Take a look at the Eastern Conference standings and you might be surprised.

Not at the teams sitting at the top – the Bruins, Devils and Capitals have been rocks for weeks, if not months – or at the bottom – the Maple Leafs, Lightning, Senators, Thrashers and Islanders all were counted out from the start.

The surprise is in the middle, as the race for the final five playoff spots is heating up.

Or maybe it’s cooling down?

You see, as the Penguins, Hurricanes and Panthers battle for positioning, the Canadiens and Rangers struggle to hang on.

The Rangers, considered the cream of the crop in the East following an amazing start to the season, really have cooled down and, of late, have flat-out played horribly.

To give you an idea of their woes, the Rangers lost to the Stars 10-2 last week. But it was just one (embarrassing) loss in the middle of five consecutive downers.

They may have found themselves back in the win column last night via shootout, but they’re not out of the woods yet. And the fact that they’ve taken the initial steps to bringing back Sean Avery – a player they feel will help their team – shows just how desperate they really are.

As for the Canadiens, well they haven’t done much better. Actually, they’ve been significantly worse.

They’ve lost their last four games by a combined score of 21-8, giving up five goals to the Maple Leafs, six goals to the Flames, and seven goals to the Oilers. What’s worse, they’ve won just two of their previous 11 games, averaging 4.36 goals-against and 2.27 goals-for during that time (thanks to James Mirtle for the stats).

Quite simply, these two teams have fallen apart, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Penguins, who suddenly find themselves on an upswing.

But even with a recent upswing (5-4-1 in their last 10), the Penguins still have an uphill battle as they sit in 10th place behind two teams – the Panthers and Hurricanes – who are making things difficult.

Both the Hurricanes and Panthers have won six of their previous 10 games, and the Panthers even grabbed an extra point with an overtime loss in that span.

Yet the Penguins remain just one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot.

With 26 games remaining, gaining ground on a few opponents isn’t exactly impossible. In fact, it’s quite probable, especially if the Penguins build on a week’s worth of solid performances, dating back to their third period, come-from-behind victory over the Lightning last Wednesday.

It’s been said before each game for the last two weeks (if not longer): the next game is a must-win.

You see, the Penguins need a 16-10-0 record to finish with 91 points, a cutoff Mirtle has predicted for the eighth and final playoff spot.

They don’t have to win all of their games, but they must have that mentality.

Tonight, the Panthers will visit the Hurricanes in what should be a closely-watched game by Penguin fans. The best case scenario would be a regulation win for the Hurricanes.

Such a scenario would jettison the ‘Canes to eighth place and bump the Panthers to ninth. It also would put the Penguins two points behind the ‘Canes, who would have one game in hand, and would keep the Penguins one point behind the Panthers, who would have two games in hand.

The worst case scenario would see the game going to overtime, giving one team two points and the other one point.

But the Penguins can’t focus on what their opponents do. They must concentrate on their own efforts, something that has been an issue most of the season, but that has improved significantly in recent games.

February (7) March (13) April (6)
at Toronto
at NY Islanders
at Philadelphia
at Washington
NY Islanders
at Chicago
at Dallas
at Tampa Bay
at Florida
at Washington
at Columbus
Los Angeles
NY Rangers
New Jersey
at Carolina
at Florida
at Tampa Bay
NY Islanders

Looking at the schedule, I see four must-win games, three against the Panthers and one against the Hurricanes. Unfortunately, they aren’t scheduled until March, meaning the Penguins will have to make up ground by then, and then add some cushion with those games.

I also see nine games against definitively inferior teams: the Maple Leafs, Islanders (three games), Lightning (twice), Senators, Thrashers and Kings.

Combined, that makes up 13 of the necessary 16 wins to hit 91 points.

Add in a few wins against struggling teams such as the Canadiens (2) and Rangers (1), as well as one against an average Blue Jackets team, and the Penguins have 17 wins to finish out the season – and that didn’t even include beating a single team that is significantly better than the Penguins.

Simply put, the Penguins aren’t out of it, not by a long shot, especially with the instability and lack of a hierarchy (aside from the top three teams) in the Eastern Conference.