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Down the stretch: Big day for the West

by David Kalan
With 36 days left in the regular season, the playoff races in each conference are simply on fire. With points at such a premium as teams jockey for position, every game has added significance. is here to give you a Down the Stretch daily that will highlight what you need to know about that night's games.

Here is the installment for Sunday, March 6:

The West gets wilder: The craziness that is the tight Western Conference race this year is old hat for North American hockey scribes at this point. The logjam typical of a young season never disappeared over the 2010-11 campaign's dog days and with just over a month left before the playoffs, as the fourth and 11th spots in the West are still separated by a grand total of six points.

Today that race could get even more jumbled as five Western Conference teams are in action, each of which is still in the hunt for a postseason berth, and only one which -- Vancouver -- seems a safe bet to make it. While those Canucks, who currently lead the Presidents' Trophy race by five points over Philadelphia, appear a lock to be playing this spring, their opponent tonight, Anaheim, still has work to do. The Ducks are just one point back of eighth place Los Angeles at the start of play Sunday, but being close and being there are different animals.

If the Ducks can't pick up those two points, they could easily be leapfrogged by Nashville, which is just a point out itself ahead of tonight's showdown with Calgary, and failing that, Minnesota, with a win over the Sabres, could hop over the Ducks with a win at home against Buffalo. The Flames, meanwhile, will be hard pressed to fend off the Predators tonight at the Scotiabank Saddledome. While Calgary is sitting pretty at No. 7, a regulation loss to the Preds and a win by Anaheim over Vancouver would knock the Flames out of the top eight.

The East's best in 2011: Many games over the course of a season can be billed as a potential playoff or Conference Finals preview, but it's unusual to see that potential preview a season early. New Jersey and New York might be having just that today at the Coliseum, however. While the Devils' much-ballyhooed second half has helped them cut down a 27-point postseason deficit to just nine ahead of the season's final month, many have missed that the Islanders are having quite the streak of their own.

New Jersey is on a remarkable tear, going 19-2-2 in its last 23 games after being last place in the League at the season's mid-way point. Since then the Devils have played themselves into the postseason conversation even if a berth is still a long shot, but the Isles are just three points in the Devils' wake, and have the second most points in the Eastern Conference since Dec. 15.

The Devil have been victim to what was a stunningly miserable first half of the year, and the Islanders, have been largely undone by a stretch in which they lost 20 of 21 games. With both teams showing what just might be their true colors, however, a glimpse of the East's future could be on display today on the Island even if both teams are on the brink of spending this spring at home.

Retaking the Southeast: For the last three seasons the Southeast Division has been Washington's domain. The Capitals have won three consecutive division titles and were pegged by many after last year's Presidents' Trophy-winning campaign to take a fourth without much trouble. But an unexpected contender has emerged in Tampa Bay, and with 2008 No. 1 overall selection Steven Stamkos developing into a superstar, the Caps may have some competition for years to come.

Of course, that competition wasn't anticipated this season, but here the Lightning are, having led the division for weeks and at points looking as though they were going to take the division crown in a walk. But the Capitals have been rallying, and with a win today in Florida, the Caps will, at long last, be back in first place.

That said, there are other considerations to take account of. Perhaps most glaringly, Tampa Bay will have a game in hand on Washington after Sunday. But with a win against the Panthers tonight, the Caps will not only be back on top in the Southeast, they'll have a chance to build on that lead Monday night when Washington and Tampa Bay play for the final time this season.

Big test for the Blueshirts: The last month hasn't been kind to the Rangers, and for the past few weeks, a protracted slump -- the Rangers have won just five of their last 16 games -- has put New York on the edge of dropping out of the East's playoff field. New York gained a measure of recovery Friday night with a 4-1 win in Ottawa, but with the Sens mostly dismantled prior to this year's trade deadline, how large of a metric that win is for the Rangers is subject to debate.

If New York is searching for a real indicator of where it stands in the East, this Sunday afternoon should provide that, as the Rangers host the East-leading Flyers at the Garden. Philly is not exactly looking like itself these days, having lost three in a row, but there is still little doubt that the Flyers are among the best teams in the League. Sunday will serve to show the Rangers where they stack up against the NHL's elite.

Can Buffalo keep charging? Of all the teams in the East that are making big runs in the second half, none may be more under the radar than the one fashioned by the Sabres. Buffalo's biggest news so far this season -- the purchase of the franchise by new owner Terry Pegula -- wasn't even on the ice, but it has helped to obscure the fact that after a middling first half, Buffalo is in the race.

The Sabres are one point behind Carolina for the East's final spot with two games in hand, but that position could suffer while Buffalo endures a seven-game road trip. So far the Sabres have met the challenge, going 2-0-1 in their first three stops, but the remaining four games are all against teams in the playoff hunt, including tonight's visit to Minnesota.

Buffalo certainly seems primed to challenge for the eighth seed in the East, but the Sabres' significant progress can easily be undone by how they perform tonight and the next three games before they return to western New York.
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