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Wide-open Eastern Conference will likely go right down to the wire

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

With only six points separating fifth place from 12th, the East is proving to be the wild and crazy race most had predicted before the season started.

"This is the most balanced I've seen," veteran GM Lou Lamoriello said Monday. "It's certainly what everyone wanted, and they're getting it."

Lamoriello's New Jersey Devils occupy fifth in the conference, at least for a day or two, with 38 points. The Boston Bruins are 12th with 32 points but have games in hand on everyone ahead of them. In between lies Washington and Toronto with 37 points, Carolina at 36 points, and the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh and Ottawa all at 35 points.

While Buffalo is cruising in first place at 50 points and showing no signs of slowing down, it's not as if Montreal (43 points), Atlanta (42 points) and the New York Rangers (40 points) have that much breathing room ahead of the eight-team logjam beneath them. The Rangers, after all, were outscored 15-3 in back-to-back losses to Toronto and New Jersey this weekend.

Jim Rutherford can't remember a year that's been this close in the East.

"No, I can't," said the GM of the defending Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes. "But it's good. Some teams have done a good job improving their teams from last year and have closed the gap."

Circle April 8 on your calendar. That's the last day of the regular season. The Islanders play at New Jersey that Sunday afternoon, likely a game that will shift things around for good in the conference.

"I think this is an indication why these races are going to be so great and why the schedule should really stay the way it is," said Lamoriello.

Lamoriello is among the GMs who likes the unbalanced schedule - which features eight games against each divisional opponent - although he'd like to see them spaced out better.

A select group of NHL governors will meet Wednesday in New York to further discuss the schedule. Commissioner Gary Bettman appointed them to a special committee. Any recommendation will be voted on at the board of governors meeting in Dallas next month.

Some fans may be getting tired of seeing the same teams too often, but there will be some big games down the stretch that will greatly affect the standings.

In the meantime, any kind of streak, winning or losing, has a dramatic effect on a team's standing in the East. The Maple Leafs were 11th in the conference last Tuesday morning. Three straight wins pushed them up to sixth, albeit only for one night Saturday, after the Devils pushed them down a spot with their win Sunday at New York.

Leafs head coach Paul Maurice had predicted such a topsy-turvy race before the season, saying his team would be in a dogfight. Well, a dogfight he's getting.

"You'd like to get into that top four or five where you've won enough where you can go into a slide and relax a little bit, but that's not going to be where we are and that's fine," Maurice said Monday after practice at the Air Canada Centre.

The key, Maurice said, is how a team rebounds after a tough loss. The Leafs can't endure another seven-game winless streak and expect to still be in the mix.

"We didn't rebound as well as we need to, we went seven games winless and only pulled a point out. That's not going to work the next time," he said. "Because we are going to face adversity, we'll have injuries, we'll find it hard to score goals, we're going to hit hot teams with hot goaltending and need to pull points out of those games.

"And hopefully we think that we've learned enough in this last stretch to be able to do it quicker next time."

Last season Toronto and Atlanta missed the playoffs by two points, but the next five teams behind them in the conference were nowhere close. This season only last-place Philadelphia has dug itself a hole it likely won't be able to dig out of. The Flyers have 20 points, 16 behind No. 8 Carolina. But No. 13 Tampa Bay (30 points) and No. 14 Florida (28 points) are still very much in the race.

In past years, a team could count on at least the odd easy game. Those don't appear to exist anymore.

"There's no team that you can even think like that," said Lamoriello. "And if you do, you might as well just mail in the two points."

Leafs forward Matt Stajan feels part of the reason for the increased parity in the standings is all the extra points given out for overtime and shootout losses.

"More teams are in it because of that, which is exciting for the league," Stajan said. "You can't go into too many funks. We had ours and put ourselves into a logjam with seven other teams. Hopefully we can avoid that for the rest of the year and not have to dig and claw in at the end of the year.

"These games are just as important now as they are at the end of the year."



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