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Six Pack: Playoff spots coming down to final days

by Mike G. Morreale

The Pittsburgh Penguins travel to New Jersey to take on the Devils Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Versus. Watch Devils-Penguins highlights
The NHL playoff races are in high gear as teams continue jockeying for position within their respective conferences with just 14 days remaining in the regular season.

In addition to the spirited divisional races, there’s also a scoring race that has taken on a life of its own between Russian rivals Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and Alex Ovechkin of Washington. Entering the week, Ovechkin (106 points) leads Malkin (102) in the battle to become the first Russian to ever lead the NHL in scoring.

On the divisional front, there’s a pretty intense battle brewing in the Atlantic where the New Jersey Devils, currently seeded fourth in the East, trail second-seeded Pittsburgh by two points.

Penguins coach Michel Therrien is enjoying the fight to the finish despite the fact it may add a few gray hairs.

"It’s good for everyone involved,’’ Therrien said. "There are races within the division and races for making it to the playoffs. It’s great for the League and great for the fans and players. It’s funny how it always seems to come down to those last 10 games and now every team is playing a lot more divisional games, so that makes it even more exciting.’’

Therrien seems to be leaning toward Marc-Andre Fleury as his No. 1 goalie heading into the postseason. Ty Conklin (18-7-5, 2.46 GAA), who has performed well when called upon, would be the likely backup.

"Right now, I really like the way Fleury's playing,’’ Therrien told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last week. "If you want an answer now, Fleury's played really well, and it's good for our team. He's really solid.’’ Fleury has started seven of Pittsburgh’s last nine games, going 6-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average in that stretch.

All seven of Pittsburgh’s remaining regular-season games are against divisional foes, including Tuesday night’s showdown with the Devils. It’s one of six big contests highlighted in this week’s NHL Six-Pack that could drastically change the complexion of the conference standings.

Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche (Monday, 9:30 p.m. ET) – Calgary, currently seeded sixth in the West, is seeking its fourth straight playoff appearance and second Northwest Division title over that span. Eighth-seeded Colorado, winner of five straight Northwest titles from 1999 through 2003, is pushing for its 12th playoff appearance in 13 seasons after missing out last winter. Calgary winger Jerome Iginla, who leads the team in goals (48), assists (43), points (91) and plus/minus rating (plus-27), has four goals and four assists in seven games this season against Colorado, which has won four of the seven games played. Said Iginla: "These next games are not going to be (about) work or X’s and O’s. It’s going to be about passion and how bad we want it.’’ In 64 all-time meetings against the Avs, Iginla has 23 goals and 56 points, the most against any team he has faced over his 12-season career. Colorado center Paul Stastny leads his team in points (64), assists (42) and plus/minus (plus-19) through 60 games.

Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN) – The battle for first place in the Atlantic Division – and a higher playoff seed in the East – are at stake when the two rivals collide. The Devils have won four one-goal decisions of the seven meetings with the Penguins this season. Pittsburgh’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, has tallied 27 multi-point games, including two goals and an assist in a 7-1 dusting of the Devils on Saturday. The Penguins are 20-4-3 when Malkin has at least two points in a game. Additionally, Malkin has recorded a point in all seven matches against the Devils, totaling five goals and six assists, and he has nine goal and 11 assists in 18 career games against the Devils, with points in 16 of the 18 games. The Penguins, incidentally, have posted a 15-7-4 record without Sidney Crosby (ankle) – who could make his return in this game.

Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS) – The Flyers have been forced to play with a playoff-like intensity since the beginning of March. The club has six games remaining, all Atlantic Division opponents, including this final clash with the sixth-seeded Rangers in Manhattan. Flyers coach John Stevens said: "If you look around the League, there are division games for everybody the rest of the way. This is going to make for some great hockey the last couple of weeks of the regular season and I think (our) team is going to have to win four or five to get in, just by the way things are shaping up.’’ Of their remaining games, the Flyers have two matches each against the Devils and Penguins and another against the Islanders. The Rangers, who hold a 5-1-1 lead in the series this season, might be without their leading scorer, Scott Gomez, who is day-to-day after suffering bruised ribs Friday night in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Flyers. Petr Prucha replaced Gomez on a line with Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan during Saturday’s practice.

Vancouver Canucks at Minnesota Wild (Friday, 8 p.m. ET) – Before a four-game homestand to close the season, the Canucks must visit the Xcel Energy Center for a critical showdown against Northwest-leading Minnesota, which currently holds the third seed in the Western Conference. Seventh-seeded Vancouver has won six of its last nine. Minnesota wrapped up the last of 15 back-to-back games – with a 5-4 loss to Calgary on Saturday – with a record of 9-4-2 in the second game. The Wild have earned points in seven (3-1-4) of their last eight games but remain just one point ahead of sixth-seeded Calgary and three points ahead of the Canucks in the slugfest that has become the Northwest. Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom is 6-1-4 over his last 11 starts, with a 1.81 goals-against average. Vancouver’s Sedin twins, Henrik (70 points, 15 goals) and Daniel (69 points, 27 goals), rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in team scoring.

Boston Bruins at Buffalo Sabres (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET) – The Sabres have won three of their last four to pull within three points of eighth-seeded Boston, which is 1-3-3 in its last seven. The Bruins hold a 4-1-1 lead in the season series, including a 3-2 decision in their most recent meeting, Feb. 8 in Buffalo. Sabres goalie Ryan Miller sports a 2.50 goals-against average in six starts against Boston this season. Bruins backup goalie Alex Auld is 2-0 against Buffalo, with a 1.50 GAA and .955 save percentage, including a season-high 44 saves in a 4-1 decision Dec. 10. Boston starter Tim Thomas, who is 2-2 against the Sabres with a 2.50 GAA, has lost five of his last six starts. These teams also will meet in the regular-season finale for both teams in Boston on April 5.

Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET) – There’s a possibility Dallas and Anaheim could meet in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which makes this game all the more intriguing. In the teams’ most recent meeting, last Wednesday, Anaheim scored a 2-1 decision in Dallas when Todd Bertuzzi scored a power-play goal with just 27.2 seconds remaining to snap a 1-1 tie. Dallas, seeded fifth in the West, still holds a 5-2 lead in the season series and is 8-2-1 in the past 11 meetings. Dallas forwards Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro have combined for eight goals and 16 points in the seven games against the Ducks. Fourth-seeded Anaheim, 11-3-1 over its last 15, has relied on Ryan Getzlaf for offensive production against the Stars. Getzlaf, who leads the Ducks in scoring with 77 points, has produced eight points in seven games against Dallas this winter.

Historical hit of the week – Chicago goalie Tony Esposito, who played 15 seasons with the Blackhawks and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, recorded an NHL rookie record 15th shutout on March 29, 1970, in a 4-0 victory over Toronto. The 15 shutouts are the most ever in the modern era.

Contact Mike G. Morreale at

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