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Playoff openings are down to two

by John Kreiser
With three days remaining in the regular season, there are still two playoff berths to be decided.

Montreal and the New York Rangers completed the Eastern Conference postseason octet Thursday. The Canadiens needed one point -- and got it in a 5-4 overtime loss at Boston. The Rangers held off Philadelphia 2-1, ending the playoff hopes of Florida and Buffalo. Boston, Washington and New Jersey will finish 1-2-3; the rest of the placements are still to be determined.

Four teams are still jockeying for the final two spots in the West. All four play Friday night.

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

Eastern Conference:

Boston (Northeast) has long since wrapped up its division title and first place in the East.  The Bruins have 114 points after beating Montreal 5-4 in overtime; they visit Buffalo on Saturday and the Islanders on Sunday and can win the Presidents' Trophy by winning both games if San Jose doesn't win its season finale.

Washington (Southeast) has clinched its division and wrapped up second in the conference with a 4-2 win at Tampa Bay. New Jersey won the Atlantic Division title and third in the East with a 3-2 shootout win at Ottawa. The Capitals finish Saturday at Florida. The Devils host Carolina on Saturday afternoon.

Philadelphia (97 points after a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers) holds fourth ahead of Carolina and Pittsburgh because it has played one fewer game. The Flyers visit the Islanders on Saturday before finishing against the Rangers at home Sunday. They need three points to assure themselves of fourth place and the home-ice edge in the opening round.

Carolina (97 points after a 5-1 home loss to Buffalo) saw its nine-game overall winning streak and 12-game home streak end when the Sabres won at RBC Center. The 'Canes end their season Saturday at New Jersey; a win means they can finish no lower than fifth.

Pittsburgh (97 points after a 6-1 win against the Islanders) is 17-3-4 since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien behind the bench. The Penguins end their season Saturday at Montreal and need a win and some help to finish fourth or fifth. They can end up no lower than sixth.

The New York Rangers (93 points after a 2-1 home win against Philadelphia) did what they had to do -- win both of their home games this week. The Rangers have the tie-breaker with Montreal because they've won one more game. New York ends its season Sunday at Philadelphia.

Montreal (93 points after a 5-4 overtime loss at Boston) got a big boost when defenseman Mathieu Schneider was able to play Thursday after being ruled out for the season with injuries earlier this week. The Canadiens close Saturday at home against Pittsburgh -- capping a season-ending stretch of four games in six nights. They need a victory and a non-win by the Rangers to finish seventh.

Florida (91 points after a 3-2 win at Atlanta) did what it had to do by beating the Thrashers, only to see the Rangers win and the Canadiens get a single point in their OT loss at Boston. The Panthers have now missed the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons.

Buffalo (89 points after Thursday's 5-1 win at Carolina) won its game but was closed out when the Rangers beat the Flyers.

Western Conference:

Already in:

San Jose (Pacific) and Detroit (Central) have long since wrapped up their divisions. The Sharks will finish first in the West and can clinch the Presidents' Trophy with a win Saturday at Los Angeles or a non-victory by Boston in one of its two remaining games. Detroit, a 4-3 shootout loser at home to Nashville, will finish second in the West.

Vancouver (98 points after a 1-0 win against Los Angeles) is two points ahead of Calgary (96 points) for first in the Northwest Division. But the Flames have two games left -- Friday at Edmonton and Saturday at home against the Oilers. If the Flames win both, they'll capture the division because they'll have more wins. The Canucks close Saturday at Colorado.

Chicago (100 points) 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 visit Detroit on Saturday and host the Wings on Sunday.

Columbus (92 points) is going to the playoffs for the first time since entering 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) last played Sunday and has spent four days watching other teams get points. The Ducks finally hit the ice again Friday night, when Dallas comes to the Honda Center, then finish Saturday at Phoenix. Anaheim is seventh, ahead of St. Louis and Nashville, because it has won two more games than the Blues and played fewer games than the Predators.

St. Louis (88 points) has been off since Tuesday's 5-1 win at Phoenix, which put them into eighth place -- they've played one fewer game than Nashville. The Blues host Columbus on Friday and finish the season Sunday at Colorado, the last-place team in the West.

Nashville (88 points after a 4-3 shootout win at Detroit) stayed alive with a gritty, come-from-behind win in one of the NHL's toughest buildings. The Predators are the first team in the League to finish their season, and must win Friday at Minnesota -- then hope St. Louis and/or Anaheim cooperate.

Minnesota (85 points) is alive -- but barely. The Wild have to win both of their remaining games -- at home Friday against Nashville and Saturday at Columbus -- and hope for losses by the teams in front of them.

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