The turtle derby otherwise known as the NHL's Eastern Conference playoff race (!?) comes to an end Sunday, when the 2009-10 regular season mercifully wraps up.
No matter how much they sputter and wheeze, three teams from among the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Rangers and the Atlanta Thrashers will - of necessity - qualify for postseason play.
It's hard to imagine them being anything but first-round fodder, with the possible exception of Montreal, which recorded back-to-back shutouts in its last two games and is getting the sort of goaltending from Jaroslav Halak that sometimes leads to a major upset.
The Canadiens are nicely positioned to lock down the sixth seed with any kind of decent week against a trio of conference also-rans (New York Islanders, Carolina and Toronto), which would give them divisional rival Buffalo in the opening round, a team they happened to shut out 3-0 on Saturday night.
Philadelphia's playoff hopes received a major boost yesterday afternoon when the surging Detroit Red Wings opted to give little-used Chris Osgood a rare start in goal. The Flyers - no strangers to goaltending dilemmas of their own - were rewarded when Osgood stopped just 21 of 25 shots and gave up a goal in the opening minute of both the first and second periods. Not good, but not surprising considering the rust on Osgood, who hadn't started since Jan. 27.
Philadelphia opened up a two-point cushion on their closest pursuers, the New York Rangers, and the two teams finish the season by playing a home-and-home series Friday and Sunday, with the final playoff spot - and a chance to play the Washington Capitals in the opening round - on the line. The Capitals need just a single point to clinch the President's Trophy for the NHL's best overall record and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Needing a big win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, the Calgary Flames dropped a 3-1 decision to the Chicago Blackhawks yesterday afternoon, negating much of the good they did by defeating the Avalanche in Colorado last Friday night. Once again, it was a familiar scenario for the goal-starved Flames: They pressed and pushed against the Blackhawks, but could only manage a single goal against Chicago's Antti Niemi, who has effectively wrapped up the starter's role for the upcoming playoffs.
Calgary will likely finish with more points than the bottom three playoff qualifiers in the Eastern Conference but that will provide little solace. The West is so strong this year that the top seven finishers will all accumulate 100 points or more.