With a chance to move over the Rangers for seventh, Buffalo got a poor performance from Ryan Miller and zilch from Drew Stafford with Thomas Vanek out. When Rob Niedermayer is your only offense against a team minus its two biggest stars, you should win. Instead, the Sabres remained eighth with 72- one up on Carolina and four ahead of Toronto. The Canes are back in action against 11th Atlanta, who are seven out. One in front of the Devils, who blew a golden opportunity to gain even more ground in what amounted to a costly 2-1 loss to the lowly Senators.
Like most observers, I'd already given the sizzling Devs the two points only to find out after a Mardi Gras gathering that they actually lost with Erik Condra doing them in with just over two minutes remaining. Craig Anderson was equally as responsible, flat out robbing Ilya Kovalchuk en route to 31 saves. Last night was more proof that you can't let down for one second. The Sens have nothing to play for except pride. Condra escaped Nick Palmeiri due to the Devils paying too much attention to Jason Spezza, who threaded the needle for the crusher. When Spezza feels like playing, he's dangerous. The Devil goal came off a nifty set up from Brian Rolston, who circled the net and dished for Patrik Elias, who buried his 15th. Martin Brodeur was superb in defeat, making a few sparklers including a sliding stack followed by extra goalie Anton Volchenkov's own unique stop. Brodeur finished with 19 saves, suffering the hard luck loss.
The good news for Jacques Lemaire's club who've won 20 of 25 (20-3-2) is Buffalo lost. They still have 16 games left and given the way teams have played in front of them, there's reason for optimism. With every game do or die for a franchise that hasn't missed the playoffs since Lemaire I during the club's first Cup defense ('95-96), they must dial it up again Friday in a visit to Atlanta. All too ironic for Kovalchuk that he and teammates must root for his former team to beat the Canes later, which would put them three behind the Thrashers. Then win in regulation.
That's how crazy this Eastern race is. Hell. If the Islanders had beaten the Devils over the weekend, we'd be talking more about their run. Instead, Jack Capuano's surging club continues to lurk in the shadows with 62 points. With three candidates for 30-goal seasons (Moulson-28, Grabner-27, Tavares-24), the Islanders are playing well. They're a team with nothing to lose. Something Leafs' captain Dion Phaneuf made reference to following a costly lost point.
“They are a very different team than they were before Christmas.”
These Isles are finally getting it. What with former Ranger No.1 pick Al Montoya (6-2-2, 2.02 GAA, .930 Save Pct., SHO) supplying steady netminding along with improved play from Comeau (career best 19 goals and 40 points), P.A. Parenteau (15-27-42), Andrew MacDonald (4-22-26, club best 140 blocked shots), Frans Nielsen (career high 29 assists), reemerging Josh Bailey (1-3-4 in last 4), a healthy Kyle Okposo (4-10-14), there's plenty for Islander fans to be excited about. Already rookie blueliner Travis Hamonic has become a steady influence with 20 points (3-17-20) while doing all the little things right (86 hits, 94 blocked shots). Jack Hillen has also been solid, chipping in with 15 points and 112 blocked shots.
So, while Garth Snow foolishly defends the undefendable like repeat offender Trevor Gillies, Capuano has kept his team focused. No longer are the Islanders easy to play against. They're the one team you don't want to face in this race. Even if they don't make it, they'll play spoiler.
A Glance At Tonight: There are two games of interest involving three teams. First, the Thrashers visit Raleigh at 7 to battle the Canes. A regulation win would put Atlanta right back in it, just five out. If Carolina wins, they jump over idle Buffalo into eighth. The way these two clubs play, figure the dreaded three-point game.
Meanwhile, the Rangers are on a vital two-game Pacific swing with stops at Anaheim tonight and San Jose Saturday. Considering how hectic the West is, this is a must for the Ducks, who have slipped to 11th with 75 points. Amazingly, they're only four away from fifth Dallas, sixth Phoenix and seventh Calgary, typifying how wild the West is. The Kings sit in eighth with 77 while Minnesota and Nashville are sandwiched between the Ducks. Anything's possible. John Tortorella's club enters with one less point than their opponent but must contend with the dangerous Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line not to mention ageless wonder Teemu Selanne (21-39-60), who looks like he could play another five years. There's also the cool subplot of rookie blueliner Cam Fowler (7-22-29, club worst -23, 4 PPG, 16 PP Pts) who the Blueshirts passed on, instead opting for rugged defenseman Dylan McIlrath. The full impact won't be known for years.
It's definitely a compelling match. Can the Ducks bounce back from a 3-0 shutout loss to Vancouver or do the Rangers build on that impressive 7-0 blitz of the Flyers that featured a Ryan Callahan four-goal, five-point game, two Mats Zucarello markers and Henrik Lundqvist's league-leading ninth shutout? For the East coasters, it don't start till 10:30. Stay tuned.
RACE FOR SEVEN AND EIGHT
GP Record Pts GR
7.NYR 68 35-29-4 74 14
8.Buf 66 32-26-8 72 16
9.Car 66 31-26-9 71 16
10.Tor 67 29-28-10 68 15
11.Atl 66 27-28-11 65 16
12.NJD 66 30-32-4 64 16
13.Fla 67 27-31-9 63 15
14.NYI 68 26-32-10 62 14