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Canadian Press
12/18/2006 4:23:28 PM


The NHL's Eastern Conference took a breather Monday. It needed one.

With only six points separating fifth place from 12th, the East is proving to be the wild and crazy race most had predicted before the season started.

''This is the most balanced I've seen,'' veteran GM Lou Lamoriello said Monday. ''It's certainly what everyone wanted, and they're getting it.''

Lamoriello's New Jersey Devils occupy fifth in the conference, at least for a day or two, with 38 points. The Boston Bruins are 12th with 32 points but have games in hand on everyone ahead of them. In between lies Washington and Toronto with 37 points, Carolina at 36 points, and the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh and Ottawa all at 35 points.

While Buffalo is cruising in first place at 50 points and showing no signs of slowing down, it's not as if Montreal (43 points), Atlanta (42 points) and the New York Rangers (40 points) have that much breathing room ahead of the eight-team logjam beneath them. The Rangers, after all, were outscored 15-3 in back-to-back losses to Toronto and New Jersey this weekend.

Jim Rutherford can't remember a year that's been this close in the East.

''No, I can't,'' said the GM of the defending Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes. ''But it's good. Some teams have done a good job improving their teams from last year and have closed the gap.''

Circle April 8 on your calendar. That's the last day of the regular season. The Islanders play at New Jersey that Sunday afternoon, likely a game that will shift things around for good in the conference.

''I think this is an indication why these races are going to be so great and why the schedule should really stay the way it is,'' said Lamoriello.

Lamoriello is among the GMs who likes the unbalanced schedule - which features eight games against each divisional opponent - although he'd like to see them spaced out better.

A select group of NHL governors will meet Wednesday in New York to further discuss the schedule. Commissioner Gary Bettman appointed them to a special committee. Any recommendation will be voted on at the board of governors meeting in Dallas next month.

Some fans may be getting tired of seeing the same teams too often, but there will be some big games down the stretch that will greatly affect the standings.

In the meantime, any kind of streak, winning or losing, has a dramatic effect on a team's standing in the East. The Maple Leafs were 11th in the conference last Tuesday morning. Three straight wins pushed them up to sixth, albeit only for one night Saturday, after the Devils pushed them down a spot with their win Sunday at New York.

Leafs head coach Paul Maurice had predicted such a topsy-turvy race before the season, saying his team would be in a dogfight. Well, a dogfight he's getting.

''You'd like to get into that top four or five where you've won enough where you can go into a slide and relax a little bit, but that's not going to be where we are and that's fine,'' Maurice said Monday after practice at the Air Canada Centre.

The key, Maurice said, is how a team rebounds after a tough loss. The Leafs can't endure another seven-game winless streak and expect to still be in the mix.

''We didn't rebound as well as we need to, we went seven games winless and only pulled a point out. That's not going to work the next time,'' he said. ''Because we are going to face adversity, we'll have injuries, we'll find it hard to score goals, we're going to hit hot teams with hot goaltending and need to pull points out of those games.

''And hopefully we think that we've learned enough in this last stretch to be able to do it quicker next time.''

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Man it's close. :eek: I'm suddenly not sure if Toronto will even make the playoffs, especially with their inconsistent play as of late.

Dominate the Rangers 9-2, get blownout the next game 7-3 by Florida. :rolleyes: They have to be more consistent.

And I also think that they're missing on their team.

Something... something....
 

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The way Montreal has been playing all season I wouldent be suprised if they took first place from buffalo. They have been having a amazing season, and had a huge 5-2 win over Buffalo last night. Way to go Habs:thumbsup: :D 4 straight wins
 

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Canuck said:
The way Montreal has been playing all season I wouldent be suprised if they took first place from buffalo. They have been having a amazing season, and had a huge 5-2 win over Buffalo last night. Way to go Habs:thumbsup: :D 4 straight wins
It's possible. just 5 points back now, and Buffalo isn't nearly as hot as they were before.
 
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