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Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the postseason race at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and what the future holds for the Rangers, Devils and Leafs.
Burnside: Well, my friend, this is the great part of the regular season, no, when it seems like every night there are at least a couple games of great importance? The Eastern Conference isn't nearly as compelling as the Western Conference in terms of the ferocity of the playoff races, but it's going to get interesting in a hurry in the East, especially if the Leafs and Devils keep coming. But the game of the night tonight has to be Buffalo at Carolina. I think you and I both agree the Sabres have the best chance of dislodging one of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. Neither team has been tearing it up, although both teams are coming off wins, with the Sabres edging the Rangers earlier this week, thanks to more brilliant work from Ryan Miller. The Sabres could move into a tie with Carolina with a regulation win and would still own two games in hand on the Canes. This one might come down to special teams as the Canes have managed just two power-play goals in their past eight games -- wonder if that's why GM Jim Rutherford repatriated old Cane Cory Stillman? The Sabres, meanwhile, notched two power-play markers in their win over the Rangers -- thanks for coming over Brad Boyes -- but before that, had just two man-advantage goals in their previous nine games. Is it really a two-team race for the final spot, or do you think the up-and-down Rangers and the streaking Devils and Leafs will factor in before this is all said and done?
LeBrun: The Rangers have offered up the seventh spot in this Eastern derby by going 4-8-1 since Feb. 1, allowing the Devils, Thrashers, Leafs and Sabres a shot at two playoff spots, not just one. During that same stretch since Feb. 1, the red-hot Devils have gone 12-1-1 to move within nine points of eighth in the East, coming from behind last night to nip Tampa 2-1 at home. You can't blame Devils fans for keeping the faith, considering the way their team has played in the second half. It's still a sizable gap to close with just over five weeks to play in the regular season, but the Hurricanes and Rangers have allowed it to be a race. Toronto moved within four points last night with a big overtime win at home over Pittsburgh. The Leafs, who know how to break the hearts of their legion of fans like no other team, have a mighty tough one tonight in Philadelphia. But yes, Carolina-Buffalo is the game of the night in the East, and credit the GMs on both teams for deadline moves that have provided immediate dividends, with Stillman and Boyes already scoring for their new teams.
Burnside: Devils fans, like those who populate Leaf Nation, are pinning their hopes on improbable runs continuing and on the continuing mediocrity of the teams ahead of them, as you noted. Nothing wrong with that. I think we'll know a lot more about the Leafs and their chances after tonight's game in Philly and then Saturday's home date with Chicago. The Blackhawks are starting to roll, winning again last night over red-hot Calgary, so I am figuring the Leafs need at least two out of four points in the next two to stay in the hunt. The Rangers are at home against a Minnesota team that was pounded by the Islanders last night, and then go to Ottawa where the stripped-down Sens are actually playing pretty well, with youngsters like Bobby Butler getting a taste of NHL life. If you're the Rangers and you don't get three of four, then I think it's officially time to sound the alarm bells. With Martin Biron out for the rest of the season with a broken collarbone, the burden is resting squarely on Henrik Lundqvist's shoulders. Not that it hasn't been that way pretty much since he arrived in New York. Still, no safety net for the Rangers. To me that's what's interesting about the Devils' run. Johan Hedberg was terrific in Martin Brodeur's absence, and now Brodeur's back and Ilya Kovalchuk is cooking. Who's to say the Devils don't close to within four or five points within the next week?
LeBrun: Let me say this about Kovalchuk, who scored the winner last night. Over the past two months, he's justified every penny the Devils invested in him. He was the best player on the ice last night and yes, Steven Stamkos was on the other team. Too little, too late? Maybe. But if the worst outcome is just falling short and realizing the potential on this team, Devils fans can sleep this summer knowing next season won't hold the same nightmare in the opening half. Of all these teams in the Eastern bottom race, I feel like no other club is facing more pressure than the Rangers. John Tortorella's men were a terrific story in the first half, a hard-working club that finished December at 22-14-2, making noise about not only making the playoffs, but maybe even starting the postseason at home the way they were playing. But they've gone 11-14-2 since then, falling to the back and making their fans sweat mightily.
Burnside: The Rangers are an interesting study because they have worked so hard, but in the end it looks like their playoff hopes may be crushed by the lack of production from Marian Gaborik, still out of the lineup with what is believed to be a concussion. His lack of durability was a huge question mark when the Rangers signed him before last season, and they could be flirting with a second straight season out of the playoffs because, in large part, he could not deliver enough offense to get the Rangers into the top eight. As for the Devils, beware of teams that play well when they have nothing left to play for. Yes, their play under Jacques Lemaire has been exemplary. But the Leafs are a team that has since the lockout played well down the stretch but missed the playoffs in five straight years and frankly will likely miss them for a sixth straight time this spring. I think they call it Fool's Gold. I'll be sold on Kovalchuk and the Devils' plan for the future when they can re-sign Zach Parise and get out of the gate in a respectable fashion next year. Or when they go 14-3-2 down the stretch, which is what they'll need to do to get to 90 points, which may or may not get them into the playoffs. But, just for fun, how much fun would a Devils-Flyers rematch this spring be?
LeBrun: Scotty, your relationship with Devils fans continues to get strained, my friend. Can't you ever cut this team a break? The Devils host the injury-depleted Penguins on Friday night before playing in Long Island on Sunday afternoon. The Isles have played better of late, but those are two very winnable games. Keep the faith, Devils fans, keep the faith! Until tomorrow, my friend.