By Allan Muir
Herewith, the second of our looks at the final week of regular season action. Today, the Eastern Conference. Our Western Conference playoff breakdown is here.
In the wake of Saturday's action, five teams have officially clinched berths in the Eastern playoffs, leaving three spots up for grabs.
The Islanders are in the catbird seat after a thrilling 5-4 shootout win in Winnipeg on Saturday. The Devils are drawing their last breath. That leaves the Sens, Rangers and Jets to battle it out for the final two spots.
Here's a look at how each of these teams closes out the season and how their chances stack up.
New York Islanders (sixth, 53 points): After extracting two points from Saturday afternoon's barnburner in Winnipeg, the Isles are just three points away from clinching their first playoff berth since 2007. They have three games remaining and while all are on the road, each of their opponents -- Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo -- are playing out the string. Building up steam on a 12-1-2 run, New York shouldn't have any problem sealing the deal.
Ottawa Senators (seventh, 52 points): The Sens need to secure four points from their remaining four games, but the schedule won't make it easy. They host Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and face Boston and Washington on the road--that's two division leaders and a third team that is just a point off the pace. They've gone a respectable 3-4-3 against that group this season, but you have to wonder if there will be any lingering damage from last night's 4-1 loss to the Leafs. The last time Toronto spanked them like that it triggered a five-game losing skid. The potential return of Norris-winner Erik Karlsson could provide a huge boost down the home stretch.
New York Rangers (eighth, 50 points): The Blueshirts are playing some of their best hockey of the season (7-2-1 in their last 10) and face a cakewalk of a schedule to close out the season. All four of their remaining games see them face non-playoff teams: Carolina and Florida on the road and a pair of home games against the Devils. They'll need a more consistent effort from Henrik Lundqvist to seal the deal. After a strong March, he's posted an .857 save percentage in three of his last six games, allowing at least three goals in each.The Rangers have to approach the home stretch with the aim of winning out. With Winnipeg holding the tiebreak, they need to finish at least one point better than the Jets.
Winnipeg Jets (ninth, 49 points): Saturday's shootout loss to the Isles ended an unlikely five-game winning streak that propelled the Jets back into contention for a postseason berth. And while it was one of their better efforts of the season, the defeat may have ended their hopes. The Jets have just three games remaining--one fewer than the Rangers--and need to run the table to control their chances. They play in Buffalo on Monday and Washington on Tuesday, then finish off the schedule at home against the Habs on Thursday. The Caps whipped them in back-to-back games in March, and the Canadiens are 2-0 against the Jets this season. Looks like they'll fall just short of the mark. New Jersey Devils (10th, 44 points): The Devils need to win each of their four remaining games, and then get some help from around the conference, in order to avoid missing the playoffs one year after appearing in the Cup Final. The key to their hopes: they face the eighth-place Rangers twice, including today's matinee contest on NBC. Win it, and they stay alive. Lose, and it's time for GM Lou Lamoriello to begin planning a rebuild for the first in his career.