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Playoff race in West even crazier than in the East

The NHL completes the regular season next Saturday with 15 games involving all 30 teams and enough playoff scenarios to challenge the MIT math team. You know the Eastern Conference has been tight, but the West could very well come down to game No. 1,230 on the schedule.

Los Angeles will play San Jose in the final game of the NHL season to complete a plan built from absolute brilliance or diabolical cruelty. Two points separated four Pacific Division teams going into Saturday night. Three will likely make the playoffs.

If any NHL season is a marathon and not a sprint, as the cliche goes, how can the distance between third and ninth place be covered in 60 minutes of hockey? The Kings and Sharks, blessed with good fortune or victims of the opposite, finish their seasons with a home-and-home series.

Third-place Los Angeles skated into its game against Minnesota on Saturday while seventh-place Dallas played ninth-place San Jose. Add Phoenix, which was in eighth, and there were four teams from the same division that entered the evening separated by two measly points.

Isn't this fun?

There's no telling what will happen in the East. Buffalo had a hiccup against Pittsburgh before starting a home-and-home with Toronto on Saturday. The Sabres will finish the season with road games against Philadelphia and Boston. Given how far the Sabres traveled to get back into contention, they're not about to complain.

Anything can happen.

Florida will likely get into the postseason despite losing eight of 11 games and hardly looking like a third seed. Ottawa has four games this week, two against teams that will not make the playoffs. Washington and Florida play one another Thursday, a problem for Buffalo because the Sabres will not gain ground on one of them.

The Sabres, who haven't played beyond the first round since 2006-07, could be a dangerous team going into the postseason. They also could also be in danger of running out of the energy needed to get there, or compete if they do, after spending so much trying to get back into the race.

Buffalo would likely play the Rangers, Pittsburgh or Boston in the first round, assuming it doesn't falter. Here's a look at the nine Eastern Conference teams still in contention.

*New York Rangers: They've been one of the top teams in the NHL all year but weren't playing like one during a recent 4-6-0 stretch. They responded with four straight victories to pull away from the Penguins. They had a 3-1 record against the Sabres this season, but only one win came in regulation. My pick vs. Buffalo: Buffalo.

*Boston: Uh oh. The Bruins were the team, and Milan Lucic was the player, largely responsible for the Sabres' slide. However, their 25-4-1 surge to the top of the division was followed by a 12-15-2 mark over their next 29 games. A deep breath? Perhaps. Boston won five of six before losing to Washington in a shootout and appeared to be gearing up for the postseason: My pick vs. Buffalo: Boston.

*Florida: The Panthers, trying to reach the postseason for the first time since 1999-00, lead a weak division. No problem with division winners getting a playoff spot, but they shouldn't be guaranteed third place in the conference. Seeds should be determined by points. The current format makes finishing sixth more appealing than fourth or fifth.

*Pittsburgh: The Penguins could finish fourth and be the best team going into the playoffs. Pittsburgh's 26-6-2 tear coincided with Buffalo's ascension. Sidney Crosby is back. Marc-Andre Fleury had an 11-0-1 stretch with a .949 save percentage before getting roughed up for five goals by the Islanders last week. My pick vs. Buffalo: Pittsburgh.

*Philadelphia: Look out for the Flyers, who would be leading the Northeast and Southeast but have the misfortune of playing in the Atlantic with the Rangers and Pens. The Flyers haven't lost three straight in regulation all season. Ilya Bryzgalov, who won seven straight at one point, is suffering from a chipped bone in his foot. He's a wild card.

*New Jersey: The Devils could be in better shape than most simply because they played well enough, or poorly enough, to likely finish sixth. Consistency has been a big problem. They were 1-3-1 before beating Chicago in a shootout last week. They'll probably draw Florida. If they advance, they would play the tired 4-5 winner.

*Ottawa: Give the Senators credit for their resiliency. They were 1-5-0, then 7-9-1, then 17-15-5 before an 8-0-1 surge. They recovered from a 0-6-1 slump with a 7-1-1 stretch. That's how it has gone all season. Their second-last game is against Boston, and it could be a first-round preview.

*Buffalo: The Sabres must finish strong. Last year, the Sabres didn't clinch until the second-last game of the season and finished seventh. They didn't have enough juice left over to beat Philly in the first round. Finally, the Sabres are clicking the way many expected before the season. The game against Toronto this week should be a layup.

