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Northeast teams slipping in the stretch

by John McGourty
Not to push the panic button or anything, but the playoff race in the Northeast Division borders on impending disaster. Three Northeast teams -- Boston, Montreal and Buffalo -- held playoff positions for most of the season.

Boston has led the Eastern Conference for the majority of the season, and finishing there would guarantee home ice through the conference finals. Montreal sat in fourth place, a finish that would earn them home-ice advantage in the first round and possibly the second. Buffalo, despite injuries, appeared safely ahead of Pittsburgh, the Rangers, Florida and Carolina.

But the Bruins are 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and the New Jersey Devils, leading the Atlantic Division, have crept within four points of the conference lead, and the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals are only a point behind New Jersey. Boston's presumed conference championship is very much in doubt.

Buffalo is 3-5-2 in its last 10 and appeared to have their heart ripped out Saturday when they coughed up a 3-1 third-period lead against Atlanta at home and lost in a shootout on a goal by Brett Sterling, brought up from the AHL to replace an injured Ilya Kovalchuk. They surrendered the tying goal with 3.7 seconds remaining.

Coupled with Tuesday's 4-2 loss to Ottawa, Buffalo is 10th in the East, five points behind the Hurricanes. The Sabres' schedule, though, is heavy with games against teams they need to pass, so their fate is in their hands.

Montreal is 5-3-2 in its last 10, but they have lost three of the four games since Bob Gainey replaced coach Guy Carbonneau, and they were all at home. Montreal has slipped to seventh place, only three points ahead of the ninth-place Panthers.

The Bruins have lost a maddening number of one-goal games or two-goal games that included a late empty-netter. They still can play with anyone in the League, but they lack the killer instinct they had through most of the season. Management is fighting the perception that the Bruins, without a change in thinking, can turn it back on at any time.

"I think there has been an area of complacency and an area of comfort that's set in here, and we've got to battle through it," said Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli. "The coaches are aware of it, and they've been working on it."

"It's right up here," Chiarelli continued, pointing to his head. "I am concerned about the overall lack of focus, when you look at the bigger picture of this stretch of our games. It's incumbent on our guys to get that focus back. Tell me the last time you saw us give up two goals from smack in the slot (as they did Sunday against Pittsburgh). We have that slot covered. We keep shooters to the outside. That's our game. For that to happen, for me, that's a lack of focus, a lack of concentration. And I see us taking shortcuts. My job, with the coaching staff, is to get these guys back in line."

Coach Claude Julien wants improved focus from scoring leader Marc Savard, his first-line center who has made some bad, forced passes lately that have cost the Bruins.

"He does make mistakes," Julien told the Boston Herald's Stephen Harris. "He's a guy who turns the puck over with some forced plays at times. His competitive level is always there. He competes hard; the one thing he can certainly help this team with right now is (cutting down) those kind of turnovers that end up hurting us.

"One of them was the empty-net goal in Pittsburgh. (That should have been) an easy pass to the strong-side point instead of trying to put it through guys. Those kind of things happen too often for Savvy. Having said that, he still is the guy who leads us in scoring (76 points), so he brings a lot of positive. He competes hard, he cares, he wants to do the best for the team. When you have a player like that, you can't expect to make him perfect overnight. He just has to keep working on that part of his game."

Inside Ottawa's numbers -- The Senators clearly have found the right coach. Ottawa is 11-6-3 under Cory Clouston and has won five of its last six games. The plus-minus numbers have improved dramatically for a number of players since Clouston's arrival. Chris Phillips was a minus-20 in the first 48 games and plus-8 since Clouston took over. Nick Foligno was minus-19 and now is minus-11. Mike Fisher went from minus-7 to minus-2. Anton Volchenkov is up from minus-13 to minus-8.

Clouston has affected this turnaround with a harder forecheck, more pressure and less space between his forwards and defensemen. Forwards come back deeper into the defensive zone to clog lanes and are available for shorter, quicker outlet passes. Defensemen are pinching at the offensive blue line more and standing up opponents at their own blue line, rather than dropping back.

"It's not just the defense being more involved; it's five guys working together all over the ice, and when you do that it makes everybody look better," Phillips said. "You have full support to make plays. When you get stretched out, it's like you're on an island all the time and you have nobody to give the puck to.

"The forwards have been doing a great job of helping us out, and in return we're trying to be a little more aggressive and keep the puck in the offensive zone and let them do what they do best."

At this point, the Senators are playing the best hockey in the division.

Record threatened -- The 1975-76 Montreal Canadiens were one of the greatest teams in NHL history, winning their first of four straight Stanley Cups that season. It was a team with Ken Dryden in net, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt on the first line, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe on defense, and bolstered by great players Pete Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Doug Risebrough, Doug Jarvis and Bob Gainey.

They set one of those obscure records most people thought would never be broken: They went the entire season without surrendering a shorthanded goal. Now, the Philadelphia Flyers are on the verge of tying that record. The Flyers are the only NHL team not to have surrendered a shorthanded goal this season, and they lead the NHL with 16 shorthanded goals of their own.

News and Notes -- The Canadiens have been outshot 551-403 in their last 15 games, and have outshot their opponent only once. Opponents are averaging 36.7 shots per game, while the Canadiens are averaging 26.8 shots. They were outshot 16-5 in the third period of their losses Saturday to the New Jersey Devils and Tuesday to the Rangers. ... Former Bruins Stanley Cup-winning goalie Eddie Johnston was honored Sunday at Mellon Arena before the Penguins-Bruins game in recognition of his 25th season with the Penguins. Johnston has been coach, general manager and assistant general manager, and currently is a senior adviser. He is best remembered in Pittsburgh for drafting Mario Lemieux. "E.J." also is remembered as the last NHL goalie to play every minute of a season, with the 1963-64 Bruins. Johnston's assistance to Gerry Cheevers, who replaced Johnston as Boston's starter, led Bobby Orr to call Johnston "the perfect teammate." "He's one of the finest individuals I've ever known. But don't lose sight of the fact that Ed could really play," Orr told the Associated Press' Alan Robinson. ... Sidney Crosby has 4 goals and 17 assists in 13 career games against the Bruins. ... Massachusetts-born Bill Guerin, who would be a Bruin for life in a perfect world, scored for his new team, the Penguins, 50 seconds into Sunday's victory against Boston. Guerin scored a career-high 41 goals in his only season for the Bruins, 2001-02.

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