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Races get tighter at three-quarters mark

by John Kreiser /
The NHL season reaches the three-quarters pole today -- with all but four teams either in the top eight in their conference or within nine points of the top eight. We're at the point where a hot week can send any team flying up the standings, while a bad week will have the opposite effect.

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

Eastern Conference:

Division leaders:

Philadelphia (86 points after Thursday's 4-3 overtime win against to the Islanders) blew a 3-1 third-period lead and allowed the pesky Islanders to force overtime, but beat New York for the 12th consecutive time at the Wells Fargo Center when Andrej Meszaros scored with 17.6 seconds left in OT. The Flyers lead Pittsburgh by eight points in the Atlantic Division race and are nine up on the Lightning for first place in the conference.

Tampa Bay (77 points) wraps up its 12-game homestand Friday night with a visit from New Jersey. The Bolts will have a new backup goalie -- they dealt Dan Ellis to Anaheim on Thursday for Curtis McElhinney.

Boston (75 points) has been off since Tuesday's 3-1 win at Calgary. The schedule-maker gave the B's a three-day break before a tough weekend back-to-back -- at Vancouver on Saturday and at Edmonton on Sunday.

The next five:

Pittsburgh (78 points) added some more offensive help on Thursday by dealing a conditional seventh-round pick to Ottawa for former Penguin Alexei Kovalev. They hope he'll be in the lineup for Friday night's game at Carolina. Two other newcomers, forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen, will be playing their second game with the Pens after being acquired Monday.

Washington (74 points) goes back to work after a welcome three-day break following a road trip that saw them play three games out West before wins Sunday at Buffalo and Monday at Pittsburgh. Alex Ovechkin is heating up with 9 goals in his last 15 games.

(71 points after Tuesday's 5-4 home loss to Toronto) opted to start backup goalie Alex Auld against the Leafs. He didn't last long -- Carey Price came on in relief after Auld was beaten three times on nine shots. The Canadians are just 2-5-2 in their last nine and better get things turned around quickly.

New York Rangers (68 points) complete a three-game trip with Friday's visit to Washington. The Rangers have three wins in their last five games, but have to be leery of this season's new rule that uses non-shootout wins to break ties -- seven of their 32 wins have come in the tie-breaker.

Carolina (65 points) welcomes back forward Cory Stillman, who came from Florida on Thursday in a trade for forward Ryan Carter and a draft pick, for Friday's home game against Pittsburgh. The 'Canes have 13 of their last 21 at the RBC Center.

On the outside looking in:

(62 points) has a golden chance to gain ground when last-place Ottawa comes to the HSBC Arena on Friday. It's the fifth of a six-game homestand for the Sabres, who welcomed new owner Terry Pegula by beating Atlanta 4-1 on Wednesday to end a three-game slide.

Toronto (61 points after Thursday's 5-4 victory at Montreal) just refuses to go away -- and if Phil Kessel stays hot, the Leafs could make the postseason for the first time since 2004. Kessel had 2 goals and a pair of assists in the win at Montreal, giving him 6 goals in his last eight games. The Leafs are 8-2-2 since the All-Star break.

Atlanta (60 points) continues to make roster moves. GM Rick Dudley dealt defenseman Brent Sopel, a free agent this summer, and spare forward Nigel Dawes to Montreal on Thursday for Brent Maxwell and a draft pick. The Thrashers need a surge or they're going to find themselves too far back with too many teams in front of them.

Florida (57 points) is also on the verge of falling out of the race -- although either the Thrashers or Panthers will go home with two points when Atlanta comes to BankAtlantic Center on Friday night. Back-to-back 5-1 losses to the Islanders and Senators this week didn't help.

New Jersey (56 points) is nine points out of a playoff berth entering Friday's game at Tampa Bay. The Devils' 16-1-2 surge started with back-to-back wins against the Bolts in January; they bring an eight-game winning streak to the St. Pete Times Forum after Tuesday's 1-0 win at Dallas.

