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As I look at the Eastern Conference standings, I see a tremendous stretch run for the playoffs developing.
You can always pencil in New Jersey, Philly, Toronto and Ottawa into the postseason … and then you can erase them in the first or second round. To find your Stanley Cup rep from the East, you have to scour the pack for the four ugly sisters who trip into the playoffs and find the one that will rise up.
Pretenders -- Boston and Tampa Bay, the two biggest surprises early in the season, have been steadily slipping and I don't think either one will make the playoffs. The Canadiens are hanging in the mix, but unless Jose Theodore and Donald Audette start showing up, they're not going to get in. And the Panthers? Please.
Contenders -- Pittsburgh and Washington have the potential to make a real run in the playoffs. Nobody – but nobody – wants to play Mario Lemieux and Pittsburgh in the postseason. The Pens just need to hold on and get in. That could be the bigger test. Likewise, Washington – which would get home ice in the first round by winning the Southeast Division – has an explosive offense and proven pressure goalie in Olaf Kolzig. My biggest concern is rookie coach Bruce Cassidy going head-to-head against Ken Hitchcock or Pat Burns or Pat Quinn or Jacques Martin in a second-round series.
Jury's Out -- I see the Rangers, Islanders and Hurricanes battling for two spots – and all three of them have been showing signs of life lately. The Islanders are probably the best of the bunch and have last year's heated loss to Toronto to use as a rallying point. The Hurricanes are the defending conference champs, and that counts for something – but not much. I don't see them bottling that same lightning. And the Rangers? They've been playing well since picking up Mike Dunham, but they're one bad streak away from being thrown right back into the Pretenders list, where they belong.
So, my Eastern Conference playoff pairings as of midseason are (I don't ordinarily make predictions, and in a few months, you'll see why):
First round: Ottawa def. Carolina 4-0; Philadelphia def. N.Y. Islanders 4-2; Pittsburgh def. Washington 4-2; Toronto def. New Jersey 4-3.
Second round: Ottawa def. Pittsburgh 4-1; Philadelphia def. Toronto 4-3.
Conference final: Ottawa def. Philadelphia 4-2
How did I end up with a 1-vs.-2 conference final? I have no idea. I'm just weak that way. We'll try again next week in the West.