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"And Down the Stretch They Come!"

OK, after Sunday all of the teams fighting to get into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference sit at 71 games played and thus each have 11 games left. What we have is a 11 game battle between 4 teams for the final 3 playoff spots. Let the drama begin!

Right now the way I see it there are three groups of teams in the east:
Teams that have bascially locked up the playoffs: OTT, CAR, BUF, PHI, NYR
Teams fight to get a seat before the music stops: TB, NJ, MON, ATL
Teams that are too far back to have a shot now: TOR, NYI, FLA, BOS, WAS, PITT

So here is the schedule breakdown for the rest of the way:
Clinched Teams 3
Battling Teams 3
Draft Pick Position Teams 5

Note: If the Thrashers can just keep stay in it, they have a shot of sweeping their final 4 games (WAS, BOS, WAS, FLA).

New Jersey
Clinched Teams 7
Battling Teams 2
Draft Pick Position Teams 2

Note: NJ could get hammered if Rangers and Flyers are going at it hard for 1st place in the division all the way to the end of the season.

Tampa Bay
Clinched Teams 3
Battling Teams 3
Draft Pick Position Teams 5

Note: Thrashers and Lightning have same weak schedule the rest of the way but they play each other 3 times. If either team manages a sweep it could potentially knock the other team out of the playoff race.

Clinched Teams 4
Battling Teams 2
Draft Pick Position Teams 5

Note: The key question for them is how hard Ottawa and Buffalo will be playing considering that both teams are pretty much slotted into their playoff position and could be on cruise control the rest of the way.

When looking at each team's schedule the real wild card is what I mentioned above with respect to Montreal: how motivated are teams that above and below the teams battling it out? Will Boston play any different now that their GM has been fired and changes will be happening at the top? Pittsburgh has a chance to be a huge spoiler, but their players may be thinking about that summer fishing trip in northern Canada rather than the final three weeks of the regular season. Of the top playoff teams, it seems likely that NYR and PHI have good reasons to play hard with home ice on the line while OTT, BUF and CAR each have home ice barring some shocking turn of events.