Western Conference

Division leaders:

(87 points after Thursday's 3-2 home win against St. Louis) blew a 2-0 lead but got the game-winner from Manny Malhotra in the third period to beat the Blues and stay on top of the overall standings. Backup goaltender Cory Schneider made 28 stops and continues to show that he's reliable enough to keep coach Alain Vigneault from having to overwork starter Roberto Luongo. The Canucks are 2-1-0 halfway through a six-game homestand.

(80 points after Thursday's 4-1 home loss to Dallas) heads out for a five-game trip after another disappointing home loss. Two days after falling 4-3 to San Jose, the Wings spotted the Stars a 2-0 lead late in the first period and never recovered. Detroit starts its trip in Buffalo on Friday before heading to the West Coast.

San Jose
(76 points) plays its 10th road game of the month when it visits Calgary on Friday. The Sharks have won seven of the first nine, including Wednesday's 3-2 OT win at Pittsburgh. But the schedule eases off after Friday -- the Sharks have three days off, then play 13 of their last 19 at home, including their first six games in March.

The next five:

Phoenix (75 points) spent Thursday licking its wounds after an 8-3 rout at Tampa Bay on Wednesday brought its eight-game winning streak to a shattering conclusion. The Coyotes are in Columbus on Friday and conclude their five-game trip in Chicago on Sunday.

Los Angeles (72 points after Thursday's 4-2 home win against Minnesota) avoided the dreaded "first game home after a long road trip" jinx by fending off the Wild in its return from a 10-game road trip. Wayne Simmonds had a pair of goals as the Kings improved to 10-1-3 in their last 14 games and moved out of the pile of 70-point teams into fifth place by winning the opener of a six-game homestand

Minnesota (70 points after Thursday's 4-2 loss at Los Angeles) got off to a bad start in its two-game swing through Southern California by losing at L.A. The Wild fell behind the Kings but is at the head of the pack of five teams tied with 70 points because they have the most non-shootout wins -- they have just two; the others have at least four.

Chicago (70 points after Thursday's 3-0 win at Nashville) is starting to look like the team that ended the franchise's 49-year Stanley Cup drought last spring. The Hawks welcomed back coach Joel Quenneville, who missed four games with a bleeding ulcer, by shutting down the Predators and moving back into the top eight in the West. The Hawks have won three in a row and four of their last five.

Dallas (70 points afterThursday's 4-1 win at Detroit) may have saved its season by beating the Wings. The Stars had been 1-8-1 and dropped five in a row before Kari Lehtonen stopped 38 shots to give Dallas three wins in four games against Detroit this season and put the Stars back into the top eight. They also got some good news on the injury front -- center Brad Richards, sidelined with what's believed to be a concussion, was able to skate Thursday.

On the outside looking in:

Nashville (70 points after Thursday's 3-0 home loss to Chicago) has lost its scoring touch. The Predators were blanked for the second game in a row and have dropped their last three to fall out of the top eight in the West.

Calgary (70 points) had to sit and watch the other contenders play during the last two days while waiting for San Jose to come to the Scotiabank Saddledome for a showdown on Friday night. The Flames are also home to St. Louis on Sunday -- they get a break, since the Blues will be playing on back-to-back nights and for the fifth time in seven days.

Anaheim (68 points) will have a new face in goal when Minnesota comes to Honda Center on Friday. Either recent signee Ray Emery or newly acquired Dan Ellis will be in the net against the Wild after GM Bob Murray dealt away backup Curtis McElhinney to get Ellis from Tampa Bay. The Ducks have dropped four in a row without injured starter Jonas Hiller.

Columbus (66 points) hopes to keep rolling when Phoenix comes to Nationwide Arena on Friday night. The Jackets are 7-1-1 in their last night, rescuing their season after it appeared they were ready to drop too far behind to catch up.

St. Louis (63 points after Thursday's 3-2 loss at Vancouver) put up a spirited fight against the NHL's top team but came up short again. The Blues, 9-14-5 on the road, visit Edmonton on Friday and Calgary two nights later to wrap up the most grueling week in the NHL this season -- five games in seven days, a grind set up by a Feb. 1 postponement.

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