NHL Pucks-a-Plenty: The 30 Games You Must See to End the Season

Benjamin BenyaCorrespondent IIMarch 7, 2011

NHL Pucks-a-Plenty: The 30 Games You Must See to End the Season

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    Saturday, March 12 marks the first of 30 days remaining in the NHL regular season. With an entire month of hockey still to be played, the race in both the Eastern and Western Conferences is reaching a boiling point.

    As of press time, all 30 teams are still eligible to make the playoffs, with roughly 25 of them still charging towards a bid for a best-of-seven series

    So if you're just tuning in, are a late bloomer or just decided to order the Center Ice half-season package, these are the 30 games you'll want to watch for the final 30 nights of the NHL season.

March 12: Canadiens at Penguins

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    With a debate about post-concussion syndrome, hits to the head and the state of the game ongoing, the race for position amongst the top six teams in the Eastern Conference has tightened.

    The focus on this matchup of two under-the-radar contenders will pit the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins against the low-scoring Montreal Canadiens.

    Montreal's scoring woes haven't really hindered them in the playoff race, and it isn't through lack of effort either. Brian Gionta's 251 shots on goal put him at seventh in the league in the shooting category, yet with only 23 in the bank thus far, the scores are coming at a premium.

    Meanwhile, the Penguins, who are also without Evgeni Malkin, are hoping that their deadline deals start producing much more often. Alex Kovalev has only scored once since returning just about two weeks ago, and James Neal is a minus-three with no goals or assists to show for it.

    This game is a potential playoff series in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 or No. 3 vs. No. 6 bracket, reason enough to tune in and see a big preview.

March 13: Blackhawks at Capitals

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    After being perennial favorites to take home the Stanley Cup for the past two seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals have each had their own struggles claiming glory this year.

    While the Hawks' Cup hangover may have lasted longer than any Chicago fan would have desired (as well as their talent purge), a late charge is pushing Chicago back to the forefront of contention out West.

    The Caps, meanwhile, still haven't gotten the monkey off their backs from one of the biggest upsets in playoff history in 2010. Alex Ovechkin had his scoring drought, Alex Semin had his contract disputes and the goaltending situation is no closer to being solved in the nation's capital.

    All that said, Washington is still right in the thick of things and is a dangerously underrated foe this time of year.

    Despite being amongst the league leaders in save percentage and goals against average, Semyon Varlamov's health and conditioning have faltered, and his backup Michal Neuvirth has proven to be more than able to carry the load.

    The Blackhawks find themselves with a similar fortune, albeit of their own accord. After passing on Antti Niemi's contract arbitration in the Summer, Chicago rolled out with Marty Turco as their starter this year. But Turco couldn't carry the load, and it would be Corey Crawford who would excel and take the position over in 2011.

    With so much young, incredible talent on both teams, this one is a can't miss (and it's on national television, so there's no excuse).

March 14: Sharks at Blackhawks

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    Speaking of Antti Niemi, with only three choices on this Monday night, tuning in to his return to the Windy City would be a no-brainer.

    Niemi's rocky start to the season gave Sharks fans a lot to complain about, but he's turned it around and earned himself a contract extension that gives the folks in San Jose something altogether new to talk about when the Stanley Cup is drawn into the conversation.

    Niemi's numbers against his former team this year don't lie. He's 3-0-0 with a goals against average of 2.00.

March 15: Kings at Predators

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    Two teams on the verge of playoff berths clash in this Western Conference battle that could be all about supremacy in the coming weeks.

    The Los Angeles Kings are currently just inside the playoff picture, while the Nashville Predators are clinging to life after a dry spell recently capsized the team from fourth to 11th.

    Both teams were among the biggest buyers at the trade deadline as well. In the week prior to that fateful Monday, the Predators acquired a first-line center in Mike Fisher, a move that would help both his personal and professional career.

    The Kings, always involved in rumors for the biggest forwards on the market, paid a pretty penny to bring Dustin Penner into the fold.

