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Playoff Pulse: Rangers first in East to clinch berth

by Brian Compton
Last season, the New York Rangers needed to win and receive help on the very last day in order to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But with three weeks still to play in the 2011-12 regular season, the Blueshirts are already in.

Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan each had a goal and an assist as the Rangers became the first team in the Eastern Conference to qualify for the postseason with a 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.

"It's pretty cool," defenseman Dan Girardi said. "It's our first time since I've been here, in six years, that we clinched this early. It's nice. It's a nice feeling knowing you'll be in the playoffs, but now it's a matter of staying up top and trying to create some space up top. It's a different feeling for us. We have to handle it the right way."

With nine games on Tuesday's schedule, here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up after the six played on Monday:


Division leaders:

New York Rangers (97 points after Monday's 4-2 win against New Jersey) have punched their ticket to the big dance thanks to a gritty effort against the Devils. The Blueshirts are back in action Wednesday night against Detroit at MSG.

Boston (87 points after Monday's 8-0 win against Toronto) demolished the Leafs from start to finish at TD Garden and moved three points ahead of Ottawa in the Northeast Division. The Bruins begin a three-game road trip Thursday night at San Jose.

Florida (83 points) was idle Monday, but is now only two points up on Washington in the Southeast Division after the Capitals' win in Detroit. The Panthers visit Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

The next five:

Pittsburgh (94 points)
did not play Monday. Now three points behind the Rangers for the No. 1 seed, the Penguins will host Winnipeg on Tuesday night.

Philadelphia (92 points) was idle Monday, but announced that defenseman Andrej Meszaros will undergo back surgery and miss the next 6-8 weeks. The Flyers take on Florida at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night.

New Jersey (87 points after Monday's 4-2 loss at New York) put up a valiant effort but came up empty in a loss to the Rangers in Manhattan. The Devils have little time to dwell on the defeat as they visit Ottawa on Tuesday night.

Ottawa (84 points) was off Monday. The Sens return to action on Tuesday night against New Jersey in Canada's capital city.

Washington (80 points after Monday's 5-3 win at Detroit) bounced back nicely from Sunday's 5-2 loss at Chicago with a huge win in Motown. The Caps' five-game road trip concludes Thursday night at Philadelphia.

On the outside looking in:

Buffalo (78 points after Monday's 7-3 win at Tampa Bay)
received a strong performance from captain Jason Pominville and moved into ninth place with a victory against the host Lightning. The Sabres return home to face Montreal on Wednesday night.

Winnipeg (76 points) did not play Monday and dropped into 10th in the East due to Buffalo's win at Tampa Bay. The Jets will be in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.


Division leaders:

St. Louis (100 points) did not play Monday. The Blues are off until Wednesday, when their seven-game road trip continues at Anaheim.

Vancouver (94 points after Monday's 2-0 loss at Minnesota) peppered Josh Harding with 33 shots, but came up empty in a loss to the Wild. The Canucks, who have lost three of their last four, continue their four-game road trip Wednesday night at Chicago.

Dallas (83 points) was idle again Monday and remained atop the Pacific Division thanks to San Jose's loss to Anaheim. The Stars return to action Tuesday night against Phoenix at the American Airlines Center.

The next five:

Nashville (92 points)
did not play Monday. The Predators return home to face Edmonton on Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena.

Detroit (92 points after Monday's 5-3 loss to Washington) lost to the Caps and failed to move back ahead of fourth-place Nashville. The Red Wings will be in New York to face the Rangers on Wednesday night.

Chicago (88 points) was idle Monday. The Blackhawks are in Columbus on Tuesday.

Phoenix (83 points) was also off Monday. The Coyotes will be in Dallas on Tuesday night with first place in the Pacific Division on the line.

Colorado (83 points) did not play Monday. The Avalanche will host Calgary on Tuesday.

On the outside looking in:

Los Angeles (82 points) was idle and will host San Jose in a huge showdown Tuesday night.

San Jose (82 points after Monday's 5-3 loss to Anaheim) failed to jump from ninth to third in the conference with a disappointing loss on home ice against the Ducks. The Sharks head south to Los Angeles, where they'll face the Kings on Tuesday.

Calgary (81 points) did not play Monday. Calgary will be in Colorado on Tuesday night in another pivotal contest.

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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