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Playoff participants are set, but positions aren't

by John Kreiser
With two days remaining in the regular season, all 16 participants for the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been decided. The first-round matchups, however, are still up in the air.

The St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks wrapped up the last two spots in the Western Conference with victories on Friday night. The Blues completed a tremendous second-half surge with a 3-1 win over Columbus, while the Ducks punched their postseason ticket by getting to overtime against Dallas in a game they ultimately won 4-3 in a shootout.

However, there's still one division title (Northwest) up for grabs. In addition, five teams in each conference still don't know exactly where they will finish.

Here's a look at how the race for positioning shapes 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 second in the conference. New Jersey (Atlantic) will finish third. The Capitals finish Saturday at Florida, while the Devils host Carolina on Saturday afternoon.

Philadelphia (97 points) holds fourth ahead of Carolina and Pittsburgh despite a 2-1 loss to the Rangers on Thursday 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) missed a chance to grab fourth when Buffalo won 5-1 at the RBC Center on Thursday, ending the Hurricanes' nine-game overall winning streak and 12-game home streak. The 'Canes end their season Saturday at New Jersey; a win means they can finish no lower than fifth.

Pittsburgh (97 points) 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) did what they had to do to make the playoffs -- win both of their home games this week, beating Montreal and Philadelphia. The Rangers have the tie-breaker with Montreal for seventh place because they've won one more game. New York ends its season Sunday at Philadelphia.

Montreal (93 points) got the one point it needed to make the playoffs on Thursday when it got to overtime in a 5-4 loss at Boston. 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.

Western Conference:

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 will finish second in the West regardless of the outcome of its home-and-home series with Chicago.

Vancouver (98 points) is two points ahead of Calgary (96 points after a 5-1 loss at Edmonton) for first in the Northwest Division. The Flames host the Oilers in the return match on Saturday night, and by then they'll know if they have a chance to catch the Canucks. Vancouver finishes its season Saturday afternoon against Colorado, the last-place team in the West.

Chicago (100 points) will have the home-ice edge when it faces the Northwest runner-up in the opening round. The Hawks were assured of finishing fourth when Calgary lost on Friday. They visit Detroit on Saturday and host the Wings on Sunday.

Columbus (92 points after a 3-1 loss at St. Louis on Friday) is going to the playoffs for the first time since entering the NHL in 2000. The Jackets finish their season Saturday at home against Minnesota; one point will assure Columbus of a sixth-place finish and a series against the Northwest Division winner.

Anaheim (90 points after a 4-3 shootout victory over Dallas) spent four days watching other teams get points and made their fans nervous before locking up a postseason berth just by getting to overtime against Dallas. The Ducks finish their season Saturday at Phoenix; a point means they'll finish no worse than seventh, which would mean a series against Detroit. A win and a regulation loss by Columbus moves them to sixth.

St. Louis (90 points after a 3-1 victory over Columbus) was last in the West on Feb. 18, but is headed for the playoffs after beating the Blue Jackets before a roaring crowd at the Scottrade Center, capping a 16-5-3 run. The Blues close their season at Colorado on Sunday; by then, they will know if they can do anything more than finish eighth.

Nashville (88 points after a season-ending 8-4 loss at Minnesota) saw its playoff hopes expire when the Blues beat the Blue Jackets several minutes after their loss to the Wild. The Predators were the first team to end its season.

Minnesota (87 points after an 8-4 victory over Nashville) had a couple of hours of hope that Dallas could win at Anaheim, only to see that hope expire as soon as the Ducks got to overtime.



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