    Finding out which man will be more vital to his team is all part of the process, and on a night where other potential playoff teams are dueling, this one looks like the most fun.

March 16: Maple Leafs at Hurricanes

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    Brian Burke is, without a doubt, the most entertaining general manager in the NHL. Just take his quote from the trade deadline when his team, just six points out of playoff position, was busy selling properties for the future:

    "Getting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your ass kicked in the first round is not my idea of building a championship team."

    As candid as Burke was, his Leafs are still just on the outside of a playoff berth and could benefit greatly from a victory over the fledgling Carolina Hurricanes. The 'Canes are currently one of three teams coveting the East's seventh and eighth playoff positions, the only two that seem to be far from locks.

    In a league where anything can happen, Carolina won't be able to count on Toronto to roll over and die when this game goes live.

March 17: Red Wings at Blue Jackets

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    When you're the Columbus Blue Jackets, you often don't get to see much daylight playing in a division that also covers the Detroit Red Wings (and Chicago Blackhawks). The Blue Jackets have only made one appearance in the playoffs and were promptly swept out by these very Red Wings.

    Now, two years later, the Blue Jackets are out to prove they are serious contenders. The only problem here is that the Jackets will still have to conquer the Red Wings in order to make it to the promised land. Columbus is currently the long shot to make it out West, while the Wings are a lock.

    Mix the two components and we'll have a nasty affair of a budding division rivalry.

March 18: Coyotes at Canucks

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    That's right. I'm asking you to do what so few people can barely do already: Watch a Phoenix Coyotes hockey game.

    All joking aside, the Coyotes were a feel-good story last season that is back again this year to prove they can go with the best in the league. They'll get their shot to show what grit and merit they're owed when they clash with the best of the West, the Vancouver Canucks.

    From day one, the Canucks have been out to make a statement that they are, indeed, the best of the best and the next Stanley Cup champions. Watching their play all season, you'd be hard pressed to disagree. The Canucks are first in the West, second in goals for, second in goals against, first in goal differential and have the league's best home record.

    This game has all the makings of a "big match" atmosphere despite being contested by two teams that are not regularly featured on NBC or Versus.

March 19: Flyers at Stars

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    Two perennial contenders seemingly each and every year, the Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers are just a few Hatcher brothers away from being back in 1998. Both teams are within striking distance of something big, yet both may also be headed in drastically different directions.

    The Flyers are at the top of the Eastern Conference competition heap, but a recent string of defeats has left the team with many unanswered questions. The Flyers loaded up at the trade deadline with Kris Versteeg and are now even more top-heavy and bruising than they were at season's start.

    The Stars, on the other hand, traded one of their best forwards, but it wasn't Brad Richards. GM Joe Nieuwendyk took the biggest gamble he could by retaining Richards' expiring contract during Dallas' biggest slump of the season.

    The team has since responded by stabilizing and forging their playoff spot, but with many battles left, it is easy to think that neither of these teams is all that "safe."

    The Flyers will be playing this game for the division, while Dallas may be playing for desperation.

March 20: Flames at Ducks

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    Two of the league's nastiest teams square off in yet another battle for playoff positioning. But this one is much different than it was one season ago, when the Flames were chasing eight other teams, while the Ducks just needed a few more points to stay afloat.

    While both missed the playoffs last season, the Calgary Flames are looking to prove all the skeptics wrong this year with a stellar performance down the stretch.

    Jarome Iginla's marquee career just keeps getting better as the team around him embraces what is, for the most part, a last stand. With so many hefty contracts and inner office squabbles, the Flames are a team changing drastically every day.

    But the Ducks are in the stay the course category, seemingly hoping that solid coaching and play will win the day. That play may be severely hindered, however, with the departure of Jonas Hiller. Hiller is out indefinitely with a case of vertigo that could jeopardize Anaheim's chances, even if his backup Dan Ellis is steady in the pipes.

