NHL Playoff Races: Eastern Conference Race Heads Down To the Wire

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IMarch 31, 2011

NHL Playoff Races: Eastern Conference Race Heads Down To the Wire

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    BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 15:  Goalie Cam Ward #30 of the Carolina Hurricanes makes a pad save on a shot by Cody McCormick #8 of the Buffalo Sabres  at HSBC Arena on March 15, 2011 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    As of March 31, it's not April yet.

    But it almost is, and the Eastern Conference playoff race is showing that.

    As the five bubble teams along the cut line battle down to the last second, the Canadiens (89 pts), Sabres (87 pts) and Rangers (87 pts) fight to keep their spot in the top eight while the Hurricanes (84 pts) and Maple Leafs (80 pts) look to find a way to sneak their way in.

    However, with less than two weeks remaining in the 2010-2011 NHL regular season, the time has come for each to make their move—if they haven't already done so. With the exception of Montreal, which has only recently dropped onto the top of the bubble, all four other teams have already turned on the jets as they look to bring postseason hockey to their arena.

    How does each team match up to the others in terms of streak, remaining schedule, tiebreaker advantages, and plain ol' luck? We analyze how this final frenzy to the make the playoffs will pan out.

Montreal Canadiens

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    MONTREAL, CANADA - MARCH 29:  Tomas Plekanec #14 of the Montreal Canadiens gets the rebounding puck in front of Ondrej Pavelec #31 of the Atlanta Thrashers during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on March 29, 2011 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  (Photo by Ri
    Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    Current Seed: 6th

    Points: 89 (Regulation/Overtime Wins: 38)

    Games Remaining: 4

    Record in Last 10 Games: 4-6-0

    Current Streak: Lost 4 of 5

    Montreal had proved long ago that they were a playoff team to be reckoned with from the very start this season, but a recent slump that has seem them go 1-4 and be shut out three times in their last five games has put the Habs into a little bit of trouble.

    Injuries to the defense have hurt their team chemistry and a plethora of surging teams nipping on their heels has given Canadiens fans an extra something to worry about. With only four games remaining (all of their competitors have five) and a brutal 6-2 loss in Carolina last night embedded in their minds, Montreal needs to re-focus over the next week to, first, make the playoffs, and then, hopefully, make another postseason run.

    Playoff Appearances Since Lockout: Four ('06, '08, '09, '10)

    Remaining Schedule:

    Apr. 2 - @ New Jersey

    Apr. 5 - vs. Chicago

    Apr. 7 - @ Ottawa

    Apr. 9 - @ Toronto (Must-Win Game)

    Avg. Points For Remaining Opponents: 78.25

    Record Against...


    NY Rangers...3-1-0



    Combined Record: 11-6-2

Buffalo Sabres

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    BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 30: Jhonas Enroth #1 and Mike Weber #6  of the Buffalo Sabres defend against Ryan Callahan #24 of the New York Rangers at HSBC Arena on March 30, 2011 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Current Seed: Tied-8th

    Points: 87 (Regulation/Overtime Wins: 34)

    Games Remaining: Five

    Record in Last Ten Games: 6-3-1

    Streak: Won 4 of 5

    The Buffalo Sabres, last year's Northeast Division Champion, were surprisingly outside of the top eight for much of the season, but a run in early 2011 put them back in contention and another ongoing 4-1-0 streak has them sitting where they want to be, for now.

    Last night's victory, 1-0 over the Rangers, pushed the Sabres into seventh by way of a tiebreaker and avenged their 4-3 loss the night before in Toronto, which ended a three-game winning run. A tough remaining schedule, including dates against Conference leaders Washington and Philadelphia and also against prime competitor Carolina, will test them, but Buffalo has the talent to succeed.

    Playoff Appearances Since Lockout: Three ('05-'06, '06-'07, '09-'10)

    Remaining Schedule:

    Apr. 2 - @ Washington

    Apr. 3 - @ Carolina

    Apr. 5 - vs. Tampa Bay

    Apr. 8 - vs. Philadelphia

    Apr. 9 - @ Columbus

    Avg. Points For Opponents: 91.4

    Record Against...


