SUN Hockey Pool

Wild finish in the NHL East

Penguins forward Sidney Crosby gets set for a face off against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden...

Penguins forward Sidney Crosby gets set for a face off against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y., March 15, 2012. (NICK LAHAM/Getty Images/AFP)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:43 PM ET

NEW YORK - Hot spots are appearing up and down the Eastern seaboard in what’s shaping up as the best finish in years.

Fat chance for anyone calling the first seed as of today and beyond that, the Prince of Wales winner. This time it will be okay to cuddle with the conference trophy because the winners will definitely have earned it.

The return of Sidney Crosby to Pittsburgh, the surge of the Flyers, injuries to the Rangers, the imploding of the Bruins and fear of the unknown with Florida and Washington has widened what was once a two-horse race. Who’s to say current seventh seeded Ottawa won’t shock someone in the first round?

The Atlantic Division will get the most scrutiny, now that Crosby’s bright star completes the Penguin constellation with Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. They’ve won 10 in a row and shaved the Rangers lead in the division and conference to four points. Only three times since 1998-99, when the East re-aligned, has the Atlantic put four teams in the playoffs.

“It usually finds a way to make itself interesting down the stretch,” Pens’ defenceman Paul Martin said after Thursday’s 5-2 win here. “It’s very rare that you know what’s going to happen until the last week or so.

“With the parity in the league, especially in our division, you need everything clicking, especially towards the end of the year. Having Sid back definitely helps.”

Coach Dan Bylsma tried to play down Ranger general manager Glen Sather’s coronation of Pittsburgh as “the best team in the league”, though it was harder to deny after Thursday. New York was missing Henrik Lundqvist, captain Ryan Callahan and defenceman Michael Del Zotto. But when Bylsma finally has a full lineup card, it might not matter.

“We want to get first in the division,” Bylsma said. “That’s not something new, not something we dreamed up three weeks ago. We’ve been a long way away, 10 or 12 points at times. We’ve put 10 in a row together, we’ve beaten (New York) twice, but we’re still looking at them ahead of us.”

Here’s a quick glance at the Eastern leaders and what direction they could be headed:

1. New York Rangers (going down)

Coach John Tortorella can twist and shout all he wants, but he can’t control injuries. Thankfully, Lundqvist only has the flu, but the run to the top has begun to take a toll.

“You guys talk a lot about (Pittsburgh),” Brad Richards told the New York Post. “They’re going to be around, but we’re still in first place, we’ve got guys coming back.”

2. Boston Bruins (going down)

A Stanley Cup hangover is usually an October concern, but the Bruins need to end theirs soon. Is the curse of Obama really on Tim Thomas and the team or like others shooting for a Cup repeat, are they just not as good the second time around?

3. Florida Panthers (going up)

Cats and rats are once again the talk of South Florida. After 10 years out of the playoffs, the Panthers will either get in as third or seven or eighth seed, but why not finish strong and be greedy? Dale Tallon and Kevin Dineen have worked a minor miracle in the Everglades.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (going up)

Just how strong the Pens will finish should be indicated by Sunday when Crosby and Co., get through three games in three and a half days against the Flyers and Devils.

“We have experience winning playoff series as a road team and home team,” Bylsma reminded.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (going up)

Paul Holmgren’s summer housecleaning of marquee forwards has paid off quickly. The team has also played through the loss of blueliners Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timomen and Andrej Meszaros. The best news could be in goal where Ilya Bryzgalov is reversing years of false hope. Can he keep it up in April?

6. New Jersey Devils (stuck in neutral)

The team’s monetary issues will get a little relief with a few home playoff dates. Martin Brodeur, finally forced to take it easy, might reach his 40th birthday in early May with his team still playing.

7. Ottawa Senators (going up)

Every team should be so lucky to ‘start over’ by getting to 80 points in early March. And the idea of meeting the Bruins in the first round doesn’t sound as daunting.

8. Washington Capitals (going down)

Hard to count out a team with Alex Ovechkin, a revived Jose Theodore and most important, a returning Nicklas Backstrom. But they’re hearing footsteps from Buffalo and Winnipeg.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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