    The thing to remember most about this game is that nearly all of the high-profile talents participating are ready and willing to drop the gloves at a moment's notice. Sounds groovy.

March 21: Penguins at Red Wings

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    You've got only two options on this Monday evening, and the other, while being a solid Kings-Flames contest, doesn't have the prestige this one will.

    Especially if Sidney Crosby were to make a grand return in a rematch of both the 2009 and 2008 Stanley Cup Finals.

March 22: Devils at Bruins

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    Don't look now, but the New Jersey Devils are way out of the cellar and are back in the picture. For better or worse, the Devils' decision to go back to Jacques Lemaire has turned out to be the spark the franchise needed.

    From preseason delusions of grandeur to the reality of an inexperienced coach in John MacLean, the Devils have had nothing short of a tumultuous season.

    Their opponents, the Boston Bruins, are without doubt one of the most consistent teams the league boasts this year. Boston gets it done via excellent goaltending from Tim Thomas and high scoring from a number of sources, including Milan Lucic, who is on pace for 35 goals and would be the first Bruin to do so since Phil Kessel.

    Both teams are also banking on high-priced K's (Ilya Kovalchuk and Tomas Kaberle) to earn their keep come the playoffs. The only thing is, they both still have to get there. While the Bruins are more secure than the Devils, it won't stop New Jersey from tearing up the scene in the coming weeks.

March 23: Canucks at Red Wings

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    As the top two teams in the Western Conference, it was hard to steer clear of this epic contest out West. Despite being the third appearance by Detroit already on this list, you have to admit, it sets up to be a great clash between the old king and the potential new king.

    Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Detroit's Jimmy Howard are among the top goalies in the NHL in wins, but there is a big disparity between their numbers that leads one to believe Luongo is simply playing for the better team.

    His goals against average and save percentage are huge marks better than Howard's, but none of that matters when you go one-on-one between the two teams with the most goals in the NHL this year.

March 24: Penguins at Flyers

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    This one's for the Atlantic Division. The Flyers and Penguins have easily one of the most heated, brutal rivalries in all the NHL and will be putting it on display for the world to see with just three weeks remaining in the season.

    The Flyers have had the lead nearly all year, but the Penguins are unrelenting and coming on despite being out their two best stars. While both will likely be steering their ships on course at this time of year, the difference between first and fourth place in the East (or playing a fifth-place team with the same number of points compared to an eighth-place, last-minute foe) is incredible.

March 25: Hurricanes at Lightning

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    In the Southeast Division, it would be easy to dismiss rivalries as being not nearly as intense as those in the Atlantic or Northeast Divisions. Fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes certainly don't echo these sentiments.

    The 'Canes and Bolts are not only two of the last three Stanley Cup champions from the East, but are also terribly dangerous threats thanks to their fast-paced play and superb scoring abilities. Amongst them are players who range in age and ability yet can still find the back of the net with veritable ease.

    Both are also chronically unable to stop pucks from crossing the goal line despite boasting a starting pair that haven't been rivals since the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals in Dwayne Roloson and Cam Ward. Exciting hockey? You damn right.

March 26: Lightning at Hurricanes

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    No, this isn't a typo. If you don't get to watch too much hockey in this high-scoring division, then you'll definitely want to check out both parts of this good ol' home-and-home series.

March 27: Bruins at Flyers

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    Much like the Red Wings-Canucks battle you'll have watched four days earlier, this one takes the top two dogs in the East and forces them into a struggle for supremacy. Just look at the young scorers these two teams will have to battle each other with.

    Patrice Bergeron vs. Danny Briere. David Krejci vs. Mike Richards. Milan Lucic vs. Claude Giroux. Nathan Horton vs. Jeff Carter. That's just the first four rounds.

March 28: Blackhawks at Red Wings

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    Looking for a break from your Eastern Conference delights? We have just the thing. The Red Wings and Blackhawks take the show to the end of the month with a contest that may well have Central Division-winning implications attached to it.

