NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Race '10: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Greg CaggianoSenior Writer IMarch 27, 2010

Just two games ago, the New York Rangers were dead and buried. With the Bruins struggling, and the Flyers riddled with injuries, the grave the team dug for themselves last Sunday is being exhumed, one shovel of dirt at a time.

With a loss to the Boston Bruins last Sunday in a listless and uninspired effort, the Rangers season was done. They were now seven points behind, and with a possible Boston winning streak on the horizon, all seemed lost.

The team that is more intriguing, though, is the Philadelphia Flyers. When Ray Emery was announced to be done for the season, Michael Leighton became the No. 1 goalie. But he would soon get injured, and would be replaced with Brian Boucher, who can be great when he is on, but awful when he is not. With his getting the day off this afternoon in Pittsburgh, rookie goalie Johan Backlund was slated to make his NHL debut.

He stopped 22 of 24 shots before getting injured himself, and Boucher is back in net. The Flyers have now lost four in a row, which will become five if they cannot make a comeback against the Penguins.

The Bruins are currently leading Calgary 5-0, which would put them five points ahead of the Rangers, who sit in 10th, one point behind the Atlanta Thrashers as well.

I still do not believe the Rangers will make the playoffs, but they sure are making things interesting. Why did they wait so long to finally wake up? That, and the question of consistency, is something we’ve been asking since early November.

The new question is, can the Rangers get in?

The Bruins are fighting hard, and even with their problems, many having to do with injuries, I still feel they will get in. But the Flyers, that’s a different story. With Jeff Carter being out for four weeks, and literally no goaltender, will they be able to hold on for a playoff spot?

The Thrashers have been solid all season, and the Rangers are now inching there, with a commanding win over the New York Islanders, and a come-from-behind victory over the New Jersey Devils.

This is going to go all the way down to the wire, because the Bruins and Flyers, if they get in, will not be able to clinch until the very end, and if the Thrashers and Rangers keep winning, who knows how many times these teams will leapfrog and change positions in the standings?

The NHL got what they wanted with the rule changes, instituting a parity in the game so everyone has a chance. This was seen last season when the Washington Capitals won the Southeast Division title on the last day of the regular season, inching out the Hurricanes by a point. But the Hurricanes didn’t just lose the title, they missed the playoffs all together.

Putting the Rangers “tank movement” aside, these last few weeks can be very exciting, and it is no doubt what the NHL wanted. Remember back in the day, when there were two or three weeks left in the season, and you already knew who was going to make it? Well, those days are long gone now.

Tonight the Rangers will face the last place, albeit very hard-working Toronto Maple Leafs. Out of the eight games remaining, including tonight, five will be against teams below them in the standings, one will be against the Buffalo Sabres, and finally, a home-and-home will close out the season with the Philadelphia Flyers.

If everything stays on its current course, the battle with the Flyers at the end of the season could be the most meaningful regular season-ending game in recent history, and may serve as a make or break for one of the teams.

Much to the behest of Rangers fans, the team did not just fold up and die. If they wanted to, they would not have come back to tie the Devils with 16.5 seconds, and then win in a shootout. They are going to try their hardest to get in, and with only two points separating seventh from eighth, they should have their sights set on seventh.

The Washington Capitals are going to be the team to beat in the first round, although I do not believe they will win the Stanley Cup. It is for that reason that the Rangers should eye seventh place, because they have fared well against the Devils, who currently hold second, and have a better shot against Pittsburgh than they do Washington.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, playoff race that will come down to the wire. Enjoy, everyone!

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