It's a beautiful Tuesday morning and it's crazy to think that this NHL season is coming to an end almost as quickly as it started. As we journey from March into April, there's only one thing on the minds of everyone in the NHL: spring hockey, the big dance, or in layman's terms, the playoffs.
There is still absolutely no room to rest for anyone, as teams are fighting furiously for positions in the top eight of each conference. With the season entering its final stretch, the games have only gotten bigger and it's safe to say for some teams that their season is officially on the line this week.
Chicago answered their call on Monday night, coming up with a huge 3-2 overtime win over Detroit to save their season and keep their hopes of a playoff spot alive. However, their journey, like many other teams around the league, is far from over this year.
Here are my choices for the 10 biggest games remaining on the NHL schedule this week.
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Tuesday, March 28
7:00 p.m. ET
TV: FS-Carolina, CSN-DC (no national coverage)
This is do-or-die territory for the Hurricanes. They're a daunting five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and have no choice but to win from here on out if they want to have any hope of catching the Buffalo Sabres.
And they won't have it easy either, facing a Washington Capitals team that is heating up at exactly the right time, sitting just two points away from the top of the Eastern Conference. Alexander Ovechkin is due to return from an undisclosed injury at any moment and the Capitals, who have fallen victim to playoff failure in years past, look like they're out to rewrite their history this season.
Expect the Hurricanes to throw absolutely everything they have at Washington, making this game a pretty stiff test for the character of this Capitals team.
Tuesday, March 29
7:00 p.m. ET
TV: CSN-Philadelphia, FS Pittsburgh
It's crazy to think that despite the enormity of the injuries the Penguins have sustained this season to superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, they are just a simple regulation win from a share of the Eastern Conference lead with their bitter cross-state rival. The Flyers still have the tiebreaker of regulation/overtime wins by a significant margin, but this is a testament to the grit and tenacity of this Penguins team.
Players like Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang have really stepped up in the absence of these superstars and goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson has found a way to not only keep the Penguins afloat, but keep them surging and right up there with the Eastern Conference's best teams. In fact, if it weren't for the division leader rule, the Penguins would be tied for second in the East.
The Flyers are a completely different story. They have been sliding in the late days of the season, falling short in moments where they really need to get wins. They're a very respectable 5-1-4 in their last 10 games, but have only one one of their last four games, and those four overtime losses demonstrate the Flyers' recent inability to finish off wins. After leading the conference virtually all year, they now face the prospect of a single regulation win protecting their spot in the standings.
Tuesday, March 29
8:00 p.m. ET
TV: SNET-P, FS Tennessee (no national coverage)
It's games like this that really make me wish I had invested in NHL GameCenter Live this season, because it's an absolute shame this game isn't on national television.
It's a showdown between two of the hottest teams in the NHL at this moment. Vancouver is absolutely tearing the NHL apart and look to be just about a lock for their first President's Trophy in team history. They're 9-1-0 in their last 10 games and look to have absolutely no weaknesses with dominant play on both special teams units as well as at even strength.
They'll go up against a Nashville team that's won six straight games and is 8-1-1 in their last 10, battling their way from 10th to sixth in the West in the process. Pekka Rinne has looked like a gigantic brick wall in net lately, and the formerly-anemic offense has sprung to life, making this team extremely fast and extremely dangerous.
Can the Canucks slow this Nashville team down or will the Preds only reinforce their message that they are not a team you want to face in the first round?
Wednesday, March 30
9:30 p.m. ET
TV: TSN, FS West
With both Anaheim and Chicago winning tonight, there's no doubt whatsoever in my mind that this matchup on Wednesday is the season for Calgary: Win and stay alive, lose and the season ends early for the second straight year.
And they couldn't have asked for a worse opponent. The white-hot Ducks are winners of two straight and eight of 10 to claw their way from 10th in the West to seventh.
Corey Perry has been nothing short of sensational, with seven goals in his last five games to take the NHL's goal-scoring lead and make a serious case for the Hart Trophy. Teemu Selanne, at the age of 40, will be coming off a hat-trick, five-point game.
