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Playoff berths, scoring races, Tuesday has it all

by Mike G. Morreale
Hockey fans better strap themselves in for one heck of finish to the NHL season.

Tuesday's 11-game schedule will jump-start what is sure to be an honest to goodness battle to the wire. Not only are five teams fighting for three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but plenty of pride and personal goals also are up for grabs.

The race for the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the League's top goal-scorer will take center stage, with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (47 goals), Washington's Alex Ovechkin (46 goals) and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos (46 goals) are all in action.

Crosby and Ovechkin, a two-time winner and defending Richard Trophy winner, will be going head-to-head at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh in the fourth and final regular-season meeting between the teams. The Caps have won all three of the previous clashes, including a 4-3 shootout thriller on March 24. Stamkos, whose team plays home to Carolina Tuesday, is bidding to become the youngest player to lead the NHL in goals since Rick Nash shared the trophy with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2004 with 41 apiece.

Speaking of Kovalchuk, he'll be making his first visit to Atlanta as a member of the New Jersey Devils.

"Kovy" spent seven-plus seasons with the Thrashers after being selected first-overall in the 2001 Entry Draft. He would connect for 52 goals twice and notch at least 40 three other times during his time in Atlanta. He's not sure what to expect when he takes the ice at Philips Arena during warm-ups on Tuesday.

"I hope they're not going to boo me because we have a great relationship all my career there," Kovalchuk told The Star-Ledger. "I did everything I can for that organization. It was just time to move on."

Atlanta is going to be going all out, too, as it remains one of five teams battling for one of three spots in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Of those five clubs, which also include the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, the Thrashers have the toughest schedule with games remaining against the Devils, Capitals and Penguins.

In the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames, once considered a shoo-in to finish atop the conference, are two points behind eighth-seeded Colorado. The Flames have three games remaining, including Tuesday's showdown against top-seeded San Jose.

The Flames saw their three-game winning streak snapped Sunday in a 4-1 loss to Chicago at United Center.

Meanwhile, the surprising Avalanche would be able to control their own destiny with a victory in Vancouver. The Avalanche missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season when they finished fifth in the Northwest Division. The team is currently second in the division -- nine points behind the Canucks.

Colorado scored a monumental 5-4 overtime victory over the Sharks Sunday to snap a season-high four-game losing streak. The Avalanche have four games left with a game in hand over Calgary.

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