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Game of the Week preview: Breaking down the East playoff bubble

Apr 3, 2011, 12:46 AM EST

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Philadelphia Flyers v New York Rangers Getty Images

The New York Rangers are currently the eighth-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, but the three other major teams in the race for the last two playoff spots earned wins while they sat idle on Saturday. What was once a nice cushion keeps shrinking, meaning that the Rangers face yet another crucial late-season game against the Philadelphia Flyers. (You can watch that NBC Game of the Week at 12:30 pm ET on Sunday, by the way.)

In the same spirit of our breakdown of the Flyers’ race to wrestle the top seed from the Washington Capitals, we thought it might be wise to handicap the battle for the last two playoff spots in the East. We’ll exclude the sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens (91 points with three games remaining) for the sake of simplicity, but will throw in the long shot 10th-place Toronto Maple Leafs in the interest of being comprehensive.

Let’s count down the closing stretches for those four teams, from highest to lowest ranking.

7. Buffalo Sabres (39-29-10 for 88 points with four games remaining; 34 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 96.

Remaining games: @ Carolina (Sunday), home vs. Tampa Bay (Tuesday), home vs. Philadelphia (Friday) and @ Columbus (next Saturday).

Thoughts: Obviously, Sunday’s contest against the Hurricanes is enormous. A regulation win would give them nice breathing room, but their schedule isn’t a cakewalk after that. The Lightning and Flyers will likely have incentive to spoil the Sabres’ playoff run, with Philadelphia having the bonus of trying to avoid Buffalo in the first round to boot. The Blue Jackets aren’t an automatic win either, although the team is way out of the West playoff picture.

8. New York Rangers (41-32-5 for 87 pts with four games remaining; 33 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 95.

Remaining games: @ Philadelphia (Sun), home vs. Boston (Mon), home vs. Atlanta (Thurs) and home vs. New Jersey (next Sat).

Thoughts: The Rangers are odd ducks, with a nice win total and a strong goal differential, yet a reliance on shootout wins (eight so far). Anyway, surviving back-to-back games against the Flyers and Bruins is vital. The Rangers must hope that Boston will take Monday’s game easy since they already clinched the Northeast Division. After those games, there are should-wins against two teams that were eliminated from the playoffs on April 2nd … although one can bet the Devils would love to ruin things for the Rangers on New York’s last game of the season.

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9. Carolina Hurricanes (38-30-10 for 86 pts with four games remaining; 33 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 94.

Remaining games: Home vs. Buffalo (Sun), home vs. Detroit (Wed), @ Atlanta (Fri) and home vs. Tampa Bay (next Sat).

Thoughts: Again, Sunday’s game against the Sabres is huge. If Carolina manages to earn a regulation win against Buffalo, they would tie them in points and draw even in the first major tiebreaker category too. After that, they face an always-tough game against the Red Wings, a should-win contest against the golf course-bound Thrashers and what could be a big game (or a shoulder shrug) for the Lightning. This isn’t an easy finish, but a regulation victory against Buffalo could really open things up for the Canes.

10. Toronto Maple Leafs (37-32-10 for 84 pts with three games remaining, 32 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 90.

Games remaining: Home vs. Washington (Tues), @ New Jersey (Wed) and home vs. Montreal (next Sat).

Thoughts: The Leafs have less points than all three teams (four less than Buffalo, three less than the Rangers and two less than Carolina) and one less game in hand. They also lack much help in the way of a non-shootout win tiebreaker and face a rocky schedule. Overall, their chances are the slimmest of the East teams who haven’t been eliminated, but it’s not a done deal just yet. They’ll just need help to get there.

***

After examining the four teams’ closing schedules, I think the Rangers have the best chance of gaining one of the final spots and the Maple Leafs are a long shot at best. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes could really muddy the situation with a regulation win against the Sabres on Sunday.

Overall, the Sabres and Rangers have the best chance to retain a spot, but it should be a very close race. It all starts with Sunday afternoon’s NBC Game of the Week between the Flyers and the Rangers, so don’t miss it.

Let us know which teams you think will make it in the comments.

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