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Eight playoff berths still up for grabs

by John Kreiser /
Chicago joined the NHL's playoff platoon Friday night, beating Nashville 3-1 to earn its first postseason berth since 2002. But with nine days remaining in the regular season, half of this year's 16 playoff berths have yet to be determined.

Eight teams -- San Jose, Detroit, Calgary, Vancouver and now Chicago in the West; Boston, Washington and New Jersey in the East -- are assured that they'll still be playing when the Stanley Cup Playoffs get under way. However, none of that group knows exactly where it will finish within the conference standings.

Here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up:

Eastern Conference:

Boston (Northeast) has long since wrapped up its division title and can clinch first in the East by getting a point on Saturday against the Rangers.  Washington (Southeast) dominated its division all season and officially locked things up on Friday by getting a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to Buffalo. New Jersey appeared to have the Atlantic Division all but locked up before an 0-5-1 slide cost them a chance at first in the East and gave the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins a chance to catch up. The Devils, who beat Tampa Bay 5-4 in overtime on Friday, have assured themselves of a playoff berth.

The other five spots in the East are still up for grabs.

Philadelphia (94 points after an 8-5 win over Toronto on Friday) has held fourth (the last home-ice advantage spot in the opening round) for most of the last few weeks, fending off a variety of challengers. The Flyers have a deep, balanced offense (five 25-goal scorers), but they dropped three of their last four before Friday's win -- earning criticism from GM Paul Holmgren, who made it clear that his team's top players had to step up. They did just that against the Leafs, roaring out to a 6-0 lead.

The Flyers have five games (two at home) in the season's final nine days; three of those (two against the Rangers, one against Florida) are against teams that could make the playoffs.

Carolina (93 points) hopes that more home cooking will keep the wins coming. The surging Hurricanes have won seven in a row, the longest active streak in the NHL, and 10 straight at the RBC Center. Goalie Cam Ward was the NHL's Player of the Month for March after going 10-1-2 with a 1.98 goals-against average and has been the biggest factor in his team's surge.

The Hurricanes stay home for their next three games before ending their season at New Jersey.

Pittsburgh (92 points) has been nearly unbeatable since changing coaches in mid-February. The Penguins are 15-2-3 since Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench after Michel Therrien was let go. GM Ray Shero found some wingers for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin by landing Bill Guerin from the Islanders and Chris Kunitz from Anaheim.

Marc-Andre Fleury has stepped up his play since the coaching change, and Crosby has a 16-game points streak. Bylsma's up-tempo style has been a much better fit for the Pens' personnel, and they've climbed from 10th in the East into the middle of the pack.

Pittsburgh helped itself by going 6-1-1 on a just-concluded eight-game homestand. The Pens play their next three and four of their final five games on the road. Three of the five games are against playoff contenders.

Montreal (90 points) struggled after the All-Star break, leading GM Bob Gainey to fire coach Guy Carbonneau and go behind the bench himself. After a 1-3-2 beginning under Gainey, the Habs are 4-0-1 in their last five, alone in seventh place, and appear to be back on track.

The Canadiens play three of their last five away from the Bell Centre, with visits to Toronto, the Rangers and Boston. However, their next two games (Toronto and Ottawa) are against teams out of the playoff race.

The New York Rangers (89 points) have had an up-and-down season. They rode an easy early schedule and a raft of shootout wins to a fast start, struggled badly enough to get coach Tom Renney fired and were playing better under John Tortorella -- at least before a 4-2 loss at Carolina on Thursday. The Rangers have the inside track on the last spot, but need more from their power play and better performances in the third period.

The Rangers have the toughest schedule of any Eastern playoff hopeful: All four games are against teams currently in the top eight in the East, beginning Saturday afternoon at Boston.

Florida (87 points after a 3-1 home loss to Atlanta on Friday) is desperately trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. The Panthers' hopes looked all but gone 10 days ago after they blew a 3-1 third-period lead in a 5-3 loss at Buffalo, with a visit to Philadelphia looming 24 hours later. But coach Peter DeBoer switched goalies, turning to Craig Anderson after Tomas Vokoun couldn't hold the lead in Buffalo, and was rewarded with three consecutive wins to get back in the race -- only to stumble at home against the pesky Thrashers.

