Beastly battle brews in hockey's East

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:27 PM ET

Three other Eastern Conference teams might not share the sentiment, but the Philadelphia Flyers owe Mike Babcock a beer.

Some sign of gratitude is in order, anyway, after the Red Wings coach started Chris Osgood in net for the first time in 25 games on Sunday, to rest rookie Jimmy Howard.

The resulting 4-3 Flyers win — including a soft Daniel Carcillo goal 17 seconds into the game — was the first big step in the final week battle for the last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference

Between the Flyers, Rangers, Bruins, Canadiens (and an outside shot to the Thrashers) every point won or lost will be huge. And all signs point to a photo finish.

In order of their current place in the standings, here’s a look at what’s left for the challengers in the East. (Note that the top four all have late dates with the Leafs, including the Bruins who were here on Saturday.) Remaing games in parentheses.

6. Habs, 86 pts. (3)

PREDICAMENT: Montreal is justifiably abuzz with back-to-back shutouts Friday and Saturday by Jaroslav Halak, which put the Habs in the driver’s seat. Not only do they have a four-point cushion, with games against the Islanders, Hurricanes and Leafs, they have what is clearly the easiest schedule based on points, anyway.

But imagine the theatre should the Canadiens falter in the first two to set up a chance for Toronto to eliminate them on the final game of the season Saturday at the Bell Centre.

PREDICTION: Given that they may only have to win one of three, the Habs get a spot and a possible first-round date with Buffalo.

7. Bruins, 84 pts. (4)

PREDICAMENT: Boston’s overtime win Saturday against the Leafs moved the B’s from ninth to seventh but their work is not done. A goal-starved team has to play the league-leading Caps twice, Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres once plus a date with Carolina.

PREDICTION: If they lose Monday night against the Caps, their chances plummet considerably. They likely need help from others.

8. Flyers, 84 pts. (3)

PREDICAMENT: Losers of seven of their previous eight prior to Sunday’s crucial home win against Detroit, they face the Leafs on Tuesday before a weekend home-and-home with the Rangers. A little more than two weeks ago, the Flyers had an eight-point lead before giving most of it away.

PREDICTION: Unless goalie Brian Boucher comes up big — and good luck with that — the Flyers are in trouble. May need to sweep the Rangers.

9. Rangers, 82 pts. (4)

PREDICAMENT: Just 10 days ago, the Rangers seemed cooked. Seven points out and playing awful, they are now riding a three-game winning streak. All four remaining games will be a challenge, however. The Sabres will be fired up after losing two in a row, the Leafs are the best spoilers going and then comes the home-and-home with the Flyers on the final weekend.

PREDICTION: Tough schedule works against them which means they may need more help than those above. Flyers hold the first tiebreaker between the two.

10. Thrashers, 81 pts. (3)

PREDICAMENT: With only three remaining games and two teams to pass, Atlanta is least likely to make it. Worse yet, they play three teams at the top of the conference — Washington, New Jersey and Pittsburgh.

PREDICTION: Decent late-season rally won’t be enough.

Quotable

“I don’t think any team in the West would be overmatched by them. They play the wrong way. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs).”

— Blue Jackets’ R.J. Umberger on the Capitals.

Quick hits

For the first time since the 2003-04 lockout, there may not be a 50-goal scorer in the NHL. The candidates: Sidney Crosby (47), Alex Ovechkin (46) and Steven Stamkos (46) ... The final strides of the playoff spot ... The Caps have won a franchise record 51 games and are on the verge of clinching their first President’s Cup ... The Penguins will have a sellout for the 159th consecutive game on Thursday, the final regular-season contest at the Igloo, otherwise known as Mellon Arena.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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