Playoff race intensifies in Eastern Conference

BY foxsports • January 21, 2010

With over half the NHL season completed and most teams having 30 or fewer games remaining on their schedules, the race for the 2010 playoffs is beginning to heat up. And no where is it hotter than the Eastern Conference with the battle for the final four playoff berths getting tight.

The Conference leaders — Buffalo, New Jersey and Washington — along with fourth overall Pittsburgh have opened a significant lead on the remainder of their Eastern rivals, with only five points separating first from fourth as of Jan. 21. Barring a substantial late-season collapse by one or more of the teams, they appear in no danger of falling out of the race.

Below those clubs, there’s a considerable battle among nine teams for the final four postseason spots, as by the third week of January only six points separated fifth overall Boston from 13th overall Tampa Bay.

Sandwiched between them were Ottawa, the New York Rangers and Islanders, Florida, Montreal, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

None of these clubs can yet be considered playoff-bound teams.

The Boston Bruins have been plagued by injuries and lack of scoring depth throughout the season. Only the Carolina Hurricanes have averaged fewer goals per game than the Bruins, who are missing scorers Marc Savard and Milan Lucic to injury. With only one victory in their last five games heading into their Thursday game with Columbus, there’s genuine concern over their playoff hopes.

Inconsistency has plagued the Rangers since November as concerns have centered upon their depth at all positions. A better overall effort will be required for the Blueshirts to make the playoffs. Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist and superstar sniper Marian Gaborik have done their best carrying this club, but they’ll need their teammates to step up down the stretch.

Few prognosticators predicted the Islanders would be in the thick of the postseason chase by this point in the season, yet this plucky bunch, winners of seven of their last 10 heading into Jan. 21, show little sign of fading away. The return of oft-injured starter Rick DiPietro could provide a valuable boost to both goaltending depth and team morale.

The Florida Panthers are hanging tough in the standings, recently picking up nine of a possible 10 points in their last five games heading into Jan. 20. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun has been particularly sharp of late while five forwards, including Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss, are on pace for 20 or more goals this season despite losing sniper David Booth to injury. Having narrowly missed last season’s playoffs, the Panthers are determined not to miss their chance again.

The Montreal Canadiens have been a .500 team throughout their first 51 games. That would be the kiss of death in the Western Conference, but in the East it has kept them in the thick of the playoff chase. Injuries hampered them early in the season, but with their roster getting healthier in recent weeks and their goaltending depth they had a good chance of clinching a berth. They’ll need to pick up the pace soon to do so.

A month ago, the Philadelphia Flyers were on the verge of falling out of the race entirely but a coaching change, solid goaltending from backup Michael Leighton and the return of Simon Gagne and Ray Emery from injury have provided a much-needed boost in their fortunes. The Flyers aren’t out of the woods yet, but they’ve gained ground in the standings and appear on an upswing.

The Atlanta Thrashers had one of their best starts in franchise history but in recent weeks their play has cooled significantly. Their offensive production earlier in the season compensated for their average defensive game, but since mid-December they’ve struggled to score, resulting in a 4-10-2 record in December and a 3-3-3 record in the first half of January. Team captain Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract status remains uncertain and if the Thrashers fail to move back up the standings, it could affect how long he remains with the team.

As for the Tampa Bay Lightning, last season’s bottom-feeders have shown improvement in 2009-10. Bbut they’ve suffered the most overtime losses of all Eastern teams this season and those could ultimately mean the difference between making or missing the playoffs. With goalie Mike Smith once again sidelined and backup Antero Niittymaki struggling of late, it could be goaltending that ultimately decides the Lightning’s fate this season.

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