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Playoff races stay tight in both conferences

by John Kreiser /
The NHL season is reaching the three-quarters pole, and the playoff races are only getting hotter.

It's too early for anyone to have clinched a postseason berth -- but only a handful of teams appear to be so far off the pace that their playoff hopes have disappeared. More than two dozen teams still have realistic hopes -- and, in some cases, can already start planning for the postseason.

Here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up after Tuesday night's games:

Eastern Conference:

Division leaders:

Philadelphia (84 points after Tuesday's 3-2 overtime loss to Phoenix) rallied to get a point but lost to the surging Coyotes on a power-play goal in OT. Despite the point they didn't get, the one the Flyers did earn moved them seven points ahead of Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division and nine in front of Tampa Bay for first in the East.

Tampa Bay (75 points) had three days off before Wednesday's visit from the Coyotes to get back in synch after going 0-1-2 last week. The Lightning has seen their lead over Washington in the Southeast Division shrink to just one point. This is Game 11 of a 12-game homestand that ends Friday against New Jersey; so far, the Bolts are 5-3-2.

Boston (75 points after a 3-1 win at Calgary on Tuesday) has won the first three games on a six-game trip. The Bruins got two goals from Milan Lucic to win in Calgary, the start of a three-game swing through Western Canada -- oddly, they have three days off before weekend dates in Vancouver and Edmonton before the trip ends in Ottawa next Tuesday.

The next five:

Pittsburgh (77 points) figures to have newcomers James Neal and Matt Niskanen in the lineup for Wednesday's visit from San Jose. No Sidney Crosby and no Evgeni Malkin has meant few goals for the once-powerful Penguins -- they lost 1-0 at home to Washington on Wednesday.

Washington (74 points) is in the middle of a rare three-day break. The Caps, who've played 61 games, don't take the ice again until the New York Rangers come to town on Friday.

Montreal (71 points after Tuesday's 3-2 win at Vancouver) got a big effort by British Columbia native Carey Price (37 saves) to avoid being swept in Western Canada. The Habs were 1-4-2 in their previous seven games and hadn't won in Vancouver since Nov. 30, 2000 (0-7-1). But they grabbed a quick 2-0 lead and were able to hold on for a bounce-back victory after losses in Edmonton (4-1) and Calgary (4-0).

New York Rangers (68 points after a 4-3 shootout win at Carolina on Tuesday) found a way to escape Raleigh with two points after blowing a third-period lead. Wojtek Wolski scored the tying goal with 1:50 remaining in regulation, then got the only goal in the shootout to keep the Rangers in seventh place.

Carolina (65 points after 4-3 shootout loss to the Rangers on Tuesday) was less than two minutes away from pulling even with New York for seventh place in the East, but couldn't hold a 3-2 lead and then couldn't score in the shootout. The 'Canes, who have 13 of their last 21 at home, are off until Pittsburgh comes to the RBC Center on Friday.

On the outside looking in:

Buffalo and Atlanta (60 points each) both are desperate for points -- and at least one of them will go home with a pair when the Thrashers come to HSBC Arena on Wednesday. Both teams have dropped three in a row; however, all three of the Sabres' losses have come at home, where they're in the midst of a six-game homestand.

Toronto (59 points after Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Islanders) won't go away. The Leafs cooled off the Islanders to move within six points of the last playoff berth. They're off until a Thursday visit to Montreal.
Florida (57 points) concludes a quick three-game trip with a visit to Ottawa in a game the Panthers have to have to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Panthers were whipped 5-1 Monday on Long Island and can't afford a loss to the last-place Senators.

New Jersey (56 points after Tuesday's 1-0 win at Dallas) continues its comeback from oblivion. The Devils made it eight wins in a row by shutting down the struggling Stars and getting a third-period goal by Nick Palmieri. Johan Hedberg, not Martin Brodeur, has been in goal for the last 7 2/3 games of the streak. By going 16-1-2, the Devils have made up two-thirds of the 27-point deficit they faced at midseason.

Western Conference

Division leaders:

Vancouver (85 points after Tuesday's 3-2 home loss to Montreal) has the Northwest Division title all but locked up despite losing to Montreal -- the Canucks lead second-place Minnesota by 17 points and have a five-point margin on runner-up Detroit for first place in the Conference. They paid for a slow start against the Canadiens, losing in regulation for just the fifth time in 31 home games.

