shootout win at Atlanta) had to have two points -- and got them by winning the shootout against the Thrashers. The Panthers head home for a Sunday game against New Jersey, but may be without forwards Rostislav Olesz, who left with a knee injury, and Chris Higgins, who hurt his hand.

Western Conference

Division leaders:

Vancouver (87 points) has won two of the first three games on a six-game homestand that continues Saturday night with a rare visit by Boston. The Bruins haven't been to Vancouver since October 2008.

Detroit (80 points) should get some reinforcements when it begins a five-game trip Saturday in Buffalo. Mike Modano, out three months with a bad wrist injury, plans to return. So does Valtteri Filppula, who's missed the last eight games with a knee injury. After the short trip to Buffalo, the Wings head West for four games next week.

San Jose
(78 points after Friday's 4-3 shootout win at Calgary) not only survived a month in which it played 10 of 13 games on the road, it roared into the Pacific Division lead. The Sharks come home for their next six games with a six-game winning streak and play 13 of their last 19 at the Shark Tank.

The next five:

Phoenix (75 points after Friday's 5-2 loss at Columbus) has dropped two in a row after winning eight straight. The Coyotes led 2-0 less than eight minutes into Friday's game at Columbus, but hurt themselves with penalties (three power-play goals allowed) and fell to 2-2-0 on a five-game trip that ends Sunday in Chicago.

Los Angeles (72 points) will try to build on Thursday's homecoming win against Minnesota when slumping Colorado (11 losses in 12 games) comes to Staples Center for an afternoon game on Saturday.

Minnesota (72 points after Friday's 3-2 overtime win at Anaheim) climbed into sixth when Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored a breakaway goal with 6.3 seconds left in OT-- just 30 seconds after Cal Clutterbuck was robbed on his own breakaway attempt. The Wild get the weekend off before Chicago comes to the Xcel Energy Center on Monday night.

Calgary (71 points after Friday's 4-3 shootout loss to San Jose) moved back into the top eight by getting a point against the Sharks. But the Flames feel they should have had two -- Ryane Clowe scored the tying goal for the Sharks with 2:34 left in regulation. They have a day off before hosting St. Louis on Sunday.

Chicago (70 points) starts a stretch of five games in seven days when Phoenix comes to the United Center on Sunday. The Hawks have won three in a row.

On the outside looking in:

Dallas (70 points) needs a win when Nashville comes to the American Airlines Center on Saturday. The Stars helped themselves by winning 4-1 in Detroit on Thursday, but they head to the West Coast for their next four games.

Nashville (70 points) is looking for offense after back-to-back shutout losses, so the Predators are turning to 2010 Hobey Baker winner Blake Geoffrion, who was recalled from Milwaukee on Friday along with Matt Halischuk. When he takes the ice, Geoffrion will be the first fourth-generation NHLer -- his great-grandfather (Howie Morenz) and grandfather (Bernie Geoffrion) are Hall of Famers, and his father, Danny Geoffrion, played for Montreal and Winnipeg.

Anaheim (69 points after Friday's 3-2 overtime loss to Minnesota) grabbed a point when Francois Beauchemin scored with 2:00 left in regulation. But some poor defensive coverage in OT cost the Ducks a much-needed second point. They've dropped five in a row, including a pair of 3-2 losses at home this week. They get Colorado on Sunday after the Avs play at L.A. on Saturday afternoon.

Columbus (68 points after Friday's 5-2 win against Phoenix) improved to 8-1-1 in its last 10 thanks to rookie Matt Calvert, who had a natural hat trick as the Jackets rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to move within two points of eighth place. They start a road trip Sunday in Nashville.

St. Louis (65 points after Friday's 5-0 win at Edmonton) has gotten a big boost from newcomer Chris Stewart, who scored twice in the rout of the Oilers. Stewart, who came in last week's deal that sent Erik Johnson to Colorado a week ago, has 6 goals in his first five games with the Blues, eclipsing a team record set by Brett Hull. The Blues moved within five points of a playoff berth and need a win at Calgary on Sunday.

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