*Washington: You had to wonder if they could recover from Jason Pominville's short-handed goal last week. Take away their 7-0-0 start, and the Caps entered the weekend with a 31-31-8 record and are no better after firing their coach. Their last four games were against Montreal, Tampa Bay, Florida and the Rangers. If they can't win three, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs.

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Carriere a candidate

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson will have plenty of qualified candidates looking to become general manager after he fired Pierre Gauthier and hired Serge Savard as an adviser to help in his search. Four in particular are attractive because they have experience, a connection to Montreal and speak French.

Former Sabres defenseman and scout Larry Carriere worked under Gauthier this season before getting behind the bench with interim coach Randy Cunneyworth. He has direct knowledge of player strengths and weaknesses.

Claude Loiselle, an assistant in Toronto under Brian Burke, was an assistant GM in Tampa Bay before going to the Leafs. He graduated with a law degree from McGill University in Montreal and knows the collective bargaining agreement inside and out.

Marc Bergevin has been working with the Blackhawks for the past seven years and helped build a Stanley Cup winner. He has been Stan Bowman's top assistant since last summer. He played 20 NHL seasons and is from Montreal.

Julien BriseBois, a young executive on the rise, is held in high regard in Montreal after working nine seasons for the Habs. BriseBois, 34, is another lawyer who knows the CBA. He's been working under Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.

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From walk-on to NHL

Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick, still decompressing after his senior season, received a pleasant surprise Wednesday when the Blue Jackets asked him to sign an amateur tryout contract in an emergency. Columbus needed a backup after Steve Mason took a shot to his head during the morning skate.

The Blue Jackets' opponent: Hunwick's hometown Red Wings.

Hunwick, a senior and former walk-on who recently completed his college career, had to decide if he should A) skip Astrology 101 that afternoon or B) spend an evening in the NHL. He clearly made the right call.

"I hope I get excused from that class," Hunwick told the Detroit News.

Hunwick, whose brother Matt plays defense for the Avalanche, was not drafted. He thought he was going to the AHL before jumping in his 1992 Ford Ranger for the three-hour drive to Columbus.

"It's beat up," Hunwick said, "but it gets the job done."

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Hitch faces decision

The Blues' 3-0 win over Nashville marked their 15th shutout this season, tying the 1969-70 Blackhawks for the most in one season in the post-expansion era.

Brian Elliott had three straight shutouts and nine overall in 31 games going into the weekend after posting nine in his first 133 NHL starts. He led the NHL with a 1.48 goals-against average, a .943 save percentage and the nine shutouts. It makes him an easy choice as their No. 1 goalie going into the postseason, right?

Not quite.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had been leaning toward Jaroslav Halak, who was second in the NHL with a 1.92 GAA, sixth with a .927 save percentage and third with six shutouts. Now, with Elliott looking unbeatable and the playoffs still more than a week away, Hitchcock is waiting to make a decision.

"I don't know if it's a good problem to have, but it's one that I'm putting off until the last possible moment," Hitchcock said. "I don't even want to think about it because I know if I start thinking about it, something is going to happen. A guy might get dinged up, or whatever. I'm going to wait until the playoffs start before I make that determination."

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Quotable

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault after the defending conference champs drew within two points of NHL-leading St. Louis: "We're second overall in the NHL right now and it's tough here and there to find a positive [newspaper] article about our team."

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Around the boards

*Congratulations to my main man, Billy Nosek, for being named the Sabres' top fan Friday night. Twelve years ago, I wrote a column about him playing Little League baseball as a child with Down's syndrome. He's a wonderful person from a terrific family who understood the most important thing in life was happiness.

*The Predators and the only coach in franchise history, Barry Trotz, earned their 500th victory since joining the league in 1998-99. Trotz joined Al Arbour (Islanderes), Lindy Ruff (Buffalo), Billy Reay (Chicago) and Toe Blake (Montreal) as the only coaches in NHL history to win 500 with the same team.

*Quick, who was playing goal for the Leafs in their last playoff game? Ed Belfour, in 2003-04. The big news in May 2004 was gasoline prices reaching $2.01 per gallon, a record high for the United States.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com