There are many tight races in the NHL as the season hits its home stretch, but they have more to do with playoff positioning than figuring out which teams are going to make the playoffs.
It's straight forward in the Western Conference, where seven of the eight playoff spots are spoken for at this point.
The final spot, currently occupied by the Minnesota Wild, figures to be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish between the Wild and the Colorado Avalanche.
Both teams have 74 points going into Tuesday's schedule, but the Wild get the edge in the standings because they have played 69 games while the Avs have played 70.
|NHL Playoff Race|
|Pittsburgh Penguins||East||80||14||34||Penguins will make the playoffs|
|Detroit Red Wings||East||79||13||32||Red Wings will fall short|
|Philadelphia Flyers||East||76||15||30||Flyers will earn last playoff spot|
|Minnesota Wild||West||74||13||31||Wild will make the playoffs|
|Colorado Avalanche||West||74||12||32||Avs will fall short|
|NHL.com; Silverman predictions|
NHL standings favor the team having games in hand, but once the season is completed, the tiebreaker becomes regulation and overtime wins (ROW in the NHL.com standings). The league gives those wins more status and credence than shootout wins—a sharp decision on the league's part—and Colorado has 32 ROW wins compared to 31 for Minnesota.
This battle is likely to come down to the final week of the season when the Wild go to Winnipeg before closing the season with home games against San Jose and Calgary. Conversely, the Avs close the season with two road games at Nashville and Dallas before finishing the season at home with Anaheim.
All three of the Avs' opponents are safely in the playoff structure, and that tougher closing schedule should favor Minnesota.
The Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets are below the Avs in the standings, and the gap is too great (seven points between eighth-place Colorado and ninth-place Arizona) to expect any of those teams to make a run at the playoff standings.
Both Minnesota and Colorado would have to collapse in the season's final four weeks, while one of those teams would have to get shockingly hot for that to take place.
The seven teams at the top of the Western Conference standings are quite safe. Fans can count on seeing Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Nashville in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It's a bit more complicated in the Eastern Conference where the Philadelphia Flyers (76 points), Carolina Hurricanes (74 points) and New Jersey Devils (73 points) are trying to chase down the Pittsburgh Penguins (80 points) and Detroit Red Wings (79 points) for the final two playoff spots.
The Flyers are charging up the ladder at this crucial time of year, having gone 7-2-1 over their last 10 games and playing their best hockey of the year.
The Flyers have a chance to stand up for themselves and take another step Tuesday night when they host the Red Wings. Detroit is coming off a shocking 1-0 home loss to the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs Sunday night, and that's a defeat that will not be easy to shake.
Any team battling for its life to save its streak of making the playoffs 24 years in a row can't afford that kind of loss. If Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and rookie Dylan Larkin don't respond against the Flyers, it could be indicative of a poor finish by the Red Wings.
The Penguins are also in trouble, and the news of Evgeni Malkin's upper-body injury is a big blow for a team that has been trying to right itself for the last three months. Malkin is the team's second-leading scorer with 58 points, and his ability to create scoring opportunities consistently separates him from many of the game's other top players.
It will be tough for the Penguins to overcome his loss, but not impossible. Sidney Crosby has regained his stride after a slow start and has scored 69 points, while defenseman Kris Letang has contributed 53 points. If the Penguins are going to make the playoffs this season, they will need more from high-priced but enigmatic winger Phil Kessel (45 points).
The Flyers have been charging because their offense has hit its stride and the defense has become more responsible in recent weeks. Center Claude Giroux (57 points) is one of the most dangerous and creative scorers in the league, while Jakub Voracek (48 points) can dominate down low because of his size, strength and skill.
The Flyers have also gotten a huge contribution from rookie defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere, who has scored 15 goals and 23 assists from the back end. Not only is his point and goal total impressive, but Gostisbehere has scored four game-winning goals and 20 points on the power play.
The Hurricanes are just two points behind the Flyers, but it will be difficult for them to mount a charge after moving forwards Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg along with defenseman John-Michael Liles at the trade deadline. Still, the Hurricanes have found a way to stay competitive.
The Devils are just a point behind Carolina, but they are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games and are coming off a 7-1 loss at Anaheim on Monday night.
The Flyers have played 67 games, and they have two games in hand on the Red Wings and one on the Penguins. Philadelphia closes the season with two home games against Toronto and Pittsburgh before playing its last game on the road at Brooklyn's Barclays Center against the New York Islanders.
The Penguins finish the season with three road games at Ottawa, Washington and Philadelphia. The Red Wings have a tough closing stretch with a home game against the Flyers before ending the season on the road at Boston and the New York Rangers.
The Washington Capitals have the best record in the league and are running away with the Eastern Conference, and the other five teams in the playoff structure are in good shape. The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers and New York Islanders should feel confident that they will be in the playoffs, but any of those teams could find themselves in trouble if they suffer through a destructive slump.
Based on their favorable closing schedule, look for the Wild to edge out the Avs for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Once they get to the playoffs, the Wild have the kind of speed and talent that could cause problems for any opponent.
The Flyers have gathered momentum and find themselves in a good position to wrest one of the final two playoff spots. Look for them to climb over the Red Wings, who are starting to feel the heat and the pressure.
Detroit has made the playoffs 24 years in a row and have played well to this point in the season, but the Red Wings will struggle down the stretch and won't be able to hold off Philadelphia.
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