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Breaking down the East: Why the Rangers are still fine for a berth

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com

Rick Nash and the Blueshirts still have the upper hand on a playoff spot. (USATSI)
Rick Nash and the Rangers still have the upper hand on a playoff spot. (USATSI)

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Just like the Western Conference, the race is on in the East for the final playoff spot. Or perhaps final spots.

The names of the teams in the mix aren't incredibly surprising. You have the Islanders, the Jets and Sabres, all teams that have floated around that eighth seed in recent seasons. Oh, but you also have the Rangers and still with a shot, the Flyers. So, yeah, there is some intrigue there.

The question most people seem to be asking at this point is if the Rangers are in trouble. They were beaten by the Flyers on Tuesday night and now find themselves in a tie with the Jets for eighth, though the Rangers do have a game in hand.

With the Rangers being who they are and fans ready to panic at a moment's notice given the expectations placed on them this season, let's take a look at the race for eighth in the East. The lucky winner there will only get the joy of playing Pittsburgh in the first round.

Let's actually start with the seventh seed at the moment, the Islanders.

(Side note: If you want to check out an awesome site that lets you play around with all the scenarios to see who gets in, here you go. Very cool.)

Islanders remaining schedule
April 18: at TorontoApril 25: at Philadelphia
April 20: at WinnipegApril 26: at Buffalo
April 23: at Carolina

It's still a bit nuts to think we're talking about the Islanders being in playoff position in the final two weeks of the season but here we are. The Isles would seem to be in pretty good shape.

They've been playing great hockey for weeks now with points in 11 of their last 12 games. They have taken a three-point lead over the Rangers and Jets. They have played an equal number of games as Winnipeg but have played one more than their rivals in New York.

I'll say I wouldn't be too concerned if I were a long-suffering Islanders fan. That three-point cushion is big and even though they finish with five straight road games, it's not exactly a murder's row of opponents. Only the Maple Leafs are currently in a playoff position.

The one thing that's interesting, though, and why I included the Isles here, is that three of the five games come against other teams still "alive" in the race. Lose those games and it could get dicey.

Rangers remaining schedule
April 18: FloridaApril 23: at Florida
April 19: at BuffaloApril 25: at Carolina
April 21: New JerseyApril 27: New Jersey

It has been a wholly disappointing season for the Rangers; nobody will argue that. They were tabbed by many to be a preseason Cup contender. Now they are just contending to make it to the playoffs.

That said, they have at least one game in hand on all the teams with them in this race. And have you seen that schedule? Whoa, man. It would be hard for the Rangers to blow this one.

They have the Panthers twice more, the worst team in the NHL. They have two more against the Devils, who have lost 10 games in a row. Granted, the Devils could have Ilya Kovalchuk back in time for those meetings and they become a much different team with him than without him as the last 10 games will attest to. There is also Carolina, which has been dreadful in the second half of the season.

The big game on the schedule would be the tilt with the Sabres. Buffalo is once again making a late surge and a regulation win over the Rangers would make things a bit more interesting.

Still, the Rangers should be fine and if they can't get enough points with this closing stretch then they don't deserve to be in the playoffs anyway.

Jets remaining schedule
April 18: CarolinaApril 23: at Washington
April 20: NY IslandersApril 25: Montreal
April 22: at Buffalo

The Jets are technically still in play for the three seed by virtue of the Southeast Division, but with the way the Capitals have been playing that seems like a far-fetched dream right now. That said, the Jets have been as hot as the Caps in the past four games -- winning them all.

More realistically, the push is for that eight seed where they aren't in that bad of position. They are equal with the Rangers in points -- albeit with one more game played -- and three points back of the Islanders for seventh.

They do finish with a few crucial swing games, though. If they can go into Washington down the stretch and cool the Caps then maybe the division is still in play. But they have to win the games leading up to that first, including the Islanders/Sabres double. In this race, those games are as big as they will get for the Jets.

With the schedule the Rangers have left, there is very little margin for error.

Sabres remaining schedule
April 19: NY RangersApril 22: Winnipeg
April 20: at PittsburghApril 26: NY Islanders

On the surface, just looking at the standings, the Sabres would seem to have a chance. Then you remember they have played two more games than the Rangers and that two-point gap suddenly feels a lot larger. For that, they are still a definite long shot. The fact that they still have a shot, though, is impressive given how this season has been.

The one bonus is they are in a position where they can do a lot of the work themselves. After getting the win in Boston Wednesday night to give themselves this flicker of hope, perhaps they will be energized for the stretch run because they have the right matchups to make it happen.

The big one is getting the Rangers on home ice Friday. Win that game and we might start talking. But there are also the games with the Islanders and Jets as well. The bad draw is getting Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh but the Pens are running out of things to play for so that's not an impossible feat.

Buffalo pretty much has to run the table with four wins -- all in regulation -- to stand a shot and even then the Sabres are asking for help.

Flyers remaining schedule
April 18: New JerseyApril 25: NY Islanders
April 20: at CarolinaApril 27: at Ottawa
April 23: Boston

I included the Flyers here for kicks and giggles. They are five points out of the eight spot and with five games to play it's virtually impossible to envision a scenario where they move up.

The Flyers got their last shot in on the Rangers earlier this week to give them a puncher's chance but asking them to make up five points in five games is like asking politicians to agree on gun control measures; it's asking too much.

That said, the Flyers will have a play in at least one other team's fate when they get the Islanders at home in the second-to-last game. I didn't imagine the Flyers would be the team playing spoiler against the Isles, but that's likely what will happen.

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As you can tell, there are still two pretty clear favorites for the seventh and eighth seeds in the East, the two teams from New York. But if they don't play well down the stretch -- we're mostly looking at you, Rangers -- then it will get hairy. You don't want to see John Tortorella when things get hairy (or maybe you do).

 
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