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The die hards


Two weeks remain in the regular season and the mad scramble is on. I mean, have we ever witnessed such playoff jockeying in the NHL? The top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic and Northwest division titles are up for grabs. Yet, the most amazing thing about this season's stretch drive hasn't been the the top eight teams in the fray. Rather, much of the intrigue lies with the ones that haven't given up against all odds.

The Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks refuse to say uncle out west while in the east, someone forgot to tell the Toronto Maple Leafs to look to next year. The Alex Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals are defying all logic with their relentless playoff pursuit. And while those four situations are engaging in their own right, the two teams that have piqued my interest the most the last several weeks are the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers.

Now, the Panthers do this routinely every year: Fall far behind in the first half and surge at the end of the season, only to come up short of the playoffs. This time, though, their seven wins in a row seem more meaningful. Jay Bouwmeester has blossomed into that dependable force on the blueline and he holds the Panthers' D together in all situations. Up front, the Cats have as good a young line as you'll find anywhere in Nathan Horton -- Stephen Weis -- David Booth. They provide depth to the attack behind Olli Jokinen and Rostislav Olesz.

Maybe with all of that homegrown talent truly contributing at last, this Panthers' run seems more legitimate -- as if it is the culmination of all the recent year-end run-ups and not just a bunch of kids playing fast and loose at the end of a season and catching some teams off guard. No, this group looks and feels like a playoff team with veteran battler Tomas Vokoun in goal and Jacques Martin behind the bench preaching patience and discipline. Yet, the reality is that, with only six games remaining and three teams to pass (including the Capitals), there is no guarantee that the Panthers will ascend to the top eight and appear in the postseason for the first time since 2000.

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Out west, when did the St. Louis Blues and the Edmonton Oilers switch places? The Blues had a fine first half hovering in playoff contention while the Oilers held down 14th place in the conference through the All-Star break. Despite missing key veterans such as Ethan Moreau and Sheldon Souray, the Oilers are now amazingly within three points of a playoff spot, having won 11 of their past 14 games. Meanwhile, the Blues have plummeted to the aforementioned 14th spot.

Part of Edmonton's rise might fall into the category of late season spurt by a bunch of kids catching teams unaware. But, that doesn't account for their 7-5 victory in a must-win situation on Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche -- the team that is currently holding down the eighth and final playoff entry in the west. That effort speaks to something bigger.

Still, no matter how it turns out over the final two weeks, the one thing that bodes well for the Oilers is that rookies Sam Gagner -- whose production (26 points in 22 games) has mirrored the team's rise since late January -- Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert have all been with the team the entire way. It has been a continuous and uninterrupted learning experience at hockey's top level. And, along with defensemen Ladislav Smid and Joni Pitkanen -- both of whom have looked more comfortable as the season unfolded -- the three kids have grown together as the core nucleus of the team.

In today's cap era, building and developing a youthful and competently competitive core from within is paramount for the long-term. And as the Panthers and Oilers are proving with their respective late-season pushes, the playoff payoff may be sooner rather than later.

It's all about divisional play now. And if you think the Leafs saga is a long shot tale, consider that they play the Boston Bruins home-and-home this week: Tuesday in Toronto and Thursday in Boston. The Bruins are staggering to the finish line after falling to eighth place in the Conference, just four points ahead of Toronto. If you do the math, the possibilities are enticing.

Out west, the Oilers have the same home-and-home set-up with the Minnesota Wild. They square off Monday night in Edmonton and Wednesday night in St. Paul, and while the Oilers aren't chasing the Wild specifically, they can ill-afford to lose any points at this stage. The Oilers visit the Avs on Friday night in their last meeting with the team they are tracking. I think they call that a must-win. Aren't they all at this point?