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Weekly Atlantic Division Snapshot: 3/25- 3/31

Welcome to the penultimate edition of the weekly Atlantic Division snapshot for the 2011-12 season. Penultimate is a fancy word meaning next-to-last, so among other things, this post helped you learn a new word. In any case, with only two full weeks left in the season, everyone in the Atlantic not named the New York Islanders are jockeying for playoff position. The New York Rangers are fending off the Pittsburgh Penguins for first; the Philadelphia Flyers are sneaking up on the Pens, and the New Jersey Devils are the only playoff-bound team that hasn't officially clinched yet - but they will soon.

Atlantic Standings

X - New York Rangers 75 47 21 7 101
X - Pittsburgh 74 46 22 6 98
X - Philadelphia 75 44 23 8 96
New Jersey 75 42 27 6 90
New York Islanders 74 30 33 11 71

X = Clinched a Playoff Spot (updated 3.25.2012 at 9:04 AM EDT)

While there's not a lot of time left and it's not official, but it appears the Atlantic Division will be sending four teams to the 2012 playoffs. How good is this division? The fourth-place Devils have more points than the division leaders of the Northeast and the Southeast and it's likely that Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will join the Rangers as teams with more than 100 points earned.

Please continue on after the jump to see a breakdown of the upcoming schedules for all five Atlantic Division teams as well as what the other Eastern Conference playoff races look like before Sunday's games. If you're looking for a preview of today's Devils-Penguins game, please check out this post and talk about it there and not here.

For the first time this month, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost a game in regulation. It also happened in the same week where the Penguins continue their torrid winning streak.
Potential Points Last Week Conf. Position
NYR 6 3-1-0 1st
PIT 8 2-1-1 4th
PHI 6 3-1-0 5th
NJD 8 1-1-1 6th
NYI 8 1-1-0 14th

The Penguins shouldn't feel too bad since, you know, they went 13 straight games without a regulation loss. At the same time, they only made up ground on a Rangers team that stopped slumping this week in a big way and the Flyers are right behind them with a successful week of their own. Fifth place is still entirely possible for Pittsburgh given the current standings. The good news for the Penguins is that they'll use up their game in hand on the Rangers and the Flyers in this week. If they can get back to winning ways soon - and they probably will since they're an elite team - then first place isn't completely out of the question. However, they're going to need the Rangers to falter to do it since they have a three point lead.

As for the Devils, they only got half the points in their week. It's not a great week, but it's not bad either. Their one win came over Ottawa, who was behind them, and will likely go a long way to securing sixth in the East. Since they didn't make the playoffs last season, their current situation has to be considered a success. It's going to take a hot streak and the Flyers slumping to have any shot at moving up in the division or the Eastern Conference. Likewise, it's going to take a big slump and an Ottawa hot streak to move down. Nothing is guaranteed yet, but that playoff spot should be clinched in the near future.

The islanders, well, enjoy being spoilers again. At least they're not dead last in the East, though they are tied with Montreal in points. I couldn't tell you if the Isles would benefit finishing in the basement again since they've done it so many times and keep ending up there. Still, moving up a little bit for the sake of pride isn't completely impossible at this juncture. For them and many other teams, it's all for pride - again.

Here's the schedule for the Atlantic Division teams for the penultimate week of the 2011-12 season.

3/25 3/26 3/27 3/28 3/29 3/30 3/31
PIT vs. NJD vs. NYI @ NYI @ BUF
PHI vs. TBL @ TOR vs. OTT
NJD @ PIT vs. CHI vs. TBL @ CAR
NYI @ FLA @ PIT vs. PIT vs. BOS

There are a handful of intra-divisional games. Today's the big one: the Penguins will host the Devils. Since the Penguins recently lost a game within 60 minutes and lost it by four goals, they've got additional motivation beyond making up ground on an idle Rangers team. The Devils could be spoilers or prey. We'll see. The Penguins also have two other intra-divisional games, both against the Islanders. These could be ugly games for the Isles faithful, but who knows, maybe the Isles can unleash a surprise - Rangers and Flyers fans will hope they can. The rest of the schedule will impact the other playoff races as the Atlantic is close to set with respect to who's getting in. The Rangers get a relatively easy schedule with two bottom-bound teams in Minnesota and Montreal; the Flyers will only face one playoff-bound team at the end of the week; the Pens can ruin or help Buffalo's surprising playoff run; and the Isles get the two teams Devils fans should definitely pay attention to in these final two weeks.

The Devils' schedule looks to be tricky. The Devils get the Penguins first and then a Chicago team that's in a similar spot to New Jersey except they can actually move up in the Central Division. They'll need those two points for their own cause. The final two games are against non-playoff-bound Tampa Bay and Carolina but they can be rightly seen as trap games. The Canes aren't completely awful anymore and the other three games against Tampa Bay were dramatic and could very well be again on Thursday. Since the Devils don't have a reasonable chance at catching Philly or need to keep far away from Ottawa, I think splitting the week would be just fine.

3/25 3/26 3/27 3/28 3/29 3/30 3/31 GP PTS.
#2 BOS @ ANA vs. TBL vs. WSH @ NYI 74 89
#3 FLA vs. NYI @MTL @ MIN @ CBJ 74 86
#7 OTT @ WPG @ PHI 76 86

Since the Devils are likely to finish sixth in the East, they'll play the #3 seeded team or the division leader with the fewest points. About a month ago, it seemed set in stone that would be the Southeast Division leader since Boston was destroying teams and taking their points on a regular basis. Given that the Devils got mauled by the Bruins in their four games against them this season, this is a positive. However, the B's have crashed and the Florida Panthers can definitely usurp their #2 seed - giving the Devils their worst possible match-up in the first round.

So unless you want the Devils to play the Bruins in the first round - and why would you? - Devils fans need to cheer on Boston and cheer against Florida. The Senators, for all intents and purposes, are on the outside looking in for the Northeast Division. The good news is that the Bruins have a small three point lead with the same number of games played as Florida. The bad news is that the Panthers have a very easy schedule on paper with four games against the worst teams in hockey this season. The only way it would be weaker is if Minnesota was swapped with Edmonton. Let's hope they slip up.

3/25 3/26 3/27 3/28 3/29 3/30 3/31 GP PTS.
#8 BUF @ WSH vs. PIT @ TOR 76 84
#9 WSH vs. MIN vs. BUF @ BOS vs. MTL 75 82
#10 WPG vs. OTT vs. NYR @ CAR @ TBL 75 78

With respect to the final playoff spot in the East, the drama is definitely there as Buffalo jumped ahead of Washington. That's what you get when you can't close, Caps. It's an impressive run for the Sabres since they were dead last in the East earlier this season. Of course, getting close isn't enough; they don't want to falter now. Tuesday's game is going to be massive as to whether Buffalo stays in the driver's seat or Washington can take control of eighth. Washington will use up a game in hand on the Sabres tonight so it's a two-team race. Of course, if both slip up in a major way, the Jets could conceivably get hot and make a surprise appearance. I wouldn't bet on it, though. Making up six points or even four points if Jets win game in hand right now is a lot harder than it looks. I guess one could say those Jets are running out of fuel.

That does it for another weekly edition of the Atlantic Division snapshot. Do you think the Penguins can actually catch the Rangers now? Can the Flyers sneak up on Pittsburgh and knock them down to fifth? Who will the Devils face in the first round of the playoffs: Boston or Florida? Will the Sabres hold onto eighth? What do you think the Devils will achieve given their upcoming schedule? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on the upcoming week ahead in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference playoff race in the comments. Thank you for reading.