    With players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane turning up the heat for a red-hot Chicago franchise, their older, more experienced counterparts Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen are ready for the challenge.

    This game boasts great, young netminders taking on feisty forwards and some of the league's best and brightest defensemen, all in one division!

March 29: Sabres at Maple Leafs

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    Lost in the shuffle of Eastern Conference teams vying for playoff spots, the Buffalo Sabres are a familiar adversary. Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff has the Sabres playing the best hockey of the season and is finally looking at a seven-game series in his future. Too bad the Toronto Maple Leafs are still around to play spoiler.

    The Sabres and Leafs have met many, many times prior to this one and will likely have it out once again, seeing as how the Leafs are theoretically one Ryan Miller away from being right where Buffalo currently sits. A thought like that is too scary to comprehend.

March 30: Rangers at Sabres

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    How about a Buffalo double dip? There is no question that regardless of how the teams settle down this year, this game will mean an awful lot to both sides.

    The Rangers claimed the first game of the year from the Sabres in a 6-3 rout that saw rookie Derek Stepan score a hat trick on his first night on the job.

    That kind of secondary scoring has fueled New York throughout the year as the Rangers attempt to get back to the postseason despite lackluster performances from their proven scorers Marian Gaborik (down statistically, injuries) and Alex Frolov (lost all momentum before being ruled out indefinitely to injury).

    The Sabres had their fair share of injuries to overcome as well, the biggest of which was Derek Roy. Yet both teams have pressed on and are now battling one another for an all-important playoff spot, and with the top of the conference still in question, they have to believe that being eighth is just as good as being first.

March 31: Stars at Sharks

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    The Pacific Division has seen any number of teams lead this season, but the two most consistent will be dropping the puck against one another on March 31st, just in time for the playoff picture to begin to crystallize. 

    Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the San Jose Sharks and rookie Logan Couture have usurped the throne and are back at the top of the Pacific. However, lead competitors like the Dallas Stars are still breathing and are in need of a big charge to get back to the top.

    Who knows where exactly these two teams will be come the end of March Madness, but with just five points currently separating them, it is a safe bet that it'll still be a close one.

April 1: Avalanche at Coyotes

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    With four options on April Fools' Day, pick the worst one. That's what Coyotes fans will do when they opt not to attend Phoenix's matchup against cellar-dwelling Colorado.

    The last time these two teams clashed and it was actually interesting to the league's marketing squad was last season, when, earlier in the day, Peter Mueller had been traded for Wojtek Wolski. Wolski has already left Phoenix, so the issue isn't even relevant anymore.

    Sorry, Coyotes fans. That's twice in one article I've picked on you. No worries—at least Southwest still lets your bags fly free.

April 2: Lightning at Wild

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    We haven't showcased the State of Hockey at all in this schedule, but with the high-scoring Lightning visiting the Xcel Energy Center, now seems like a good time.

    It is only logical that the always rabid, always sold-out venue for Minnesota finally hosts a winner, and the Wild faithful are pensively optimistic that this team could surprise. With Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat leading the charge, hopes are high that the Wild are for real.

    But Koivu and Havlat are the atypical scorers in a Minnesota system that is the definition of trap hockey. They won't take kindly to Tampa's all-star offense, complete with Steven Stamkos and his potential 50-goal season or Martin St. Louis and his potential 100-point campaign.

    Pure offense vs. pure defense in one of hockey's most electric atmospheres? Count me in.

April 3: Rangers at Flyers

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    Despite dominating the season series, the last meeting between these two franchise more than humbled the Philadelphia Flyers.

    Rangers forward Ryan Callahan netted four goals as the Rangers trounced Philadelphia 7-0, a win that rejuvenated New York's playoff hopes while placing more doubt in the minds of Flyers fans nationwide.

    How will Philadelphia respond a little less than a month later? With the rematch back on NBC, all eyeballs will be focused on this old Patrick Division classic.