    NY Rangers...2-1-1



    Combined Record: 9-8-2

New York Rangers

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    NEW YORK - MARCH 22:  Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers skates against the Florida Panthers on March 22, 2011 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Rangers defeated the Islanders 1-0.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Place: Tied-8th

    Points: 87 (Regulation/Overtime Wins: 33)

    Games Remaining: Five

    Record in Last Ten Games: 7-2-1

    Current Streak: none

    Two back-to-back 1-0 final scores—one in favor of the Rangers, one not—and an additional shootout loss before those ended what was a five-game victorious run for New York, who has stayed on the bubble but in the top eight for mostly all of this season.

    The Blueshirts have been led by All-Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist all year, and they'll need to rely on him even more down the stretch as they encounter some top offenses from around the league in early April. With the 'Canes right behind them, a strong finishing effort is crucial.

    Playoff Appearances Since Lockout: Four ('05-06, '06-07, '07-'08, '08-'09)

    Remaining Schedule:

    Mar. 31 - @ NY Islanders

    Apr. 3 - @ Philadelphia

    Apr. 4 - vs. Boston

    Apr. 7 - vs. Atlanta

    Apr. 9 - vs. New Jersey

    Avg. Points For Opponents: 83.8

    Record Against...





    Combined Record: 8-7-1

Carolina Hurricanes

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    WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29:  Tuomo Ruutu #15 of the Carolina Hurricanes scores the game clinching goal on goalie Semyon Varlamov #1 of the Washington Capitals during a shootout at the Verizon Center on March 29, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/G
    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Place: 9th

    Points: 84 (Regulation/Overtime Wins: 32)

    Games Remaining: Five

    Record in Last Ten: 6-4-0

    Streak: Won 5 of 6

    Carolina had a tough task ahead of them after last Saturday's 3-2 home loss to Tampa Bay. Their three-game winning streak which had been keeping them alive had just ended, they faced a five-point deficit to eighth-place Buffalo, and their next two games were against teams that they were a combined 0-8 against so far (Washington and Montreal).

    And they won both games.

    With those two extremely energizing wins in hand, the Hurricanes will rely on NHL saves leader Cam Ward (40 saves in both games), All Star captain Eric Staal, and likely Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner (five goals, three assists in 5-1-0 streak) to propel them into a thrilling playoff bid. 

    Playoff Appearances Since Lockout: Two ('05-'06 Cup Champions, '08-'09)

    Remaining Schedule:

    Apr. 2 - @ NY Islanders

    Apr. 3 - vs. Buffalo

    Apr. 6 - vs. Detroit

    Apr. 8 - @ Atlanta

    Apr. 9 - vs. Tampa Bay

    Avg. Points for Opponents: 84.8

    Record Against...



    NY Rangers...2-0-2


    Combined Record: 7-6-2

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    ST PAUL, MN - MARCH 22:  Nazem Kadri #43 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Xcel Energy Center on March 22, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Place: 10th

    Points: 80 (Regulation/Overtime Wins: 31)

    Games Remaining: Five

    Record in Last Ten: 6-4-0

    Streak: Won 4 of 5

    Toronto, who hasn't made the the playoffs a single time since the lockout, has a chance to finally bring some postseason hockey to Canada's Capitol, but, for now, they're still a long shot. Trailing by seven points with just five games remaining, they'll need to win out and get some help from others to sneak into the top eight.

    Young goaltender James Reimer has been a terrific find, and, backstopped by his play, the Leafs are on a 4-1 run that has kept them in contention. Their remaining schedule is no piece of cake, however, and it'll be a long, hard road for the Leafs in their attempt to shock the hockey world and qualify for the playoffs.

    Playoff Appearances Since Lockout: None (Most recently, '03-'04)

    Remaining Schedule:

    Mar. 31 - @ Boston

    Apr. 2 - @ Ottawa

    Apr. 5 - vs. Washington

    Apr. 6 - @ New Jersey

    Apr. 9 - vs. Montreal

    Avg. Points for Opponents: 85.4

    Record Against...



    NY Rangers...1-3-0


    Combined Record: 9-9-1