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Posted at 12:08 PM ET, 03/09/2012

The Good Ol’ Hockey Game: Sizing up the Eastern Conference playoff race

This feature is part of our bi-weekly look at the NHL, which appears every other Sunday on Page 2 of the print edition.

Anything can happen once you’re in the NHL playoffs. Sometimes, the trickiest part is just getting there.

With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators are in solid standing in the Eastern Conference. That leaves two openings for everyone else.

Here’s a look at five teams that could seize those spots.

(Records and statistics through Thursday’s games)

Buffalo Sabres

(Marianne Helm - GETTY IMAGES)
Outlook: Regarded as one of the NHL’s biggest flops at the season’s midpoint, Ryan Miller and the Sabres have surged into 10th place, going 12-5-3 since Jan. 24 and 7-2-2 in their last 11 games.    

Why they’ll make it: They’ve got a hot goalie. Miller has won seven of his last nine starts, a run that’s included a pair of shutouts, and has yielded more than three goals only once in 20 games.

Why they won’t: Subpar scoring. The Sabres are tied for 25th in goals with 161 and tied for 28th in third-period tallies. And if Thomas Vanek, injured Thursday in Boston, is out for any length of time, it will become an even bigger challenge.

Florida Panthers

(Matt Slocum - AP)
Outlook: Tomas Fleischmann and his teammates entered the weekend sitting atop the Southeast Division. But the Panthers’ grasp is a tenuous one with Washington and Winnipeg in the rearview mirror.

Why they’ll make it: Of their remaining 16 games, only five are against opponents that were in a playoff position as of Friday morning. Six, in fact, are against bottom feeders Carolina, Montreal, Edmonton, Columbus and the New York Islanders.

Why they won’t: Because they’re struggling to score and keep the puck out of their net. Since losing leading scorer Kris Versteeg to a lower-body injury five games ago, they’ve been shut out twice and held to a single goal once. Goalie Jose Theodore, meantime, has yielded three or more goals in three of five starts.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Outlook: When GM Steve Yzerman dealt away defenseman Pavel Kubina and forwards Steve Downie and Dominic Moore at the trade deadline last month, the last thing anyone expected was for the Lightning to make a playoff push. Yet here they are, three points out of eighth.

Why they’ll make it: After Thursday’s overtime loss in Washington, Steven Stamkos (league leading 48 goals and 82 points) and Co. are 7-3-1 in their last 11 games and open a seven-game homestand Saturday against Carolina.

Why they won’t: With goalie Mathieu Garon expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a groin muscle injury, Coach Guy Boucher must choose between 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson (league-worst 3.82 goals against average) and rookie Dustin Tokarski (three NHL games). That’s not much of a selection.  

Washington Capitals
With 15 games to go, there are three options for a franchise that entered the season favored to hoist the Cup: sneak in as the eighth seed, surpass the scuffling Panthers and claim their fifth straight division title or miss the postseason altogether and risk a potential messy offseason roster overhaul.  

(Nick Wass - AP)
Why they’ll make it: Because, even without concussed center Nicklas Backstrom, they possess more top-end talent than Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Winnipeg. And despite Alex Ovechkin’s downturn in production, the former two-time MVP still has his moments, such as his overtime tally Thursday against the Lightning.

Why they won’t: Their 11-18-3 record away from Verizon Center is the second worst in the conference. And they play six of the next seven games on the road, including stops in Boston, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.  

Winnipeg Jets

After losing four of six games early last month, the Jets’ postseason hopes seemed slim. But they didn’t fold. Instead, the team has rallied behind emerging stars Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler, going 6-2-2 in the last 10 games.   

Why they’ll make it: In those 10 contests, Kane has seven goals and 15 points and Wheeler has six goals and 17 points to ignite an offense that’s averaged 3.8 goals in that span.   

Why they won’t: The Jets enjoy arguably the best home ice advantage in the league at raucous MTS Center. On the road, however, they’re only slightly better than the Capitals at 11-18-4. And that’s where they’ll play eight of their final 14 games.

By  |  12:08 PM ET, 03/09/2012

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