April 4: Kings at Sharks

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    They call the HP Pavilion the Shark Tank, and it'll be just as friendly when the Sharks welcome their cross-state rival, the Los Angeles Kings, with just a week remaining in the season.

    San Jose will still have all the weapons you're used to seeing up front (Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau), as well as some of those hot young faces (Devin Setoguchi, Logan Couture), but the Kings are going down easily. LA's defense runs deep down the same path with the established veterans (Jack Johnson, Rob Scuderi) and the youthful future (Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez) storming the ice. 

    Then there's the superb goalie match between 'two tenders destined to win big—one who already has (Antti Niemi) and another (Jonathan Quick) who, well, only time will tell...

April 5: Blackhawks at Canadiens

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    Games don't get much more exciting than when they are Original Six showdowns. With two storied NHL franchises headed towards the playoffs, who wouldn't want to see a little tune-up match?

    What you'll be getting out of this contest is an exhibition of two of the league's top power play units (Chicago, first; Montreal, seventh) and a battle of elite netminders. This season, Corey Crawford and Carey Price have combined for nearly 60 wins with a save percentage better than .920.

    What cracks first, the goalies or the power play?

April 6: Maple Leafs at Devils

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    Pretty much guaranteed: One of these two teams will still be playing for a playoff spot by this date, and the other will be a total spoiler. The question as to which one is which remains unanswered.

    Translation: This is bound to be one ugly, hard-nosed game. Must watch, especially if you're getting the TSN feed.

April 7: Wild at Canucks

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    Assuming the Minnesota Wild can stay afloat and make it to the playoffs, they could be staring straight at their divisional destiny and the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round.

    Thus, this matchup is slightly more pivotal than you might think, especially with Minnesota's outstanding road record headed into Vancouver and one of the hardest buildings to win in this season.

    Vancouver has only lost seven in regulation this year at GM Place, a feat that makes this first-place juggernaut even more menacing. But don't count out the Wild just yet, so long as Niklas Backstrom and/or Jose Theodore is backing them up in net.

    If either one were to get hot, that's a real tough sell to compete against.

April 8: Kings at Ducks

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    Last year, it came down to the final day of the season for the Anaheim Ducks to realize they weren't going to play any further in 2010. If the Ducks can scrounge up enough points, they could have a victory even sweeter than their playoff berth: eliminating the Los Angeles Kings.

    The Kings and Ducks are separated by one point currently and are absolutely going to go down to the wire for a position. Though there is still potential that all five Pacific Division teams go to the playoffs, it is more likely that only three, maybe four will emerge. Who is the odd team out? Could it be both?

April 9: Devils at Rangers

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    When they started their comeback, Devils fans likely circled this game on the calendar for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it was a chance to make all of Broadway pay.

    If the Devils are to pull off such a miraculous comeback into the playoffs, they'll probably have to go through the New York Rangers and, in doing so, eliminate them from the postseason.

    New York bit the dust on the last day of its season in 2010 and could face the very same fate if teams like New Jersey continue to adequately play catch-up. The mere thought makes pundits salivate, as Rangers-Devils games are some of the most intense played games year in and year out.

    One thing is for sure: Ilya Kovalchuk will score on Henrik Lundqvist, and Sean Avery will assist (be it on the scoreboard or with a distraction) on a goal against Martin Brodeur. Avery and Kovalchuk will then promptly exchange words and, if we're lucky, fists.

April 10: Penguins at Thrashers

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    After a month of such incredible hockey, your brain might need a break. While I could suggest the matinee snoozefest between Edmonton and Colorado (combined record still not good enough to make the playoffs), this game actually has potential upside.

    Watch as the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of hockey's best teams, seal themselves inside a playoff wall against an up-and-coming franchise in the Atlanta Thrashers, who are learning that life without Ilya Kovalchuk is the best thing that could've happened to them.

    You'll likely see all the familiar Pittsburgh faces making their last stand before the playoffs against an Atlanta team with tons of faces you'll want to remember (most notably Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec and Dustin Byfuglien). A great way to end the season for sure.