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Temperatures are rising fast in playoff races

Now things really get cooking.

The Buffalo Sabres are approaching the final quarter of the season with games rolling off the schedule, the March 4 NHL trade deadline coming fast and the playoff race tightening. This is where the season gets interesting because, let's be honest, it already feels like the postseason.

The Sabres are in an unsettling position given their place in the Eastern Conference and the unrestricted free agents on the roster. Certainly, they'll be shooting for the playoffs with the future in mind, which makes for a tricky situation to be sure. Do they buy for now, sell for later or ride their current roster into the unknown?

Heck, when you see the Sabres play the way they did in a 3-0 loss to Carolina, you're convinced they should trade their UFAs ASAP. But when they bounce back the way they did against Toronto, you're wondering if they could use a rental. Looking for a nice, juicy headache? Try predicting the playoff races.

Let's say the top four spots are secure with the Bruins and Capitals cruising along in their divisions, the Devils safe in the Atlantic and the Flyers looking to take advantage of a current stretch of nine of 12 games at home. It leaves the Sabres, currently tied for sixth, among six teams fighting for the final four spots.

It's even tighter in the West, where the bottom 11 teams were separated by nine points entering Saturday, but here's a look at the East, in order of position:

*Canadiens: It says plenty about their mental state when management decides that All-Star MVP Alex Kovalev was better off staying home for a couple games to get his head right. They were 3-11-1 in a 15-game stretch before Saturday's 5-3 win over Ottawa. Good news: Seven of their final 11 games are against teams currently outside the playoffs. The bad: They've already crumbled under pressure that will only get more intense.

*Panthers: They have a 9-4 record after the All-Star break. Please, stop dreaming about Jay Bouwmeester. Buffalo would be the last place they would trade him. Good news: Balanced scoring from a team lacking stars. Bad news: Could turn into sellers if five-game roadie just before the deadline turns into a disaster.

*Sabres: Any excitement about their sudden climb up the standings should be tempered by the fact that they are 10-8-1 in games after Jan. 10. Playoff team? Yes. Cup contender? No. Good news: Ryan Miller was playing well enough to carry them into the postseason. Bad news: Thomas Vanek could be gone for another month, and the timetable for Miller's return is uncertain as well.

*Rangers: They are in a 2-7-2 free fall, and one victory was over the lowly Islanders last week in a win that was hardly convincing. If their top guns keep firing blanks, they're in trouble. Good news: They can't play much worse. Bad news: Their final seven games are against Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Carolina, Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia twice.

*Hurricanes: You think the Sabres are unpredictable? The 'Canes take turns between terrific and terrible for weeks at a time. The coaching change had virtually no effect. Good news: Eight of their final 11 games are at home. Bad news: Rod Brind'Amour has not scored in 23 games.

*Penguins: They've been trying to climb back into the race almost all season, and they're better than the standings suggest with Sergei Gonchar back. They could steal the eighth spot and should not be overlooked. Good news: They play eight straight games at home starting March 14. Bad news: They play four of their final five on the road.

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Change of plans?

The Stars' strategy going into the trade deadline could change significantly now that Brad Richards is sidelined for six to eight weeks with a broken wrist. They figured to be shoppers going into the deadline, but it looks like they'll make only a few minor moves unless they can snag a top defenseman.

Richards helped keep the Stars together and get back into the playoff race after they lost Brenden Morrow and Sergei Zubov, two key players, and dumped problem child Sean Avery. They're still on the hook for Avery's salary (half if the Rangers take him), and they also had to pay the players who replaced him.

The injuries give the Stars cap relief, but it doesn't mean they're going to spend. They're intent on adhering to their internal budget, knowing they're not likely to get into contention for the Cup. If they can get into the playoffs, however, Richards is expected to return with Morrow possibly joining him.

"We believe we have the answers within the system, and that's what we're going with right now," co-GM Les Jackson said. "We have several options at center. We have some forward depth in the minors. We believe the team is strong enough to handle this."

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Old job, new job

Don't be surprised if the Penguins take a long look at hockey analyst Pierre McGuire as a coaching candidate after the season. McGuire has a very good relationship with GM Ray Shero. He won two Stanley Cups with the Pens as a scout and assistant coach in the 1990s and was a head coach in Hartford.

McGuire plans to concentrate on his television duties through 2010, but such a move makes perfect sense. McGuire knows the game inside and out on all levels and has better communication skills than half the coaches in the league. Why the former Hobart College football and hockey star hasn't been hired over the years is a mystery.

The downside for hockey fans, of course, would be losing him on television. He's knowledgeable, articulate and fearless when making his assessments on the fly. It's why he's one of the best in the biz.

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Time to deal

Leafs GM Brian Burke has never been a big fan of the trade deadline, mainly because he believes too many bad deals are made under pressure. It makes sense, but Burke this year is expected to be busy in an effort to rebuild his roster.

Tomas Kaberle's name was churning through the rumor mill last week after identifying 10 teams for whom he would waive his no-trade clause. Burke would rather keep Kaberle, and he would like to stay, but their agreement allows the Leafs to maximize their asset and the defenseman an opportunity to win the Cup.

Nik Antropov will likely be moved. Talk last week had him going to Pittsburgh for Ryan Whitney before fizzling. Dominic Moore is an unrestricted free agent who could get the Leafs a decent return if Burke can strike the right deal.

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Cap relief needed

With former Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere expected to rejoin the Flyers this week, they could be forced into making a trade. His status on the long-term injury list gave them relief under the salary cap, but now they need to account for his $8 million salary.

One player who could be caught in the money crunch is right winger Joffrey Lupul, who has a $2.312 million cap hit before a four-year contract extension worth $13 million kicks in next season. He has averaged more than 20 goals over the previous three seasons and has 17 goals and 34 points in 54 games this season.

GM Paul Holmgren was looking at several possibilities, including keeping Briere out until he finds a solution.

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Acceptance

Former coach Pat Burns, now working as a scout for the Devils while battling terminal lung cancer, has accepted his fate while embracing his greatest pleasure: hockey. He visited the Devils' coaching staff and players last week.

"I'm not bitter. What's to be bitter about?" Burns told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I think the crying is all over. We've pretty well done what we had to do. My wife and I have pretty well gotten everybody ready. There's not a whole lot you can do."

Burns spends much of his time watching games at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, scouting teams and players in an effort to get out of the house. He and Scotty Bowman often watch games together.

"It keeps me busy," he said. "I like hanging out with the scouts. Scotty and I sit together and change the whole league around. Fire coaches and hire coaches and fire referees. We have fun."

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Quotable

Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock before winning his 500th game: "How many people come to work every day and don't feel like they have a job? That's how I feel."

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Around the boards

*Don't be surprised if the Canucks make a pitch for Tim Connolly, especially if the Sabres go into a slide over the next two weeks. They're looking for more depth down the middle and help on the power play. They would part with young winger Mason Raymond, recently bumped to the fourth line. Buffalo already has enough players like him.

*Kings GM Dean Lombardi on hockey in Europe, where there is no fighting: "They're struggling over there because it's like watching paint dry. They're 2-1 games, nobody touches anybody, there's no passion. All you get is a little razzle-dazzle skill every once in a while."

*The Blue Jackets get the last laugh after defenseman Adam Foote quit on them last season and demanded to be traded to Colorado. They rolled the first-round pick from the Foote deal into a swap for R.J. Umberger, who scored his 20th goal last week to match a career high. Foote is minus-4 in 33 games this season.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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