Detroit (80 points after Tuesday's 4-3 home loss to San Jose) is comfortably ahead in the Central Division but has to be disappointed at dropping a home game against a top-caliber opponent. Danny Cleary scored twice and Henrik Zetterberg added a late power-play goal, but the Wings gave up an uncharacteristic 43 shots to the surging Sharks.

Phoenix (75 points after Tuesday's 3-2 overtime win at Philadelphia) continues to find ways to win. The Coyotes overcame a 1-0 deficit in the third period, allowed a sixth-attacker goal with 73 seconds left, then won their eighth in a row when captain Shane Doan scored on the power play in OT. The Coyotes go for win No. 9 at Tampa Bay on Wednesday.

The next five:

San Jose (74 points after Tuesday's 4-3 win at Detroit) stayed one point behind Phoenix by holding off the Wings to sweep their two trips to Joe Louis Arena for the first time in franchise history. Devin Setoguchi, who had a hat trick on Saturday, pumped in two more to support a 35-save performance by Antti Niemi, last week's First Star.

Minnesota (70 points after Tuesday's 4-1 home win against Edmonton) has climbed to fifth in the West with a hot February that continued with the Wild's 15th consecutive victory against Edmonton at the Xcel Energy Center. Pierre-Marc Bouchard's spectacular spin-o-rama highlighted a three-goal third period.

Nashville (70 points after Tuesday's 4-0 loss at Columbus) has been streaky all season, and the Predators appear to be sliding again, with back-to-back losses to Phoenix and Columbus. The Preds and Jackets were scoreless through two periods before Columbus erupted for four third-period goals, dropping Nashville to 4-4-2 in 10 games this month.

Calgary (70 points after Tuesday's 3-1 home loss to Boston) couldn't carry the momentum from Sunday's Heritage Classic win against Montreal back indoors. The Flames avoided a shutout on a late power-play goal by Curtis Glencross, but missed a chance to move into sole possession of fifth place. They've played one more game that the Wild and Predators.

Los Angeles (68 points) is back on the West Coast after the first nine games of a 10-game trip. The Kings lost 3-0 to the Islanders on Saturday but still headed back to Southern California with a 5-1-3 mark and are 8-1-3 in their last 12 as they head down the highway to Anaheim on Wednesday.

On the outside looking in:

Anaheim (68 points) is back home to host the Kings after a disastrous two-game swing through the Midwest. With starting goalie Jonas Hiller on IR, the Ducks were roasted for 14 goals in losses at Minnesota (5-1) and St. Louis (9-3 after leading 2-0). Backup Curtis McElhinney has to play better, or the Ducks will have to hope Ray Emery can get in shape quickly in the AHL.

Chicago (68 points) got a much-needed boost from back-to-back wins against Pittsburgh and St. Louis, but the Hawks still have work to do just to earn a chance to defend their Stanley Cup. The schedule is no help -- the Hawks have only nine of their last 22 games at the United Center; on the other hand, they're 18-14-0 at home and 13-9-6 on the road.

Dallas (68 points after Tuesday's 1-0 home loss to New Jersey)
has gone from first place in the Pacific Division to 11th in the conference by losing five in a row and going 1-8-1 in February. The Stars played solid defense on Tuesday, only to see the offense go cold against the red-hot Devils. Dallas also faces a tough schedule -- a four-game trip out West next week.

Columbus (66 points after Tuesday's 4-0 home victory against Nashville) looked like it was ready to drop out of the race three weeks ago, but improved to 7-1-1 in its last nine by beating Nashville with four third-period goals. The Jackets host Phoenix on Friday before beginning a five-game trip that could make or break their season.

St. Louis (63 points after Tuesday's 4-3 home loss to Colorado) is hurting after losing to Chicago and the Avs at home on back-to-back games. The Blues head to Western Canada for three games in four days beginning Thursday in Vancouver in what could also be a make-or-break trip.

Colorado (50 points after a 4-3 win at St. Louis on Tuesday) ended its 10-game losing streak by winning as Erik Johnson and Jay McClement beat the team that traded them to the Avs on Saturday. Despite the win, the Avalanche are barely hanging on in the race -- they need a win against last-place Edmonton at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday to generate some momentum.

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