The Panthers have two of their four games at home, including a season-ending meeting with Washington. Three of the four are against playoff teams.

Buffalo (85 points after a 5-4 overtime win at Washington on Friday) may have seen its playoff hopes irreparably damaged when starting goaltender Ryan Miller went down with a high ankle sprain in a win over the Rangers on Feb. 21. The Sabres went 4-7-2 without Miller, then won twice over the weekend when he returned before losing 3-2 in OT to Atlanta on Wednesday. However, they rallied to win at Washington on Friday, keeping their hopes alive.

The Sabres have five games (three at home) left. They've got to get at least eight points to have a realistic chance to climb into the top eight.

Western Conference:

San Jose (Pacific) and Detroit (Central) have long since wrapped up their divisions. The Sharks have a six-point lead over the Wings for first in the conference. Calgary and Vancouver both clinched playoff berths on Thursday. The Canucks and Flames have 94 points, but Vancouver owns the Northwest Division lead because it has played one fewer game after Calgary lost 4-0 at Minnesota on Friday. They meet at G.M. Place on Tuesday night, with the winner likely having the inside track to third place in the West.

The loser will battle Chicago (95 points) for fourth place and the last home-ice berth in the opening round.

Columbus (88 points) can almost taste its first playoff berth since entering the NHL in 2000. Rookie goaltender Steve Mason has more shutouts (10) than any first-year netminder since Tony Esposito. He's been helped by the tight-checking style of play used by Ken Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup in 1999 while coaching Dallas.

The Jackets have five games remaining, all against playoff contenders, including a home-and-home series with Chicago.

Anaheim (86 points) has been on a roll, winning eight of its last nine to climb into seventh in the West. Coach Randy Carlyle has turned to Jonas Hiller instead of Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal, and the Ducks' big guns -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger -- have been producing offensively.

Anaheim has a home-and-home with San Jose this weekend. The Ducks then get four days off before hosting Dallas on Friday and visiting Phoenix on Saturday.

St. Louis (85 points) has battled its way from last in the West near midseason into contention for a playoff berth despite a M*A*S*H unit's worth of injuries. The biggest reason for the surge has been the play of Chris Mason, who's led them to a 14-5-2 record in their last 21 games. A 3-1 loss at Chicago on Wednesday ended a five-game winning streak, but the Blues bounced back with a big win at Detroit in which David Backes scored four goals.

The Blues have four of their last five games, including the next three, on the road. The one good aspect of their schedule is that the last three road games are against teams that are out or almost out of the playoff race.

Nashville (84 points after a 3-1 loss at Chicago on Friday) doesn't have a lot of talent, but the Predators do a lot with what they have. In another season, rookie goaltender Pekka Rinne would be the talk of the NHL; this season, he's been overshadowed by Columbus' Steve Mason. The Preds hope Jason Arnott and David Legwand will be back soon after losing one of their best forwards, Martin Erat, to a broken leg in Sunday's win at Detroit.

Nashville hosts Columbus on Saturday and Chicago on Tuesday before ending the season with visits to Detroit and Minnesota.

Minnesota (83 points after a 4-0 home win over Calgary on Friday) will have to get hot to make the playoffs -- something the up-and-down Wild haven't been able to do down the stretch. Marian Gaborik has contributed much-needed offense since his return from hip surgery, but the Wild haven't won back-to-back games since late February and went 6-6-4 in March. They will probably need to win out to have a chance.

Two of Minnesota's final four games are at home, but three of the four are against teams that are in the top eight in the West.

Edmonton (81 points) picked a bad time to go into a slump. The Oilers have dropped six of their last seven -- and needed a 51-save performance by Dwayne Roloson at Anaheim last Friday to get that one win. Despite a lot of young talent, the Oilers have struggled to score, and that lack of offense could be what dooms them; like the Wild, they'll likely have to win out to have any hope of making the top eight.

The Oilers don't leave Alberta for the rest of the season. They have three more home games before finishing the season at Calgary next Saturday in the back end of a home-and-home. All but one of the four games are against top-five teams in the West.

Dallas (78 points) would need to win all four of its remaining games and have a lot of things go right to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02. It won't be easy, especially because the last three are on the road.



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