Predictions for the Most Important Remaining NHL Regular-Season Games
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The regular season has reached its most critical stage.
There's a little over a week to go before the 48-game regular season comes to an end and the 16 teams left standing start competing in playoff hockey.
While the Stanley Cup playoffs are perhaps the best spectacle in all of sports, there's a lot of work to be done in a short period of time as teams try to clinch playoff berths and improve playoff positioning.
Here's a look at the most important regular-season games remaining on the schedule, along with predictions for the outcome of those games.
Washington at Montreal, April 20
The Washington Capitals have been playing superb hockey even though they are coming off a 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators. The Montreal Canadiens have been struggling badly even though their last game was a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Canadiens had been outscored 18-8 in their previous three games and the goaltending of Carey Price has become an issue. While Price is regularly considered one of the most talented goaltenders in the league, consistency has been an issue.
The Caps have become an explosive offensive team as Alex Ovechkin has found his way back to the league lead in goal scoring. Few would have thought that possible at the start of the season when he appeared timid and disinterested, but he has roared back with 28 goals.
The Canadiens had been one of the top comeback stories after finishing last in the Eastern Conference a year ago. They are still in second place, but their grip is tenuous.
The Canadiens are a playoff team, but they must re-establish their defensive dominance if they are going to win and advance.
Prediction: Washington 6, Montreal 3
Toronto at Ottawa, April 20
Neither the Toronto Maple Leafs nor the Ottawa Senators have clinched playoff berths yet, but that is not an issue for either team.
The Leafs almost certainly will end their long playoff drought and they could do it here. However, this game with the arch-rival Senators gives Ottawa a chance to leapfrog the Maple Leafs in the standings.
If Ottawa can win in regulation, they will move into fifth place in the Eastern Conference. The Senators have been ravaged by injuries all season and head coach Paul MacLean has kept this team in contention all season. The Senators have won four consecutive games.
The Maple Leafs have played aggressive and hard-hitting hockey under Randy Carlyle this season and have been overachievers. While Phil Kessel had a slow start, he is a superb skater who almost always gets two or three good scoring opportunities per game.
The Leafs are coming off a painful 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders and have lost two in a row, but they have been resilient this season. Look for a solid performance on the road.
Prediction: Toronto 3, Ottawa 2
Dallas at Los Angeles, April 21
The Dallas Stars appeared to wave the white flag and start planning for 2013-14 when they traded Brenden Morrow, Jaromir Jagr and Derek Roy prior to the trade deadline.
However, somebody forgot to tell head coach Glenn Gulutzan and the Stars who remained in the locker room.
The Stars have played solid hockey since then and they have won six of their last 10 games. The Stars have won two of their last three games against the Los Angeles Kings, including a 2-0 win at Los Angeles last month.
The Kings are trying to hold off the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues for fourth place in the Western Conference. They are a solid playoff team that appears capable of making another long run this year.
Still, they will face a desperate Stars team and they will need a complete team effort to win. Look for the Kings to get a couple of third-period goals to finish this game off.
Prediction: Los Angeles 4, Dallas 3
Chicago at Vancouver, April 22
Few regular-season games have more meaning or result in more attention than a meeting between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks.
The Blackhawks have been the NHL's best regular-season team while the Canucks are clearly in the playoffs and will likely win the Northwest Division.
These teams have met in three classic playoff meetings in the last four seasons (2009, 2010, 2011), with the Blackhawks winning two of them.
The Canucks could use a win in this game to build legitimate confidence going into the playoffs. Vancouver may try to get physical with the Blackhawks, since that's not a part of Chicago's repertoire. However, the Blackhawks are the top puck-possession team and the Canucks are going to have a hard time containing Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa.
The Blackhawks also play exceptional hockey on the road.
Prediction: Chicago 4, Vancouver 2
Winnipeg at Washington, April 23
The Capitals started to show some improvement this year in late February, but when they swept back-to-back games in Winnipeg in March by a combined 10-1 margin, that's when it was clear that the Capitals would make a legitimate run at the Southeast Division title.
This game could be the one where the Capitals clinch the division title. It could also play a critical role in the Jets' run at the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Jets are quite competitive, but they don't match up well with Alex Ovechkin and the Caps.
Prediction: Washington 6, Winnipeg 2
New York Islanders at Philadelphia, April 25
The New York Islanders appeared to be one of the NHL's saddest stories at the start of the season.
They were simply in over their heads playing against Atlantic Division opponents, all of whom made the playoffs last year.
There was no way the Islanders could compete with the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers or Pittsburgh Penguins. However, while the Islanders are well behind the Penguins, they are currently ahead of their other division competitors.
Led by rising superstar John Tavares, this could be the game that clinches a playoff spot for the Islanders.
The Flyers have been quite disappointing and will not be playing postseason hockey. The Flyers have had defensive problems all year and they will have to play one of their best games to get a win here.
It won't happen.
Prediction: New York Islanders 4, Philadelphia Flyers 2
Edmonton at Minnesota, April 26
The Wild upgraded significantly during the offseason when they signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Both players have had a significant impact this year and the Wild got even stronger when they brought in Jason Pominville from Buffalo at the trade deadline.
The Oilers showed signs they would also become a playoff team this year when they rode a late March hot streak into eighth place in the Western Conference. The Oilers fell apart shortly thereafter and while there is some improvement, this team of young stars is not ready for prime time.
The Wild should be ready for a solid effort, as this could be the game that clinches their playoff position. The Oilers are not likely to hang in for 60 minutes.
Prediction: Minnesota 5, Edmonton 2
New Jersey at New York Rangers, April 27
The New Jersey Devils appeared to be on their way to another solid season when they got off to a hot start and were in first place in the Atlantic Division with a 9-2-3 record by Feb. 15.
The Devils have not been able to sustain their excellent play due to injuries and a lack of depth. The Rangers were supposed to be the top team in the Eastern Conference, but they have lacked consistency and goal scoring.
However, the Rangers have played better since the trade deadline and appear to have a chance to rescue their season. The Rangers are a likely playoff team and they should be able to clinch their postseason appearance with a win over the Devils in the regular-season finale.
It won't come easy, but the Rangers will come away with the No. 8 seed and a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
Prediction: New York Rangers 3, New Jersey Devils 2 (OT)