Atlantic: Battle for playoff seeding heats up in Atlantic

By Ian Altenbaugh

Photo: New York Rangers forward Marian Gaborik added to his team-leading goal total on the weekend (courtesy of

Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Although it seems increasingly likely that the New York Rangers will finish with the Atlantic Division title and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the second spot in the Atlantic, and likely the fourth overall seed in the conference, is still very much up for grabs. Currently the Pittsburgh Penguins hold the fourth spot with 81 points, but the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils are only four points behind in the conference, ranked fifth and sixth respectively.

This is not the first season in which the Atlantic Division will be well represented in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Following the 2004-05 lockout, at least three Atlantic Division teams have made the playoffs every year. Furthermore, the 2011-12 season could be the third in seven years where the division sends four teams to the playoffs.

Atlantic Division Notes

New Jersey Devils The Devils will play four divisional games this week starting Tuesday when they host the New York Rangers. They then play back-to-back games against the Islanders on March 8th and the 10th, and finish the week Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers. If the Devils are able to win all four games they could leapfrog the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the standings, provided that those teams cooperate with losses of their own.

Though there have been slight improvements recently, the Devils remain one of the worst teams in the league on faceoffs, winning only 46.4 percent of their draws. Patrick Elias leads the team in draws taken with 1124, but has won only 43.8 percent of them. The team’s best player in the faceoff dot is rookie Adam Henrique, who has won 403 of 827.

Defenseman Andy Greene (back spasms) and winger Alexei Ponikarovsky (right knee) missed Sunday’s match against the New York Islanders. Both are considered day-to-day.

New York Islanders
The Islanders will continue a quirky March schedule where they play the New Jersey Devils three times in seven days. The first match of the three-game series occurred this past Sunday when the Islanders hosted the Devils and slipped past them, 1-0. The second part of the series will take place on Thursday in New Jersey, then wrap up in Long Island on Saturday. The Islanders will cap off the week by visiting the New York Rangers on Sunday, March 11th.

Speedy goal-scoring forward Michael Grabner missed Sunday’s game against the New Jersey Devils with the flu. Coming off a 34-goal campaign in 2010-11, Grabner has battled injuries for much of the season and has only 15 goals through 63 games.

New York Rangers –
The Rangers will look to defend their lead in the Eastern Conference when they begin a three-game road trip on Tuesday, starting with a visit to division rival New Jersey. They will then visit the Ottawa Senators on Thursday March 8th and the Chicago Blackhawks on March 9th. They’ll close the week on Sunday when they host the New York Islanders.

High-scoring winger Marian Gaborik scored his team-best 32nd goal yesterday against the Boston Bruins. Gaborik now ranks fourth in the NHL in goals and 24th in points with 58.

Rookie forward Carl Hagelin on Sunday scored his 12th goal of the season, giving him five points in his last five games.

Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers further solidified their playoff spot Sunday night when they defeated the Washington Capitals, 1-0. The Flyers will kick off the week at home, hosting the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday then the Florida Panthers on Thursday. They will then begin a two-game road trip, first visiting the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday and then the New Jersey Devils on Sunday.

Eric Wellwood’s goal yesterday against the Washington Capitals was the first time the Flyers scored the opening goal in a game since February 9th.

Defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Kimmo Timonen are both out indefinitely with lower-body injuries.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins begin a four-game homestand tonight when they host the Phoenix Coyotes. They will host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday in a nationally televised game, then cap off the week hosting
the Florida Panthers on Friday and the Stanley Cup defending Boston Bruins on Sunday.

Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin picked up another point Saturday night in the Penguins’ game vs. the Colorado Avalanche, giving the Penguins’ star six goals and five assists in seven games. Malkin remains tied for the league lead in points (80) with Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos.

Ben Lovejoy took the place of injured defenseman Kris Letang last Saturday night against the Colorado Avalanche, playing 16 minutes and putting three shots on net. It was the first game Lovejoy has played since February 21st.