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Six teams, three spots, one week left in the Eastern Conference's mad dash

"I don't think anyone expected there would be this many teams (battling for playoff spots) and it would be so tight," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said Monday in Montreal. "It's unfortunate for us that we're in it because I think we had a chance to have it safer with the way we played in the first half.

"But for sure, it's an interesting situation, an exciting time."

The Calgary Flames have all but put away the Colorado Avalanche for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

But there is still a mad scramble in the East and the final playoff spot could be on the line when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Canadiens on Saturday, with the result determining which Original Six club heads to the golf course and which one continues on to the post-season.

All six teams in contention for the final three playoff spots in the East rested Monday. All six play Tuesday night. Here's a closer look at the race:

New York Rangers: In sixth place with 91 points (41 wins). Three games left: Tuesday at Long Island, Thursday at home against Montreal and Saturday at Pittsburgh.

The Rangers are one win away from clinching their second playoff berth in as many seasons.

Just over six weeks ago on Feb. 14, they sat 11th in the conference, seven points behind sixth-place Tampa Bay. In an interview with CP that day, head coach Tom Renney said he felt a surge coming from his club.

"I do feel that way. It's not just yapping, it's the real deal," Renney said at the time. "I've seen the way we've played in the last two weeks. If we were in the playoffs and they were starting tomorrow, I would feel very, very good about playing anybody."

He was dead on. The Rangers have gone 14-5-4 since then and won't be easy to beat in the first round.

Tampa Bay Lightning: In seventh place with 90 points (43 wins). Three games left: Tuesday at home to Carolina, Friday at home to Florida and Saturday at Atlanta.

While they're only three points ahead of the danger zone, they're also only three behind Atlanta for the Southeast Division lead and the automatic No. 3 seed in the conference. And they play the Thrashers to wrap up the season.

"Obviously we still need to get in (the playoffs), but we still would like to win the division and that's where the focus is this week," Lightning GM Jay Feaster told CP on Monday. "We're fortunate that we have two games at home. And we have an opportunity there at the end that if we are in striking distance we do finish with Atlanta."

Montreal Canadiens: In eighth place with 88 points (41 wins). Three games left: Tuesday at home to Boston, Thursday at the Rangers and Saturday at Toronto.

Two weeks ago, it appeared the slumping Habs could fall out of it, but the Canadiens have won eight of 10 to enter the final week controlling their destiny.

"Two or three weeks ago we really didn't know if we'd have a chance to make it and we've played well lately and had some help from other teams, so now we don't have to think as much about what's going on with other teams and keep focusing on our own job," said Koivu.

Said head coach Guy Carbonneau: "Everyone knows that if we win them all, we're in the playoffs."

Tuesday's last home game of the regular season is a must win against the fading Bruins. Then the Habs likely will need to steal one in either New York or Toronto.


Outside looking in:

Toronto Maple Leafs: In ninth place with 87 points (38 wins). Three games left: Tuesday at home to Philadelphia, Thursday at Long Island and Saturday at home to Montreal.

The Leafs continue to mystify. Huge wins over New Jersey, Buffalo, Carolina and Pittsburgh over the last two weeks and been mixed in with tough losses to Buffalo, Atlanta and Sunday's 7-2 rout at the hands of the Rangers. Which Leafs team will show up this week?

The good news for Leaf fans is that Toronto has two of its three games at home, where the Leafs have won seven straight.

"We've established a real good, solid rhythm at home," Leafs GM John Ferguson said Monday. "That was an area we needed to address and we've done that lately. And this is going to sound trite, but you look no further than last two nights for us, every game is a different challenge and a new opportunity to do what we need to do.

"We welcome that challenge beginning tomorrow night."

Montreal holds the tiebreaker on the Leafs - wins - in the event both teams tie for eighth.

Carolina Hurricanes: In 10th place with 86 points (39 wins). Three games left: Tuesday at Tampa, Friday at home to Atlanta and Saturday home to Florida.

The Hurricanes gave their fans a glimmer of hope with Sunday's come-from-behind win at Florida after tough losses last week against Toronto, Philadelphia and Tampa.

"It's a glimmer of hope only because we're still alive," said Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford. "We really didn't start to play until late in the game, which is disappointing in a week where we should have won at least two games if not three. We ended up winning one game, and basically in the last 10 minutes."

The defending champs are hurting on defence. The latest to go down is Tim Gleason to a broken finger during Sunday's game against Florida. They're already missing blue-liners Glen Wesley (broken foot) and Bret Hedican (hip).

"Kind of sums up our season," said Rutherford, whose team has been riddled by injuries.

New York Islanders: In 11th place with 84 points (36 wins). Four games left: Tuesday at home to the Rangers, Thursday at home to Toronto, Saturday at Philadelphia and Sunday at New Jersey.

The slumping Isles, who have only two wins in their last 10 games (2-6-2), remain without No. 1 goalie Rick DiPietro, who is officially listed as day to day with concussion symptoms.

"We have to fight through that and get our heart back, our energy back, our enthusiasm back," head coach Ted Nolan told reporters Sunday.

They really need to get seven out of eight possible points this week to have any chance.


With files from CP sportswriter Bill Beacon in Montreal.



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