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The NHL’s Final Week: Scramble For Final Spot in East, West

Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond has led the Senators' incredible resurgence as they eye a playoff berth.

Can the Ottawa Senators complete the miracle? Two nights ago, destiny was in their own hands until, for the second time in as many weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs intervened and embraced their role as spoilers. The Sens are down to their last three contests, and while they no longer control their own destiny, tonight’s game against the free falling Pittsburgh Penguins is the final frontier. Lose and it’s all but over. Win and things are as interesting as ever with two games to go.

My feeling is the Senators’ two recent losses to Toronto are more telling than anything that they are not playoff ready. Andrew Hammond is one of the greatest stories in hockey this season, even as he has proven to be human over the past couple of weeks. What once looked like a three-team battle between Ottawa, the Boston Bruins, and Florida Panthers for the second wild card spot has turned into a mad scramble between the Senators and three playoff stalwarts in Pittsburgh, Boston, and the Detroit Red Wings, who have proven quite vulnerable of late.

What likely will keep the Senators on the outside looking in is their closing schedule. Even if they can score a regulation win over the Penguins tonight, they need help. They need the Red Wings to lose at home to lowly Carolina. Detroit plays the Hurricanes in two of their last three with a trip to Montreal sandwiched in between. The Senators not only need to beat Pittsburgh but then they will need to beat the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden as well as the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center. Pittsburgh plays back-to-back games to close the season, hosting the Islanders and visiting the cellar-dwelling Buffalo Sabres. Boston’s final stretch is actually the toughest, with road games against Washington, Florida, and Tampa Bay, but the B’s are rolling right now, winners of five straight after a six-game skid.

The West is not short on drama, either. It’s hard for me to pick against the Los Angeles Kings — and apparently the oddsmakers agree. The Kings are still one of the Stanley Cup favorites despite the fact that if the playoffs began today, they’d be watching from home. But something tells me the Kings are right where they want to be. They are always a late entry into the dance with a deep playoff run in store. L.A. is tied with Calgary for a divisional spot, and the Kings will visit the Flames Thursday in a crucial game. Otherwise, they play the Oilers and Sharks, while the Flames have Arizona but finish at Winnipeg, who is also teetering on the brink.

So, to sum up, Kings in, Senators out. Detroit, Boston, and Pittsburgh will get second life after underwhelming regular seasons and will be tough outs in the postseason. The Kings are a team that absolutely no one wants to face; they are the San Francisco Giants of hockey, laying in the weeds until playoff time and then blindsiding opponents all the way to glory. That will likely cost Calgary a spot, but the Flames-Jets tilt on Saturday could settle everything and leave Winnipeg out in the cold. Both conferences are set up for a photo finish, and it figures to be a great primer for what looks to be an even better postseason.

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