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Nine playoff berths still up for grabs

by John Kreiser
Calgary and Vancouver punched their playoff tickets on Thursday. But with just 10 days remaining in the regular season, nine of the 16 postseason berths are still up for grabs.

Seven teams -- San Jose, Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver 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 them know exactly where they'll finish.

Chicago can clinch by getting a point Friday night against Nashville.

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

Eastern Conference:

Boston (Northeast) has wrapped up its division title. Washington (Southeast) has dominated its division all season. New Jersey appeared to have the Atlantic Division all but locked up before an 0-5-1 slide cost it a chance at first in the East and gave the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins a chance to catch up. The Devils have assured themselves of a playoff berth.
The other five spots in the East are up for grabs.

Carolina (93 points after Thursday's 4-2 victory over the Rangers) 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.

Philadelphia (92 points) 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) and excellent special teams, including a League-best 16 shorthanded goals (and none allowed). But they've dropped three of their last four when they had a chance to lock up a berth. They are fifth entering Friday night's home game against Toronto, but have two games in hand.

The Flyers have six games (three at home) in the season's final 10 days; only three (two against the Rangers, one against Florida) are against teams that could make the playoffs.

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 after Thursday's 5-1 win over the Islanders) 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 are against teams out of the playoff race.

The New York Rangers (89 points after a 4-2 loss at Carolina on Thursday) have had a wild ride. 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 the loss to Carolina. The Rangers don't score a lot, their power play has struggled for most of the season, and the defense has been mushy at times. On the positive side, their penalty-killers have been terrific and Henrik Lundqvist is among the NHL's best goaltenders.

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) is desperately trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. The Panthers' hopes looked all but gone a week 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.

The Panthers have three of their five games at home, including a season-ending meeting with Washington. Three of the five are against playoff teams; the other two are against Atlanta, including a home game Friday.

Buffalo (83 points) 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. They 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.

The Sabres have six games (three at home) left, beginning at Washington on Friday. They've got to get at least 10 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 Flames and Canucks have 94 points, but Calgary technically owns the Northwest Division lead because it has 44 wins to 42 for Vancouver. They meet at G.M. Place on Tuesday night, with the winner likely having the inside track to third place in the West.

Chicago (93 points) has held fourth in the West for most of the season, and the Blackhawks looked like they'd surely end up there. But the Hawks have stumbled down the stretch, perhaps reflecting the inexperience on one of the NHL's youngest teams. Youngsters like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have plenty of talent and should benefit from their first trip to the postseason -- something that will happen with one more point.

The Hawks have six games left, three at home, and need one point to get in. All six games are against Central Division rivals, including a home-and-home series against Detroit to end the season.

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. Ken Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup in 1999 while coaching Dallas, has his team using a tight-checking style of play that should make them a tough out in the first round of the playoffs.

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

Anaheim (86 points after a 6-5 shootout win at Vancouver on Thursday) has been on a roll, winning eight of its last nine to climb into seventh in the West. It looks as if coach Randy Carlyle has decided to go with 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 after Thursday's 5-4 win at Detroit) 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 part of their schedule is that the last three road games are against teams that are out or almost out of the playoff race.

(84 points) must be doing it with mirrors. The Predators don't have a lot of talent, but 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 has two games with Chicago sandwiched round a home game with Columbus before ending the season with visits to Detroit and Minnesota.

Minnesota (81 points) 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 five goals 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, including a heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss at home to Vancouver on Wednesday. They'll probably need to win out to have a chance.

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

Edmonton (81 points after a 2-1 home loss to San Jose on Thursday) 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. At 39, Roloson has become the oldest goaltender ever to play 60 games in a season, and he figures to play every game as long as the Oilers have a chance. Despite a plethora 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 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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