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Updated Look at the Race for Bottom NHL Playoff Spots in Each Conference

Al DanielCorrespondent IIApril 21, 2013

Updated Look at the Race for Bottom NHL Playoff Spots in Each Conference

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    Look no further than the Southeast Division for confirmation that the NHL is in pseudo-playoff mode this week.

    Only two of that division’s tenants, the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets, are still eligible for the actual 2013 Stanley Cup tournament. Odds are one party will claim the divisional laurel and the automatic third-seed on the Eastern Conference leaderboard while the other will continue its itinerary nowhere beyond April 27.

    The Caps hold a three-point upper hand on the ninth-seeded Jets with three games left for each team, including the last installment of their season series this Tuesday at the Verizon Center.

    If the Jets fly in on the heels of a victory over Buffalo on Monday, a regulation win the following night will allow them to leapfrog the Capitals. But if they slip at the hands of the Sabres, then they must win in Washington to salvage any playoff hopes.

    Regardless of Monday’s outcome, the Caps can put away the divisional title with a regulation win over the Jets.

    That’s the encapsulation of two of the five Eastern Conference teams who, as of Sunday evening, were still eligible for one of four unclaimed playoff spots. The situation for the other three Eastern franchises and seven aspirants in the Western Conference are summed up as follows.

Columbus

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    Going into Sunday’s games, the three teams ahead and three teams behind the eighth-place Blue Jackets all had a game in hand. The No. 11-seeded Phoenix Coyotes are three slots behind, but only by three points.

    That alone magnifies the Blue Jackets’ brittle margin for error in the wake of their streak-busting 2-1 loss to Los Angeles on Thursday. Although, they have since ventured upstate to San Jose for their third-to-last engagement on Sunday and pulled out a 4-3 triumph.

    Through no fault of their own, their resultant three-point lead over Detroit could be gone by the next time they engage in extramural activity. The Red Wings have two games in hand now and will have utilized both of them before the Jackets' next outing.

    Having less opportunity to collect a pair of points may be a disadvantage, but the separation of game days can be a boon if Columbus keeps taking advantage of its breathers. That will be especially important after a four-day break between Sunday’s tilt with the Sharks and Thursday’s venture to Dallas.

Dallas

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    Speaking of the Stars, they entered Sunday’s action two spots and two points out of the playoff picture.

    The pivotal nature of Thursday’s home date with the Blue Jackets is emboldened by the fact that, in the event those teams finish the season with an equal allotment of points, Dallas has already secured the tiebreaker. Going into Sunday’s bout with Los Angeles, the Stars had already won 20 regulation or overtime decisions while the Jackets can claim no more than 19 ROW.

    Dallas’ regular-season finale could also bear playoff implications for both parties as the Detroit Red Wings drop in this Saturday.

    On that note…

Detroit

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    Perennial playoff qualifiers since the early 1990s, the Red Wings face a four-game-in-six night sprint with their historic streak on the line.

    A regulation win Monday night versus Phoenix is a virtual must in terms of setting the tone and establishing conviction for the remainder of the week. The Coyotes presently trail Detroit by two points.

    That will be the start of a homestand continuing Wednesday and Thursday versus Los Angeles and Nashville, respectively, before the aforementioned visit to the Stars.

    Having a game in hand on Columbus (two after Sunday’s Blue Jackets-Sharks contest was over) is one source of encouragement. But the Wings must not waste any fuel in its hectic sprint to ensure those games in hand work.

Minnesota

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    Ostensibly, the Wild have one of the easier schedules this week with three divisional rivals already eliminated from playoff contention on deck. Emphasis on "ostensibly" seeing as they started this week with a 4-1 loss to Calgary.

    The Kings will visit St. Paul on Tuesday, after which the Wild will engage Edmonton and Colorado this coming weekend.

    The resurgent Wild may be losing their grip on the Northwest Division title, trailing Vancouver by six points after they whiffed against the Flames. But more critically, they hold a three-point edge over the ninth-seeded Red Wings and have a game in hand on Columbus.

