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Race for eighth in East heats up

by Adam Kimelman
The race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is about as fluid as a small stream in a big storm.

Three teams entered Tuesday's game within four points of the final spot, currently held by the Boston Bruins, but that could change within 24 hours, as the hotly pursuing Thrashers and Rangers are nipping at their heels.

Tonight, Atlanta is in Toronto, Boston visits New Jersey and the Rangers make the short trek to Long Island.

While what happens tonight will affect the standings, there's still a lot of hockey left before things are finalized.

Let's start with the Bruins, who have lost two of their last three, including a desultory 3-2 loss to the Sabres on Monday.

The result left the Bruins in eighth with 80 points, two ahead of the Thrashers, who missed a chance to hit the 80-point mark in a 4-1 home loss to the Hurricanes. At 78 points, the Thrashers are two behind, with the Rangers -- who were idle Monday -- with 76 points.

"We had opportunities to score more than two goals and we didn't do it," Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters Monday night.

His team won't have time to dwell on that loss. Including tonight, they have seven games left, with three at home. That might not be what the Bruins want, however -- they're just 16-16-6 at TD Garden. Included in that remaining home slate are two games against the conference-leading Capitals.

The Thrashers also won't have a lot of time to dwell on what happened against Carolina, long considered out of the playoff race.

"I can't explain how I feel right now but it's not good," Thrashers coach John Anderson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I'm very disappointed. I still believe in ourselves. We have to pick ourselves up. We have a game (Tuesday). We can reinstate ourselves right away. We can't feel sorry for ourselves right now, but it is very disappointing at this moment."

After their game against the Maple Leafs tonight, they enter the toughest part of their schedule. Their last five games, in order, are at the Capitals, at the Penguins, home for the Devils, at the Capitals and home for the Penguins.

It's a backbreaking -- and possibly hope-crunching -- stretch of games. The Thrashers are a combined 1-8-0 against those teams this season.

The Rangers have the hardest road to reach the playoffs. They have seven games left including tonight, but five of them are away from Madison Square Garden, where an already-anemic offense drops even lower -- their 79 goals on the road are the second-fewest in the League.

What the Rangers lack in time to make up ground, however, they do gain in ease of schedule. Four of their seven games are against teams outside of the playoffs -- the Islanders, Lightning, Panthers and Maple Leafs. They also play at Buffalo, but the Sabres are playing for a seed, not an invitation to the playoff dance.

The Rangers' toughest games likely will be their last two, a home-and-home set with the Flyers, who enter Tuesday's games sixth in the East, just two points ahead of eighth place with 82 points.

So who will grab the last playoff spot in the East? Boston certainly has the advantage because they're already there, but a hot streak by the Thrashers or Rangers could propel them right up the standings. The only sure thing is that a lot still can change between now and April 11.

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