The 2011-2012 regular season has reached its final week.
The past 179 days of hockey have mattered little, however, compared to the monstrous importance of the next six.
Five playoff spots remain hanging in the balance, including the No. 3 seeds in both conferences. The field of 16 postseason qualifiers has yet to be determined; the order in which each of those squads will finish is also tremendously unsettled.
Thirty-four matches over the course of the upcoming week will decide all of that chaos, and thankfully, NHL fans from across the continent can watch the thrilling action from the comfort of their living rooms.
Which games warrant a mark on the calendar, and which ones can painlessly be ignored? We'll break down the must-see showdowns for every remaining night of the regular season, complete with information about when, where and why to watch them in the coming slides.
Note: All times Eastern. For more on converting East Coast times to other zones, click here.
The Tampa Bay Lightning (11th, 79 points) and Washington Capitals (eighth, 88 points) have formed the Southeast Division's fiercest rivalry in recent years, highlighted by the Bolts' dramatic series sweep in last year's second-round matchup.
Washington has won three of five meetings between the two foes this season, conversely, and will go for the outright series victory Monday. Nevertheless, they'll have to win a hard-fought game in Tampa Bay to do so, and the Lightning will be eager to put a major dent in Washington's postseason bid.
Viewers across the continent can tune in to this one, as four networks—NBC Sports Net, TSN2, RDSI and CSN-MA—are scheduled to carry the game at its 7:30 p.m. start time.
After a quiet night on Monday, the playoff race will resume at full throttle the following evening as 10 games lie on the slate.
Games with huge postseason bubble implications include Toronto's visit to Buffalo, Florida's hosting of Winnipeg and the Coyotes' showdown with Columbus. None of those can top, however, an incredibly high-stakes duel between the San Jose Sharks (eighth, 90 points) and the Dallas Stars (ninth, 89 points) in the Lone Star State.
The Sharks have really gotten the better of Dallas this season—going 4-0-1 and outscoring them 20-9 in five meetings to date—but the crumbling Stars, losers of two straight, simply cannot afford to come away from this one empty-handed.
Local stations CSN-California and FS-Southwest will broadcast the game on TV, while GameCenter Live and Center Ice subscribers can experience it all at a price. The opening faceoff is at 8:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, national viewers on NBC Sports Net can get their evening's hockey fill with a star-laden, if somewhat meaningless, 7:30 p.m. contest between the Boston Bruins (second, 98 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (fourth, 102 points).
Two slumping Cup contenders meet Wednesday night as the St. Louis Blues (second, 106 points) square off against the Detroit Red Wings (fourth, 99 points).
The Blues, winners of only four of their last 10 games, fell out of both the Western Conference's top spot and the Presidents' Trophy lead on Sunday. Despite already clinching the Central Division title, the Blues need a strong finish if they want to cap off their impressive regular season with the best possible outcome.
Meanwhile, Detroit's 3-5-2 record in their last 10 contests occurs in the middle of a heated battle with Nashville and Chicago for home-ice advantage and the No. 4 seed. A poor stretch run could land them as low as sixth, though, and the Red Wings haven't finished that low since 1991—in the Clarence Campbell conference.
NBC Sports Net and TSN2 will carry this one nationally in both the United States and Canada, with the pregame beginning at 7:00 before the puck drops at approximately 7:30 p.m.
The Buffalo Sabres (ninth, 86 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (fifth, 101 points), who composed arguably the most exciting first-round playoff series last April, will meet again on the regular season's third-to-last day with stakes higher than ever.
The Sabres had rallied from imposing odds to briefly claim the invaluable eighth-place position last week, but back-to-back losses have again knocked Buffalo out of the postseason picture. A victory against Philadelphia would be fantastic, but the Flyers are also hungry to gain home-ice advantage for their looming series against in-state rival Pittsburgh.
Fans can follow this one, beginning at 7:00 p.m., on MSG-Buffalo and CSN-Philadelphia.
Then, later Thursday night, the Los Angeles Kings (third, 91 points) and San Jose Sharks (eighth, 90 points) get their season-ending home-and-home series started at 10:30 p.m. The two California rivals can't stand to lose to each other—especially at this point in the season—so followers on CSN-California and PRIME are in for a certain thriller.
If you can't get connected to either of those critical matchups, NBC Sports Net again offers a nice backup plan with the New York Rangers-Pittsburgh Penguins game, starting at 7:00 p.m.
Perhaps the most unheralded force in the Western Conference playoff race is the Phoenix Coyotes (seventh, 91 points), who will seek to ensure their third consecutive postseason appearance Friday versus the St. Louis Blues (second, 106 points).
Facing colossal instability, horrible attendance and a very superstar-lacking roster, the 'Yotes are in relatively good position to make the playoffs and avoid a matchup against the Red Wings, who eliminated them in both 2010 and 2011.
In fact, Phoenix's first-round matchup could easily be the St. Louis Blues; that depends, though, on if they can beat them in this playoff preview. All three periods of action can be viewed on NBC Sports Net and TSN2 starting at 7:30 p.m.
For just the fourth time in history, all 30 NHL teams will play on one single day.
One single day that also happens to be the final one of the regular season.
NBC, NHL Network and their sister stations are planning to keep pucks flying across your television for 10 hours that afternoon, a schedule unrivaled by even February's Hockey Day in America.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings play out the final episode of their '11-'12 rivalry at 1:00 p.m. on NBC. Then, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers play a prelude to their imminent postseason series at 4:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Net.
At 6:30 p.m., the Washington Capitals will hope to secure a playoff berth with a brutal matchup against the New York Rangers (again available nationally on NBC Sports Net). And finally, the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks duel for the second time in three days at 10:30 p.m. on NHL Network.
For Canadian viewers, TSN plans to carry the 'Hawks-Wings contest early in the day before CBC's regional coverage of either Toronto vs. Montreal or Winnipeg vs. Tampa Bay at 7:00 and Edmonton vs. Vancouver at 10:00.
Don't forget about the non-nationally televised games either, though. The Buffalo Sabres' visit to Boston at 4:00 p.m. (on NESN and MSG-Buffalo) is a can't-miss rivalry, while the Dallas Stars' game against the Blues (8:00 p.m. on FS-Midwest and FS-Southwest Plus) could decide the No. 8 seed out West.