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East playoff race will bring joy to some, heartache to others

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Battling for the last few playoff berths in the NHL is like a cruel version of musical chairs because when the music stops somebody is always left disappointed.

In the NHL's case, the music ends on April 8, when the regular season draws to a close, but unlike the children's game mentioned above, losing out in a playoff race can lead to heartache for millions of hockey fans all over North America.

This year will be no different, as some fans prepare for the excitement of a playoff series or more, others are forced to accept the club's fate and begrudgingly enter the offseason.

The major race this year happens to be for the final spots in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and with less than three weeks left in the regular season, it's still anybody's guess who will be in the postseason.

Buffalo is the only team to clinch a playoff berth in the East, but the next four clubs (New Jersey, Atlanta, Ottawa and Pittsburgh) are in excellent shape to join the Sabres.

However, after the fifth-place Penguins, it's anybody's guess who will get into the second season. As of Tuesday (March 20), Tampa Bay is the sixth seed with 84 points, but the 11th-place New York Islanders are just five points behind the Lightning.

The Lightning could conceivably miss the postseason, but they do have a possible divisional title working in their favor. Tampa Bay is still within striking distance of Southeast Division-leading Atlanta and, therefore, is not far from a spot in the conference's top three seeds.

Vincent Lecavalier
Vincent Lecavalier and the Lightning are still within striking distance of the Southeast Division-leading Thrashers and, therefore, are not far from a spot in the conference's top three seeds.
While Tampa has the benefit of a close division race on its side, the next five clubs are still trying to find an advantage over their fellow suitors.

This is how the Eastern Conference standings read coming into Wednesday's action, the Rangers are seventh in the conference with 81 points, Carolina, Montreal and Toronto are all tied with 80, and the Isles are right there with 79 points.

Now, predicting the final two seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs this year may be an exercise in futility, but let's give it a shot anyway.

Of the five teams within two points of each other mentioned above, the Rangers are the most likely to make the postseason. The Blueshirts were not the obvious choice when leading goal-scorer Brendan Shanahan went down with a nasty concussion on February 17, but after a slow start without their power forward, the Rangers were able to weather the storm.

With Shanahan returning and captain Jaromir Jagr hitting his stride, the Rangers are poised to finish strong over the last few weeks and secure a playoff bid for the Madison Square Garden faithful.

The next club in line to fill out the postseason landscape in my estimation is the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, even though No. 1 goaltender and last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward is sidelined with a laceration above the left knee. It is uncertain when Ward, who has been out since March 11, will have the stitches removed and when he can take his spot between the pipes.

However, the 'Canes still have an excellent captain in Rod Brind'Amour and more than enough talent to get into the playoffs.

As for the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Islanders, although I didn't pick them as favorites to make the postseason, there are many reasons why they could make it.

Toronto is getting healthier with the imminent return of defenseman Tomas Kaberle and the last time I checked the Leafs still had Mats Sundin, otherwise known as "Captain Clutch".

The Canadiens have been stung by the loss of starting goaltender Cristobal Huet (left hamstring surgery) for the remainder of the regular season. However, if either veteran netminder David Aebischer or rookie backstop Jaroslav Halak get hot in the last few weeks, it could be the Habs getting one of the eight seeds.

As for the Islanders, they have dropped four straight since enforcer Chris Simon was officially suspended for the rest of the season, but the deadline trade for sniper Ryan Smyth could still wind up making a difference. Smyth, who was acquired from Edmonton for a draft pick and two prospects, has 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) through his first nine games with New York and may get even better as he plays more with his new club.

With these five teams so close to each other it is easy to forget about Florida and Boston, who come into Wednesday four and six points behind the Isles, respectively. However, the difficulty in leapfrogging a handful of teams at the stage of the season has been well documented and the Panthers and Bruins will likely be left out in the cold.

It's still anybody's guess who will fill out these final slots in the East, but fans should temper their enthusiasm because a key win one day could lead to a crushing loss the next. But, the teams that put it all together in these closing weeks to get into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth will have all the more reason to celebrate.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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