NHL's Eastern Conference playoff bubble

The Florida Panthers celebrate their win against the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL action at the...

The Florida Panthers celebrate their win against the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL action at the Air Canada Centre February 28, 2012. (Abelimages/Getty Images/AFP)

KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:47 PM ET

Now that winter has finally arrived in southern Manitoba, it's time to get serious about hockey.

The table has been set for an exciting finish to the Jets' first season back in Winnipeg. All that's left to do now is play the games.

There are basically six teams fighting for two spots in the Eastern Conference, the Jets included. Winnipeg is still in eighth place after Washington failed on Friday night to win one of its three games in hand. The ninth-place Capitals are one point back of the Jets but still have two more games to play.

So which teams are going to claim those two playoff spots? Your guess is as good as mine. That doesn't mean, however, we can't take a look at a few of the factors that will play a role.

Strength of schedule, home games remaining, recent play and injuries are just a few of the dozens of factors that will determine who plays after April 7.

Here is a closer look at the half dozen teams that appear to be in the hunt for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Florida Panthers

Record: 30-21-12 (72 pts)

Position: 3rd

Games left: 19

The Panthers, despite getting smoked 7-0 by the Jets on Thursday night, are sitting pretty.

They have the easiest schedule of the six contenders, they are playing well despite a couple of injuries, and they have 10 of their remaining 19 games at home.

Florida has to travel to Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia twice, but other than that the schedule looks pretty good. Seven of their remaining 19 games are against teams that have points percentages worse than .500. You have to be a pretty bad hockey team to have a points percentage under .500 in today's NHL.

The only catch for the Panthers is they have to squeeze their final 19 games into just 36 days.

Notable injuries: C Kris Versteeg is out for a least a week with a lower-body injury, while D Dmitry Kulikov has been on the sidelines since late January following knee surgery.

Winnipeg Jets

Record: 31-27-8 (70 pts)

Position: 9th

Games left: 16

The Jets have been making as much hay at home as possible lately, but they find themselves twiddling their thumbs all weekend long because they've already played a whopping 66 games and need a break to let the rest of the teams catch up.

That means the Jets have the least amount of time to get to the 88 or 89 points that are going to be required to clinch a post-season berth. Even worse, nine of those 16 games are on the road, where they Jets have had plenty of trouble this season.

Winnipeg has the second toughest schedule of the six contenders, behind only Buffalo, which makes their climb even tougher than it already is. They have four games against teams with points percentages better than .600, and three of them are on the road.

Notable injuries: None.

Washington Capitals

Record: 32-27-5 (69 pts)

Position: 9th

Games left: 18

After a stretch of seven games with only one win, the Caps have three wins in their last four games.

Alex Ovechkin and Co. failed to get back into playoff position thanks to Friday night's loss to New Jersey, but they have two games in hand on the eighth-place Jets. They have a relatively tough schedule remaining, because they have to go on the road to play the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins twice.

Then again, 10 of their 18 remaining matches are against teams with worse records, and half of their contests are at Verizon Center, where they have a sparkling record of 21-9-2.

The good news for the Caps is, like the Panthers, they are in the driver's seat and control their own situation.

Notable injuries: C Nicklas Backstrom is out indefinitely with a concussion, and there is no indication when he will return.

Buffalo Sabres

Record: 29-27-8 (66 pts)

Position: 10th

Games left: 18

The Sabres have been playing better hockey lately, with at least one point in seven consecutive contests. Ryan Miller didn't give up a goal over the course of two games in California earlier this week.

They do, however, have the toughest remaining schedule of the six contenders, thanks to a Saturday night clash in Vancouver as well as a trip to New York to take on the Rangers and two visits to the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

The even more troubling news is they are on the road more than any of the other five teams for the rest of the season, with 11 of 18 away from HSBC Arena.

Notable injuries: Forward Jochen Hecht has been out for a while, but he wasn't producing much before getting hurt.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Record: 29-28-7 (65 pts)

Position: 11th

The Leafs are in a tailspin, the calls to fire head coach Ron Wilson have never been louder, and they have lost more games at home than they've won.

In other words, it looks like this six-horse race will actually involve only five teams the way the Buds are playing these days.

Leafs fans who want to hear good news can, well, keep looking, because there's not much. They are healthy and get to play four of six games against top competition at home, but they are a pedestrian 16-12-5 at Air Canada Centre this season.

Notable injuries: None.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Record: 29-29-6 (64 pts)

Position: 12th

Games left: 18

Left for dead just a few weeks ago, the Lightning are refusing to go away and have a lot of things going their way down the stretch.

They are currently the hottest squad among the six contenders, and they have the greatest percentage of home games remaining, which is good news when you consider they are 19-10-2 in their own arena this season.

In addition, they have the second easiest schedule of the six remaining contenders.

The bad news is they are banged up and have the furthest to go if they're going to sneak into the post-season dance.

Notable injuries: D Victor Hedman is out indefinitely with what may or may not be a concussion, C Vincent Lecavalier is out for the season with a broken hand, D Mattias Ohlund is likely done for the season with knee problems, and D Marc-Andre Bergeron might not play again this year because of a back problem.


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