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Four playoff berths remain as final weekend nears

by Staff
As the weekend approaches, the conclusion of the regular season is in sight. Yet, with four days remaining, there are still four playoff berths to be decided.

Columbus is celebrating the first playoff berth in franchise history Thursday. The Blue Jackets' 4-3 shootout victory Wednesday in Chicago gave the Blue Jackets 92 points, enough to ensure that they'll be part of the postseason.

The Jackets are the 12th team -- six in each conference -- to lock up a playoff berth. But the last two spots in each conference are still up for grabs.

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

Eastern Conference:

Already in:

Boston (Northeast) has long since wrapped up its division title and clinched first in the East by blanking the Rangers 1-0 last Saturday. The Bruins host Montreal on Thursday, then visit Buffalo on Saturday and the Islanders on Sunday. Washington (Southeast) has clinched its division and sits in second, while Atlantic Division leader New Jersey is the third seed for now, needing one more point in its last two games -- or a lost point by Philadelphia -- to assure the Atlantic Division crown.

The Capitals, who finish with games at Tampa Bay on Thursday and Florida on Saturday, need one point -- or a lost point by New Jersey -- to lock up second place. The Devils play Thursday at Ottawa and host Carolina on Saturday.

Philadelphia (97 points) clinched a playoff spot Tuesday by beating Florida. The Flyers hold fourth place against Carolina because they've played one fewer game. Philadelphia visits the Rangers on Thursday and the Islanders on Saturday before finishing against the Rangers at home Sunday. Finishing fourth and getting the extra home game in the opening round figures to be important -- especially if the Flyers play Carolina, which hasn’t lost at home in nearly two months.

Carolina (97 points) has won nine in a row overall and 12 straight at the RBC Center. The 'Canes host Buffalo on Thursday before ending their season Saturday at New Jersey. They'll probably have to win both to finish fourth and get home-ice in the opening round.

Pittsburgh (95 points) is 16-3-4 since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien behind the bench. The Penguins could finish as high as fourth if they win their last two games and the Flyers and Hurricanes lose out. They host the Islanders on Thursday and finish Saturday at Montreal.

Still to be decided:

Montreal (92 points) has dropped two games in two nights after a 5-0-1 streak that moved the Habs up to seventh. Both defeats came after the Canadiens lost defensemen Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider, who are gone for the season with injuries. The Canadiens also have a tough final two games: They visit the first-place Bruins on Thursday before closing Saturday at home against Pittsburgh -- capping a season-ending stretch of four games in six nights.

The New York Rangers (91 points) took a big step toward a playoff berth by beating Montreal 3-1 at home Tuesday night. But they're still likely to need two points from their last two games -- a home-and-home series against Philadelphia. The Flyers come to Madison Square Garden on Thursday; the Rangers visit the Wachovia Center on Sunday.

Florida (89 points), dropped a game it had to win when the Flyers overcame an early 1-0 deficit for a 2-1 win Tuesday. The Panthers, who are desperately trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000, play Thursday at Atlanta before finishing at home Saturday against Washington. They have to win both games and hope for the Rangers and Canadiens to lose. Florida loses tie-breakers to both teams.

Buffalo (87 points after Wednesday's 3-1 win at Toronto) has to win both of its remaining games, Thursday at Carolina and Saturday at home against Boston, and hope the Rangers lose twice and the Panthers at least once.

Western Conference:

Already in:

San Jose (Pacific) and Detroit (Central) have long since wrapped up their divisions. The Sharks can clinch the Presidents' Trophy and the home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs by beating Phoenix at home Thursday or winning Saturday at Los Angeles. Detroit can finish no worse than second in the conference.

Calgary (96 points) is still first in the Northwest Division because it has two more wins than Vancouver, despite Tuesday's 4-1 road loss to the Canucks. The Flames end with a home-and-home series (Friday-Saturday) against the Edmonton Oilers. Vancouver (96 points) hosts Los Angeles on Thursday and visits Colorado on Saturday. The Canucks cannot catch the Flames in the victory column, meaning that they'll have to get one more point than the Flames to win the division and the third seed.

Chicago (100 points after a 4-3 shootout loss to Columbus) will face the Northwest runner-up. The Hawks have a four-point lead in the race for fourth place and need one more point to wrap up the last home-ice berth in the opening round. They're 4-0-1 in their last five and have two days off before a season-ending home-and-home series against Detroit on Saturday and Sunday.

Columbus (92 points after a 4-3 shootout win at Chicago) is celebrating its first playoff berth since the franchise entered the NHL in 2000. The Jackets visit St. Louis on Friday before returning home Saturday to face Minnesota; one point in those games will assure Columbus of a sixth-place finish and a series against the Northwest Division winner.

Still to be decided:

Anaheim (88 points) is watching and worrying -- the Ducks last played Sunday and are off until Friday night. Anaheim is seventh, ahead of St. Louis, because it has won two more games than the Blues. The Ducks host Dallas on Friday before visiting Phoenix on Saturday.

St. Louis (88 points) climbed back into eighth place Tuesday by routing the Coyotes 5-1, capping an excellent road trip. The Blues are idle until Friday, when they host Columbus. St. Louis finishes the season Sunday at Colorado, the last-place team in the West.

Nashville (86 points) fell out of eighth place by losing its final home game of the season Tuesday, 4-2 to Chicago. If the Predators are going to make the playoffs, they'll have to do it the hard way -- they end the season with visits to Detroit on Thursday and Minnesota on Friday.

Minnesota (85 points) stayed alive, but just barely, by beating the Stars 3-1 at home Tuesday. The Wild have to win both of their remaining games -- at home Friday to Nashville and Saturday at Columbus -- and hope for losses by the teams in front of them.



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