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Penguins far from secure for NHL playoffs

| Tuesday, March 24, 2009

If recent history is an indicator, then a .500 record over their final eight games should be good enough to net the Penguins a playoff spot.

What's surprising is that while a 12-2-3 run under new coach Dan Bylsma has vaulted the Penguins into solid playoff position, it hasn't put them in the clear.

"We have to make sure we keep our focus and finish well," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "Every game is important, and everybody else is playing well."

Actually, some teams are struggling in the race for the bottom four spots in an eight-team Eastern Conference playoff field, but trends could change at the drop of a puck.

"You know what• You can't make any prediction, because everything's been shuffling around so much," said Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Martin Biron, after a 3-1 victory Sunday over the Penguins. "I'm sure everybody has their books out, what they need to do to get in and magic numbers and all that."

The top three seeds in the East almost assuredly will be Boston, New Jersey and Washington. The Flyers — who have 90 points and games in hand against most teams — own the inside track to the fourth seed, which carries with it home-ice advantage in the first round.

The Penguins (86 points), sixth in the conference, are five points ahead of eighth-place Montreal and ninth-place Florida. Montreal has two games in hand on the Penguins; Florida has one. Both get one more crack at the Penguins, too.

If the Penguins merely split their final eight games, they will finish with 94 points. No team since 1999-2000 — the year the NHL began awarding a point for an overtime loss — has needed more than 94 points to earn the final playoff spot in the East.

Since the post-lockout season of 2005-06, the eight-place finisher in the East has finished with 92, 92 and 94 points. If the Penguins finish with 94, the reeling Canadiens would have to earn 14 of a possible 20 points to finish with 95. The Panthers would need 14 of a possible 18.

The first tie-breaker in deciding playoff spots is victories; the second is head-to-head competition. The Penguins have 39 wins, three more than Montreal and four more than Florida.

Here is a snapshot look at the contending teams in the bottom half of the East playoff bracket heading down the stretch:

Penguins: On a roll, with at least a point in 10 of 11 games in March. Have four games at home, four on the road remaining. Finish regular season April 11 at Montreal.

Carolina: Has points in 10 of 11 March games, behind hot goaltender Cam Ward. Still have a four-game homestand, plus a match against red-hot Ottawa and two visits to New Jersey.

NY Rangers: Have won six of nine games this month playing up-tempo style under new coach John Tortorella. Finish season with home-and-home against Flyers.

Montreal: Riding five-game losing streak going into tonight's game against Atlanta. Better make most of four-game homestand, because five of final seven are on the road, where Montreal is 15-19-3.

Florida: Has lost six of seven; suddenly can't score. Five of final nine games on the road.

If any among three teams with remote hopes — Buffalo (76 points), Ottawa (74) and Toronto (73) — looks threatening, it's Ottawa, which has won nine of 10 going into Wednesday's game at Carolina. That begins a five-game road trip for the Senators, who must know that even one loss could crush them.

Notes: The NHL named Penguins center Evgeni Malkin its "second star" of the week, behind Carolina goalie Cam Ward. Malkin led the league in scoring with eight points. ... The Penguins had a day off Monday and will resume practice today, preparing for a Wednesday night visit from Calgary.


A look at the contenders for the final four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, with points and games remaining:

Team: Pts — GR

Carolina: 87 — 7

Penguins: 86 — 8

NY Rangers: 84 — 9

Montreal: 81 — 10


Florida: 81 — 9

Buffalo: 76 — 10

Ottawa: 74 — 10


Penguins: Calgary, NY Rangers, New Jersey, at Carolina, at Florida, at Tampa Bay, NY Islanders, at Montreal.

Carolina: Ottawa, at New Jersey, NY Rangers, Penguins, NY Islanders, Buffalo, at New Jersey.

NY Rangers: Minnesota, at Atlanta, at Penguins, New Jersey, at Carolina, at Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia, at Philadelphia.

Montreal: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Chicago, at NY Islanders, at Toronto, Ottawa, at NY Rangers, at Boston, Penguins.

Florida: at Buffalo, at Philadelphia, at Dallas, Ottawa, Atlanta, Penguins, at Philadelphia, at Atlanta, Washington.

Buffalo: Florida, Toronto, at Montreal, at Atlanta, at Washington, New Jersey, Detroit, at Toronto, at Carolina, Boston.

Ottawa: at Carolina, at Atlanta, at Tampa Bay, at Florida, at Boston, Philadelphia, at Montreal, Boston, New Jersey, at Toronto.

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