So, who are the three clubs with the right stuff? All will be revealed below. (Western Conference teams will appear in this space next Wednesday.)
Currently: Sixth place, 76 pointsLast 10: 7-2-1Remaining sked: 18 games -- Nine at home, 12 against teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: How's this for an unlikely scenario? After Thursday night's convincing 5-1 win over Pittsburgh -- Boston's fifth straight victory -- the Bruins find themselves just four points back of Northeast Division-leading Ottawa, with two games in hand. No need to start stitching up a banner just yet (their arch-rivals from Montreal are more likely to take the title), but the league's ugliest team is reaping the rewards of a full commitment to coach Claude Julien's stifling scheme. Backed by All-Star stopper Tim Thomas, the NHL's leading disher Marc Savard. and a cast of grimly determined automatons, these formerly soft B's have become one of the league's toughest opponents. They'll lose their share down the home stretch, but they won't give away points.
The Verdict: Start printing the tickets. They're in...and it says here they'll win a round.
Currently: Seventh place, 76 pointsLast 10: 7-1-2Remaining sked: 16 games -- seven at home, eight against teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: With points in 13 of their last 16 games, the Rangers have finally shaken off the mid-season blahs, thanks in large part to the chemistry that's developed between enigmatic superstar Jaromir Jagr and the league's most underappreciated rookie, Brandon Dubinsky, whose strength, passion and hockey sense are reminiscent of Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf. The kid seems to have lit a fire under the team's most important skater. Jagr has nine points in his last six games, but his two-way play has Rangers fans giddy about playoff possibilities. It helps that Henrik Lundqvist is 5-0-1, with a GAA just under 2.00, since signing a long-term deal on Feb. 14. After draining so much life out of the team with his inconsistent January, Lundqvist needs to be the Rangers' best player down the stretch.
The verdict: They're in, with the chance to finish as high as sixth.
Currently: Eighth place, 74 pointsLast 10: 3-4-3Remaining sked: 16 games -- nine at home; eight against teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: They are still on the inside, thanks to the maddening inconsistencies of their Eastern opponents, after a brutal 10-game winless streak that consumed virtually all of February. But as bad as that was, the Flyers have won their last two and have at least partially addressed the impact of a nasty stretch of injures with the deadline additions of Vinny Prospal (29 goals) and steady defender Jaroslav Modry. But as useful as they can be, the Flyers are still without leader Mike Richards for two more weeks. Daniel Briere, who leads the team in both check size and blown opportunities, has been held scoreless in nine of his last 11 games. He has to be a difference maker -- a positive difference maker -- for the Flyers to have a shot.
The Verdict: Could go either way, but bet on them sliding out of the picture.
Currently: Ninth place, 71 pointsLast 10: 4-5-1Remaining sked: 16 games -- seven at home, five against teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: After fouling up yet another contract negotiation with a below-market offer (three years, Darcy? Really?), the Sabres had no choice but to deal Brian Campbell rather than lose him for nothing as a free agent this summer. While the future potential of Steve Bernier and a first-rounder sounds great, the loss of Campbell pretty much sticks a dagger in this season's playoff aspirations. He quarterbacked the power play. He was the lynchpin of a vaunted transition game. He was a calming and reliable presence in the defensive zone, and he was a leader both on and off the ice for a team that lost two key leaders to free agency last summer. The players can rally, but you can't compensate for a presence like Campbell's with such a shallow blueline corps.
The Verdict: The tough schedule really works against them. They'll keep it close, but miss the cut.
Currently: 11th place, 68 pointsLast 10: 4-3-3Remaining sked: 16 games -- eight at home, seven against teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: After briefly clutching a playoff spot earlier this month, the Caps have been relegated to also-ran status by the surging Hurricanes, not to mention their own defensive lapses. Sitting as deep as they are today, it'd be easy to write them off...but hold off on that. They're five points behind Carolina for first in the Southeast and the automatic top seed that provides, but they've got three games in hand on their rivals, with two head-to-head matches in the final 10 days of the season. They've also airlifted in reinforcements, including battle-hardened vets Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke. Most important was the deadline acquisition of netminder Cristobal Huet, who gives the team a level of reliability that Olaf Kolzig has failed to provide.
The Verdict: Hold on to your hats -- Alex Ovechkin's going to the playoffs.
New York Islanders: When they needed him the most, Rick DiPietro's game went in the tank, possibly due to a nagging groin injury. To be fair, he's not getting much help defensively -- or offensively as the Isles peppered the hardly impregnable Panthers with 53 shots on Sunday and failed to score.
Florida Panthers: Arcing into their traditional late-season swoon, they have lost five of seven. Tellingly, they've held two-goal leads in four of those losses. This team doesn't have the jam to compete.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Here's the thing about teams that start playing well when the pressure is off: if they ever get close enough to get a real sniff of the playoffs, they'll respond the way they have all season when the games mattered -- poorly.