The emphasis in the NHL at this point of the year is usually on the teams near the bottom of the playoff structure, as fans may be far more concerned with who's in and who's out of the postseason rather than those at the top of the playoff structure.
But for this look at the playoff picture, it's time to give the Washington Capitals and the Dallas Stars their due.
The Capitals have had a brilliant season, and they recorded their 52nd victory of the season Tuesday night when they went to Ottawa and recorded a 4-2 victory over the disappointing Senators.
That win clinched the Metropolitan Division and the top spot in the Eastern Conference for head coach Barry Trotz and Co. even though the Caps still have 10 games to play this season.
The Caps have 52 wins and 109 points, 19 more than the second-place New York Rangers, who have nine games left to play.
|NHL Western Conference Playoff Picture|
|Dallas Stars *||Central||97||8||42||Hang on for top spot in the West.|
|St. Louis Blues||Central||95||8||38||Second place in the dvision.|
|Chicago Blackhawks||Central||91||8||41||Limping into playoffs.|
|Los Angeles Kings *||Pacific||93||9||42||Heavy team that will be tough to beat.|
|Anaheim Ducks||Pacific||89||10||37||Red-hot since Christmas break.|
|San Jose Sharks||Pacific||88||9||38||Tougher than past editions.|
|Nashville Predators||Central||87||9||34||Preds look dangerous as playoffs near.|
|Minnesota Wild||Central||81||8||32||Will earn final playoff spot.|
|Colorado Avalanche||Central||80||9||34||On the outside and will remain there.|
|*clinched playoff berth|
|NHL.com, Silverman comments|
"Now we have something to play for," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby told reporters after the game. "We want to make sure we're getting to our top level coming into Game 1 of the playoffs and it's a luxury that we have 10 games to do it.''
It's just a matter of time before the Caps clinch the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best and most consistent regular-season team.
If and when that happens, the Caps will have home-ice advantage in every round of the playoffs and officially don a huge bull's-eye as the team that every other club will be gunning for in the postseason.
The Stars (97 points) and are coming off an impressive 6-2 road win over the Chicago Blackhawks, and they have a two-point lead in the Central Division over the St. Louis Blues. It looks like those two teams will fight it out the rest of the way to determine the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference.
The victory over the Blackhawks clinched a playoff position for the Stars. "Clinching is really important, but now it's moving on and making sure our game's in the right place," Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said during his postgame press conference, "and we've been playing some good hockey lately."
The Los Angeles Kings fell one goal short in a 2-1 loss at Minnesota on Tuesday night, but the Kings still lead the Pacific Division with 93 points, and they are four points ahead of second-place Anaheim. After missing the playoffs in 2014-15, the Kings have already clinched an appearance in the upcoming postseason.
The win was vital for the Wild, because it lifted them to eighth place and put them in the playoff structure. They are just one point ahead of the Colorado Avalanche, and that is seemingly the only Western Conference playoff spot that has yet to be decided.
The Avs have nine games remaining and 34 regulation or overtime wins (ROW), while the Wild have eight games left and 32 ROW wins. If the two teams finished tied in the standings, Colorado would earn the playoff spot as long as it maintains its advantage in the ROW category.
|NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Picture|
|Washington Capitals*||Metropolitan||109||10||48||Now must prove it in the postseason.|
|New York Rangers||Metropolitan||90||9||38||Need more depth scoring.|
|Pittsburgh Penguins||Metropolitan||88||10||37||Surging at the right time.|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||Atlantic||89||9||39||Could be tough out in the playoffs.|
|Florida Panthers||Atlantic||89||9||33||Lack playoff experience.|
|Boston Bruins||Atlantic||86||9||35||Blue-line issues all season.|
|New York Islanders||Metropolitan||85||11||34||Where have the goals gone?|
|Philadelphia Flyers||Metropolitan||83||10||33||Will take last playoff spot.|
|Detroit Red Wings||Atlantic||83||9||34||Long postseason streak comes to an end.|
|*clinched playoff berth|
|NHL.com; Silverman comments|
The Eastern Conference playoff race is somewhat tighter and in a state of flux. The Detroit Red Wings currently find themselves on the outside of the playoffs following a disappointing 6-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Tuesday night.
The Red Wings have been perennial playoff performers, having not missed the postseason since the 1989-90 season. They have 83 points, which is the same as the eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers. Philadelphia currently has the edge in the standings since the Flyers have one game in hand on the Wings.
However, if the two teams finish tied for eighth at the conclusion of the regular season, the Wings have the edge in ROW (34-33) and would qualify for the playoffs once again.
The Boston Bruins appeared secure in their pursuit of the postseason at the start of last week when they were leading the Atlantic Division. However, the Bruins lost all three games on their California road trip and are no longer in a surefire playoff position. They have 86 points and are third in the Atlantic, just three points ahead of the Red Wings.
The New York Islanders are also mired in some difficulty and have fallen out of the top three in the Metropolitan Division. They have been supplanted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won six games in a row and have recorded an 8-2-0 mark in their last 10 games.
The Islanders lost at home to the Flyers Monday night and have lost three games in a row. They have 85 points this season and are suddenly vulnerable.