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Gawking at Rivals: Philly rebounds, Leafs inch up; Nystrom's nice hit

There are seven games left in the Islanders season, so we resort to wondering how many games they've yet to lose and how that will affect where they fall in April's draft lottery. Also, we root for the demise of hated rivals.

For example, if the Isles had won even half their games (instead of zero) against the Flyers in each of the last two seasons, Philly would have missed the playoffs both seasons. This year, the Isles are 0-5 against the orange men, and if they hand over yet another two points to Philly in the final meeting Thursday, the Flyers will have the Isles to thank for three years of playoff revenue. Let's really try to win this Thursday, 'kay guys?

Divisionally Speaking

  • Philly, by the way, bounced back from a run of seven losses in eight to thump the Devils 5-1 last night. The Devils looked awful, and Martin Brodeur looked ordinary, as is increasingly the case. [BSH rejoices | ILWT mourns] Despite the Flyers' fall, Paul Holmgrem is safe. But no matter if the Flyers season crashes April 12 or about four games later, they have some major decisions this summer -- not the least of which is picking out a thank you card for the Isles.
  • The Rangers have won just enough (76 points in 75 games) to pretend they're still in the laughably mediocre Eastern playoff race. Maybe that 5-0 tanking at the Garden was brilliant of the Isles, after all: Now they've given themselves the chance to drive a real dagger into the Smurfs Tuesday on Coliseum ice. Expect a Sean Avery injury update today, but I think the prognosis will be: "Struck by hockey god, day to day."
  • That leaves the Penguins. The Pens squeaked out a surprisingly topsy-turvy shootout win over the Leafs yesterday, giving the Leafs a valuable point toward escaping lottery hell and giving the Pens a two-point lead on New Jersey for the division lead. The Devils have a game in hand, though; both teams play the Isles on the final weekend of the season.

After the jump: Lottery bits and bites and a nice Nystrom the Younger hit (not that I'm campaigning, no)...

Learn to Love the Lottery

Columbus beat Chicago for the second time within four days (and Chicago fans are really starting to worry), so the BJ's overcame Saturday's loss to the Islanders to go three points up (75 in 76 games) in 24th place overall. Only in the NHL can you go into a game two points behind a team, beat them in OT, then see them beat someone else the next night to go three points up on you. The OTL Point: The lottery lover's best friend.

Speaking of OTLs in the lottery race, Toronto's shootout loss leaves them just two points (69 in 76 games) behind Carolina (71 in 75) and Florida (71 in 74) and three points behind the Lightning and Isles (72 in 75, both of them).

So with between six and eight games left for the affected teams, games in hand matter. So does the strength of opponents, but you just never know which team is going to show up this time of year:

The Flyers can play awful for two weeks and then demolish the Devils. The Flames can fritter away their playoff hopes with losses to the Isles and Bruins, then beat Washington in D.C. yesterday (by the way, did you see the open-ice Eric Nystrom hit on Mike Green? It was great because it was clean -- and complete body, no head. It's true: Some NHLers really do know how to deliver clean hard checks!):

...continuing on: The Lightning can cough up their chances with five losses in a row, then beat a should-be desperate Bruins team before being demolished by Buffalo. (Speaking of which, the Lightning have three superstars and are sitting on par with the Isles. Sad and surreal.)

The point is, I'm usually halfway competent reading the playoffs once they start, but I've no idea what to make of teams this time of year, right before the season closes. Losing teams play loose, already-clinched playoff teams play lax and lazy, and bubble teams play with the kind of maddening inconsistency that landed them in bubble territory in the first place. None of these results make sense, yet none of them surprise me. The Isles should end up in the bottom 4-5, but you never know.

Almost as compelling: I'm not betting on the Leafs jumping out of 29th place to salvage some sense of protection against full-on ridicule for handing that pick to Boston, but if they do pull it off, it probably will come down to the final game of the season. In Montreal. You bet I'm watching that one.