    Minnesota's next bout with the Kings will be particularly critical to gaining or restoring breathing room as it will be L.A.'s first in a set of back-to-back road games, the second of which will be Wednesday in Detroit.

NY Islanders

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    Although they could not put away the desperate Jets in regulation on Saturday, the extra shootout point nudged the Islanders enticingly closer to the end of a six-year postseason drought. That was enough to expand their lead on the ninth-seeded Jets to four points with three games left for each party.

    If Winnipeg musters only three of a possible four points in its back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday, then a win in Carolina will secure the Isles’ playoff spot on Tuesday.

NY Rangers

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    The Blueshirts, eighth in the Eastern Conference, flexed their desperation and formally zapped two teams out of playoff contention in as many games over the weekend. They biffed the Buffalo Sabres, 8-4, on Friday before whitewashing the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, 4-1.

    Either a Washington win over Winnipeg or a Rangers’ win down in Florida this Tuesday will suffice to finalize the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff RSVPs. The latter is hard not to envision based on how this team has matched head coach John Tortorella’s no-nonsense persona with its performance of late.

    But if neither of those scenarios comes to fruition, then the Rangers will have two more chances against two other going-nowhere teams. They are in Carolina on Thursday and New Jersey on Saturday.

Ottawa

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    The Senators made a statement last Thursday by disrupting the Capitals’ hot streak, but receded their next outing when they let the visiting Maple Leafs clinch their spot with a 4-1 triumph.

    If the Senators of last Thursday show up in Pittsburgh while the Sabres repress the Jets in regulation, Ottawa can still claim its berth in its own right on Monday. Otherwise, they will have a valuable three-day break before a rematch with the Capitals in Washington this Thursday.

    By that point, the Jets may or may not already be out of the equation. If not, the Sens’ visit to D.C. will be the first of three more chances to garner a hard-earned extension on their 2012-13 campaign.

    Regardless, with a three-point edge and a game in hand on Winnipeg going into this final week, that extension is virtually a lock.

Phoenix

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    Like their Monday night adversary in Detroit, the Coyotes are facing the task of cultivating as many points as they can in four games over six days.

    Saturday’s 2-2 regulation tie/3-2 shootout win over Chicago may or may not give them a crucial confidence booster to compensate for the inevitable drainage of physical energy.

    As mentioned in the preceding slide, that did not work for the Senators when they transitioned from facing Washington to facing Toronto. But the Coyotes could make Monday a turning point if they build on Saturday’s performance and knock off the Red Wings in regulation to pull into a tie for ninth place.

    Later in the week, Phoenix will sandwich a home date with the downtrodden Avalanche with two tough Pacific Division engagements. They will most likely need points out of all of those games and will need sustained poise to keep those points within reach.

San Jose

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    Winners of three straight against fellow playoff seed-chasers in the previous calendar week, the Sharks went into their bout with the Blue Jackets hoping to do the same. It didn't, but a set of back-to-back games with Dallas visiting on Tuesday and Phoenix hosting on Wednesday, posing similarly appreciable tests and a chance to rapidly rebound.

    Odds are one or both of those divisional dances will not hold any sway over San Jose’s playoff hopes. All that's needed to assure that is one more win or one more Detroit loss.

    However, home ice for the first round could come down to Saturday’s season finale with Los Angeles, which may turn out to be a tune-up for those two to renew their rivalry next week.

St. Louis

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    Like the Wild, the sixth-seeded Blues will play three of their final four games against Northwest Division clubs bound to pick up golf clubs sooner than they had hoped. Also not unlike Minnesota, they slipped in the first of those late Sunday with a 5-3 drawback against the Avalanche.

    Still, if St. Louis can salvage a split of its home-and-home series with Colorado on Tuesday, or even merely nudge that game into overtime, and if Detroit loses in regulation on Monday, the Blues' playoff passport will be secure.

    The Blues and Red Wings each entered Sunday’s action with four games left and St. Louis holding a six-point upper hand. Despite Sunday's loss, the former still need only earn one more point than the latter this week.

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