NHL Playoff Bubble: 4 Weekend Games with Huge Playoff Implications

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IApril 19, 2013

NHL Playoff Bubble: 4 Weekend Games with Huge Playoff Implications

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    The race for the 2013 NHL playoffs has reached a point of ultimate uncertainty.

    Entering Friday evening, both conferences are stuck with a logjam on the bubble and a virtual tie for the eighth and final playoff spot. 

    The New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets are dead even at 48 points, but only one Eastern Conference postseason spot is available for the two of them. And, with the inexperienced New York Islanders only three points ahead and the red-hot Buffalo Sabres just four points behind, the situation could soon get even more confusing.

    Meanwhile, out west, the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars, each with 47 points through 43 games, have two games in hand but two points to make up on the eighth-place Columbus Blue Jackets. The receding Minnesota Wild, stuck at 51 points, are quickly sliding back onto the bubble, too.

    A lot more will be known about both conferences' scenarios and odds after this weekend, which features a plethora of contests between teams fighting for their postseason lives.

    Which games carry the most enormous playoff implications throughout Friday, Saturday and Sunday night? A breakdown of four critical matchups falls on the coming slides.

Friday: Rangers vs. Sabres

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    Time: Friday, 7 p.m. ET

    TV: MSG, MSG-Buffalo

    A few weeks ago, the Buffalo Sabres were facing the adversity of a disgruntled fanbase and a controversial coaching change.

    Now, they're facing the adversity of an intense last-minute playoff push.

    The Sabres, winners of three straight and six of their last eight, have pulled within four points of the cut-off line with four games to go.

    If they want to finish off this run, however, a home victory over the New York Rangers is crucial. The Blueshirts currently hold that eighth and final playoff spot and have both four more points and one fewer game played than their in-state rivals.

    A Friday night duel between New York teams with everything on the line? There's no better way to kick off the weekend.

    Season Series: Sabres 1-0-1

Friday: Stars vs. Blues

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    Time: Friday, 8 p.m. ET (7 p.m. local)

    TV: FS-Southwest, FS-Midwest

    The St. Louis Blues, coming off a second-place finish in the Western Conference last season, have had a lot tougher time clinching their playoff position this year.

    Having won eight of their last 10 games, the Blues aren't far away from that goal now, though. They've allowed more than three goals against just once since the beginning of April.

    The Dallas Stars, conversely, are looking to sneak into the playoffs this year after a last-second collapse in 2012. Their 5-1 win over Vancouver on Thursday pulled the Stars within two points of eighth-place Columbus with two games in hand, but they'll also have to surpass the perennial playoff contender Detroit Red Wings in the process.

    A win over St. Louis to complete Dallas's perfect back-to-back would make a big impact on their  playoff hopes, but—as the possibility of clinching approaches on the horizon—the Blues certainly wouldn't mind winning, either.

    Should be a fun one either way.

    Season Series: Both teams 1-1-0 

Saturday: Islanders vs. Jets

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    Time: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. local)

    TV: MSG-Plus, TSN-Jets

    After the Rangers and Sabres square off Friday night, the focus shifts to the other two teams heavily involved in the Eastern Conference playoff race—the New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets—on Saturday afternoon.

    The Jets have won five in a row after a late March-early April slide, climbing back into a tie with the Rangers for eighth place. This is a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2007 and has never won a postseason game, conversely, and the Jets have just four games remaining compared to the Blueshirts' five.

    The Islanders, meanwhile, are seeking their first playoff appearance since 2007 as well, but they're in a lot better position to fulfill that goal. With points in nine of their last 10 games and a three-point cushion over Winnipeg and their fellow Big Apple rivals, the Isles just need to close the deal at this point.

    Saturday afternoon's contest should pit two bubble teams with drastically different perspectives entering the season's final week. The game between the two clubs, however, is sure to be memorable.

    Season Series: Islanders 1-0-1

Sunday: Blue Jackets vs. Sharks

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    Time: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. local)

    TV: FS-Ohio, CSN-California

    The mere fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets currently hold a playoff spot is hard enough to believe.

    The idea that they're actually making a good attempt to hold it—going 7-3-0 in their last 10 games—is even more incredible.

    The Jackets' confidence could quickly come tumbling off the rails with a tough date in San Jose on Sunday, though. Their California visit already started off badly as the Kings topped the Jackets 2-1 on Thursday night, and Columbus will have to overcome the disadvantage of 45 games played (compared to Dallas and Detroit's 43) so far.

    San Jose's HP Pavilion, moreover, is a difficult place to earn points in the standings. The Sharks have lost in regulation just once in a whopping 22 home games this year, going 16-1-5 over that span. They're also right on the cusp of clinching; with 55 points in 44 games, the Kings and Sharks seem to be in a two-man race for home-ice advantage and the fourth seed.

    Can Columbus pull off a miracle by the bay? We can't wait for Sunday night to find out.

    Season Series: Columbus 2-0-0 (both prior meetings were at home, though)