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Mad dash to finish

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After this weekend, teams play almost all of their remaining regular-season games against division rivals. That should make for a dramatic conclusion considering 18 of the 30 teams remain in striking range of first place in their divisions after Thursday's play.

Making the field of 16 for the Stanley Cup playoffs is based, of course, on conference standing. But winning a division assures home ice in the opening round, and in two divisions this season, it's the only ticket into the postseason dance.

Here's a look at how the wild finish might play out:

Atlantic Division: The Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers all have a shot while the Philadelphia Flyers' best postseason hope is to hang on to a top-eight finish and give the division half of the Eastern Conference playoff field.

The Rangers are the hottest team – riding a 13-game unbeaten streak (10-0-3) – and the other thing they have going for them is a 15-6-1 record against division opponents. Of their final 10 games, half are against Pittsburgh (three) and New Jersey (two).

The Penguins, who like the Devils have played one more than the Rangers, have battled adversity in terms of injury and are mentally strong because of it. Goalie Ty Conklin has given the team an unexpected lift, and they could receive a boost if Marian Hossa returns. Four of their final eight games are against the Islanders and Flyers.

The Devils have given up the fewest goals among the division rivals, and that's a key stat. Their addition of Bryce Salvador on defense tightens things up even further. New Jersey faces the Rangers in three of its final 10 games.

Prediction: Devils emerge on top with Martin Brodeur and defense making the difference. The Penguins will slide into second and while the Rangers will hold off the Flyers, who may still finish as high as seventh.

Northeast Division: The Boston Bruins are not mathematically eliminated from a shot at first place, but realistically this is coming down to a great Canadian battle between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens.

The Senators drew even with the Canadiens by winning on Montreal ice Thursday night – both teams with 87 points through 72 games. Ottawa and Montreal meet twice more, each team playing as hosts and visitors. The Senators have had the best of the season series by winning five of the first six meetings.

The Canadiens have been good against division rivals, going 13-10-1, but not nearly as dominating as the Senators' 16-8 mark. Still, aside from its problems against Ottawa, Montreal plays five of its final 10 games against teams not likely to reach the postseason.

Boston might be the most vulnerable team in the East's top eight. The Bruins have lost six of seven (two after regulation), and are missing two key figures – defenseman Zdeno Chara and forward Patrice Bergeron. Boston finishes by playing five of its final eight on the road.

Prediction: The Canadiens find a way to at least split with the Senators and Carey Price stands taller than Martin Gerber down the stretch.

Boston holds on to the final playoff spot, but it'll take earning at least a point in its season finale against its closest pursuer, the Buffalo Sabres.

Southeast Division: Someone had to get hot and break from the pack and, on the strength of winning five straight and nine of 10, the Carolina Hurricanes are that team. Defense is out the window in this division, but Carolina will point to 2003-04 when Tampa Bay was the lone team to qualify for the playoffs and ran the table to win the Stanley Cup.

The Hurricanes can point to their success against division rivals – a 15-8-1 mark – as the difference in the race. Eric Staal has been a leader on and off the ice since Rod Brind'Amour went down with a season-ending injury.

Washington has the best chance to take a run at Carolina since it has a game-in-hand, but the Capitals face a six-game road trip starting Tuesday.

And that's a tough way to make up ground.

Prediction: Carolina runs away with the division, but gets nowhere close to winning a second Cup in three years.

Pacific Division: This is as much about winning a division and securing the second seed in the West as much as it is avoiding a likely Nos. 4-5 matchup in the first round of the playoffs pitting the second- and third-place finishers in the division.

The San Jose Sharks have won 10 straight and are close to 100-percent healthy as both Ryane Clowe and Curtis Brown are skating again. Brown may be a depth player at this point, but Clowe is versatile, adds more size and proved to be a good playoff performer last spring. The Sharks have an advantage because of a one-point lead and owning three games-in-hand over both Dallas and Anaheim.

The Stars have played best in the division (13-8-3) and have won all three meetings against the Sharks in San Jose. They'll need to continue that dominance to catch and finish ahead of San Jose.

The Ducks are 5-1 against the Sharks, but four games have gone into overtime or to a shootout. Unless Anaheim wins both remaining games against San Jose, it's looking at finishing no better than fourth and possibly having to open the playoffs on the road as the No. 5 seed.

Prediction: Sharks win the Pacific and finish not only second to Detroit, but No. 2 overall, too, which would come into play for home ice if they were to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

Central Division: By wrapping up their sixth straight title so far in advance, the Red Wings reward will be the luxury to rest, or at least limit, the ice time of key stars for the final several weeks.

Like Carolina in the Southeast, Detroit may be the only team to come out of its division as Nashville faces a deficit and not as many games remaining as teams they are chasing. And while Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis are improved, none can crack the top eight in the competitive West.

Prediction: Any suggestions that Detroit hasn't played meaningful games won't matter. It's all about matchups in the playoffs, and the Red Wings will go as far as their goaltending will carry them.

Northwest Division: It's a great four-team race that really couldn't be much closer as four points separate Colorado, Minnesota, Calgary and Vancouver. All four have a shot to make the playoffs, and any of the four are at risk in missing out at the same time. It's possible, if not probable, the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers in the division will qualify as the Nos. 6-8 seeds in the West.

The Avalanche are riding the momentum of a big trade deadline when they bulked up. Colorado has won eight of nine since picking up Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei. Five of the Avs' final nine, all against division rivals, are on the road, but they never have to play on back-to-back nights. Colorado is an impressive 15-7-1 against the Northwest.

The Wild, who like the Flames and Canucks own a game-in-hand over the Avalanche, make a trip to Western Canada for three games after visiting San Jose, then return home for four of their last five. Two of those contests are against Colorado, home and away.

The Flames failed to earn any points in their last two games, which put them in the middle of the race instead of leading the pack. With an 11-8-4 record against division rivals, Calgary has only four home games remaining and finishes with four straight on the road.

The Canucks got bad news Thursday when defenseman Mattias Ohlund returned to Vancouver for season-ending surgery to remove bone chips in his knee. In the midst of playing eight of 10 of the road (five on foreign ice remain), Vancouver finishes with four at home and two of those are against Calgary.

Prediction: Calgary and Minnesota will finish with the same number of points and wins, but the Flames get the nod because they won the season series (they lead it 5-1 at present). Colorado and Vancouver earn 93 and 92 points, respectively, and slip in as Nos. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively.

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