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Daily Debate: Concern for Rangers, Bolts; Carey Price vs. Jaroslav Halak

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun break down the playoff race at the bottom of the East and preview Thursday's matchup between Carey Price's Habs and Jaroslav Halak's Blues.

Burnside: Good day, my friend. Got to thank the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers for keeping the playoff race alive in the Eastern Conference, although "race" is a relative term. The Rangers were spanked 5-2 in Anaheim on Wednesday night, and Carolina dropped a 3-2 decision to Atlanta in overtime to continue to give life to Atlanta and Toronto. The Rangers are currently in seventh place but have played two more games than Carolina, Toronto and Atlanta, who occupy the ninth, 10th and 11th places in the conference. The Rangers have won just two of their past six games, and their offense comes in fits and starts even with Marian Gaborik back in the lineup. Buffalo looks like a good bet to settle into the seventh seed given games in hand and its current level of play, although the Sabres have a big tilt with Boston on Thursday night in Beantown. But the Rangers have to be concerned that their up and down play is going to open the door for one of those on-the-bubble teams to make a late push and snatch up that final playoff berth. Do you think the Rangers can hang on, my friend?

LeBrun: Greetings from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto this morning, where indeed the Maple Leafs need to win tonight to stay afloat. But talk about a turtle race in the East as you have suggested. No one is backing into the West playoffs, I can assure you that. The Rangers, Hurricanes and Thrashers have struggled since the All-Star break. To give Toronto credit, the Leafs have actually been really good, although their past two efforts -- losses to Chicago and Long Island (overtime) -- have slowed them a little. They need to get on another run to stay alive, and the place should be buzzing here tonight. The Rangers concern me greatly. They've lost some confidence. Only three wins in their past 10, that's not going to cut it. I feel like they overachieved in the first half and now reality is settling in. But they're a better team than what they showed Wednesday night in Anaheim.

Burnside: As the games dwindle, this is where you see teams start to knuckle. Sometimes it's injuries, but in the case of the Rangers, I think they have to work so hard for every point that at some point the tank dries up. That's why Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist are so important to keeping them afloat. They will need to be better. One team I have been watching closely for signs of the late-season wobble is Tampa. After a bit of a swoon in which they went 0-3-1 and scored just five goals, they came up with a big, big win Wednesday against Chicago. They blew a 3-1 lead, but Martin St. Louis scored a beauty in the shootout to win it. Big games from both St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, who had been struggling offensively. You wonder about a team that has been absent from the playoffs for a couple of seasons and how they will react to a playoff run. This was a good bounce-back game for them, even if I'm still not sure how St. Louis' goal managed to get in without running afoul of the officials.

LeBrun: Yes, head coach Guy Boucher went to his stars this time in the shootout and it worked. More importantly, they remained two points behind red-hot Washington for the Southeast Division lead and moved three points ahead of hard-charging Montreal in the Eastern standings. Tampa's recent mini-slump has left it open to both teams, so yes, that was a big-time win last night against one of the NHL's hottest teams. The Bolts have exceeded most people's expectations this season, and I think their recent struggles had some wondering if they were falling back down to earth. But they played a heck of a game in a shootout loss to Washington earlier this week and another gem last night against the defending Cup champs. Before we go, Scotty, isn't there a certain game tonight happening in St. Louis?

Burnside: Ha, ha, we saved the best for last, my friend. With emotions still raging over the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty and the league's decision not to suspend or fine Chara, the Canadiens will have to regroup and get ready to face an old friend in Jaroslav Halak, who is expected to start against Montreal on Thursday night. Having seen each of the Habs' 19 postseason games last year, I was as surprised as anyone that GM Pierre Gauthier sent Halak to St. Louis and bequeathed the starting job to Carey Price. A lot of questions about Price's maturity and Gauthier's sanity ensued. But the Montreal GM stands tall as the Habs are headed back to the playoffs with Price leading the league in wins and I think earning a likely spot on the Vezina Trophy ballot. Halak has suffered through injury and uneven play on a St. Louis team that was expecting him to be a catalyst to a return to the playoffs. It didn't happen and GM Doug Armstrong shook up the team before the trade deadline by trading former first overall draft pick Erik Johnson to Colorado. If you had to guess at the start of the season which of these teams would be in the two spots they now occupy, I think a majority would have guessed it would have been the Habs looking to retool and the Blues ready to challenge in the postseason. Shows how much we know.

LeBrun: On the day of that trade last June, an NHL executive I greatly trust told me people should not be quick to hammer Gauthier for that trade, that Price was the one with more upside and that the Canadiens likely had made the right decision. Boy was he ever right. Credit Gauthier and then some for a ballsy decision in a hockey-mad market. He didn't make the easy decision, he made the right one instead.

While Price ranks among league leaders in wins, GAA and save percentage, Halak is not close to those numbers, although, in his defense, he's battled an injury and the team in front of him hasn't been great. Still, even Halak knows how the trade looks right now.

"I think it's easy to say right now when you look at the season, I haven't been playing my best all the time," Halak told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Carey has been playing good. It's easy to say [Montreal] made the right decision, but you know, I've still got three years on my contract. I just need to focus on this season, finish this season strong and then who knows what's going to happen next year."

I expect Halak and the Blues to bounce back big time next season, so I wouldn't fret if I were a Blues fan. But Price will end up a Vezina Trophy finalist this year, and arguably should be mentioned as an outside shot at the Hart.

Until tomorrow, my friend.