- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

OTTAWA Ten days left in the regular season, this much has been decided: Carolina will not repeat as the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup finals.
Ten days left, and the New York Rangers (payroll $81million and escalating) are confirming the tee times they made in early November.
Ten days left and three spots in the East are still up for grabs and, more importantly, the jockeying for the coveted No.6 spot has begun in earnest.
No. 6? Exactly. It's the spot where a team is guaranteed to play one of the weaker teams in the tournament: Tampa Bay or Washington, one of which will be Southeast Division champion. There is no denying it is the weakest of the six divisions in the NHL and therefore, the thinking goes, should be the easiest step to the second round.
Toronto, for instance, the current fifth seed, is tentatively scheduled to face Philadelphia in the opening round, which is not a very appealing thought (but fight fans can't wait). Therefore, the Maple Leafs would like to drop back a spot and let Washington challenge the Flyers. And at the rate the Leafs are losing players to injury, they may drop.
At the other end, Boston, currently seventh, faces the challenge of meeting New Jersey in the opener unless it can catch the Caps, now sixth. The New York Islanders, eighth, have drawn the rampaging Ottawa Senators, which is a ticket to an early summer.
And the thinking about facing the Southeast champion may even be flawed this spring. Since the All-Star break, Tampa Bay has been on a tear and is currently unbeaten in nine games (6-0-3). More impressive has been the performance of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin since recovering from a slump. He is unbeaten in his last 13 (11-0-2), including a 3-1 win Feb.17 over Washington, a game the Caps entered with a seven-point lead over the Lightning.
Not much has been settled, but the Caps managed to clinch a playoff berth last night when the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the New York Rangers 3-1. Boston and the Islanders still haven't earned a berth.
Here is a look at the schedules of the three teams fighting for jockeying for position, plus Tampa Bay, which could drop down if lightning strikes:
No. 3 Tampa Bay (88 points): Games remaining 6 (4 home, 2 away); vs. possible playoff teams, 3; back-to-back games, 0; head-to-head, 1 (Boston).
No. 6 Washington (85): Games remaining 5 (3 home, 2 away); vs. possible playoff teams, 3; back-to-back games, 2; head-to-head, 0.
No. 7 Boston (82): Games remaining 6 (3 home, 3 away); vs. possible playoff teams, 5; back-to-back games, 0; head-to-head, 1 (Tampa Bay).
No. 8 New York Islanders (80): Games remaining 6 (3 home, 3 away); vs. possible playoff teams, 4; back-to-back games, 2; head-to-head, 0.
Mathematically, the Rangers could finish as high as sixth if the three teams in front of them disband immediately. Mathematically, Montreal could finish as high as seventh. Realistically, neither team will make it.

Note The Caps recalled center Trent Whitfield from Portland of the American Hockey League.

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