Probably the most important of them all is deadline acquisition Ray Emery, who is a perfect 5-0 since making his return to the NHL earlier this month.
Calgary, in the mean time, has gone stone-cold. A shootout win over worst-in-conference Edmonton snapped a four-game skid during which they only managed to gain a single point in the standings and fall from seventh to 10th.
The season will be on the line for the Flames on their own ice in front of their own fans, setting up a game you do not want to miss.
Thursday, March 31st
10:00 p.m. ET
TV: FS West, SNET-P
This isn't the first game of this week for the Kings, but with the recent loss of both their leading scorers, this will be the true character test of this young LA team.
Perhaps the Kings' biggest weakness is their lack of offensive depth beyond their first line, and the loss of Anze Kopitar for a minimum of six weeks and Justin Williams for a minimum of four puts a huge amount of strain on a group of young forwards. The bulk of the scoring now falls on the shoulders of captain Dustin Brown who sits third on the team with a respectable 25 goals.
Additionally, now would be a fantastic time for the Kings to start getting some consistent production out of their blockbuster deadline pickup Dustin Penner, who has only six points in 12 games with Los Angeles, far below the numbers they were hoping to get from him.
Vancouver, on the other hand, has been absolutely on fire and will look to answer what few questions are being asked of them this week by knocking off some of the best teams the Western Conference has to offer.
Saturday, April 2
3:00 p.m. ET
TV: FS Detroit, FS Tennessee
It'll be a matinee affair when Detroit rolls into Music City for a showdown and what could very likely be a preview of a first-round playoff matchup. The Predators have dominated the season series between these two so far this year, going 4-1 against the Red Wings, including a 3-1 victory the last time these two teams met on March 19th.
Detroit will be looking for answers to their recent form as of late, most recently letting a point slip away at home to a desperate Chicago Blackhawks team. The San Jose Sharks are breathing down their necks for the second spot in the West, and a loss here could very likely lead to these two squaring off in the Western Conference playoffs.
Entering Tuesday, the Predators are tied for the fifth place position with Los Angeles, and look to be making a surge for the final home-ice playoff spot, which they're only one point behind with a game in hand. Unless Detroit can slow them down, they very likely might take it.
Saturday, April 2
4:00 p.m. ET
TV: TXA 21, FS PrimeTicket
Another matinee affair on one of the biggest weekends of the season will see the struggling Stars travel to Los Angeles for a pretty big matchup with the battered and bruised Kings. This game could mean the season to the Dallas Stars, who will enter their game on Tuesday against Phoenix in 10th place in the West.
This game is once again meaningful to the Kings who need to find a way to gel without their leading scorers, and a game with a desperate Dallas team might be the tonic they need.
Dallas, on the other hand, is in dire need of wins and points in whatever way they can get them. After leading the ultra-competitive Pacific Division for a large portion of the season, the Stars have collapsed and fallen out of the playoffs, and this game could end their season if they fail to earn the full two points.
Expect this to be a hard-fought playoff-type game between two teams who desperately need to figure out a way to win at all costs.
Saturday, April 2
10:30 p.m. ET
TV: KDOC, CSN California
If you want a single image to define the rivalry between these two teams, look no further than this. California's two hottest teams will face off on Saturday night in what will likely be a huge game for both these teams.
The Shark Tank has not been friendly waters to the Ducks this year (get it...unfriendly waters...?). Bad jokes aside, the Sharks have had the better of the rivalry this year, going 2-1-1 in the four meetings they've had all season.
These two will meet again four days later on April 6th which means expect a lot of messages to be sent and absolutely no love lost between these two rivals.
Additionally, this too could be a preview for a potential Western Conference quarterfinal matchup, one the Sharks and their fans have got to be licking their chops at the thought of.
No doubt the memories of the Ducks' 2009 first-round upset of the Sharks still linger fresh in the minds of the San Jose faithful, and needless to say revenge would be incredibly sweet in Silicon Valley.
Sunday, April 3
12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC, TSN
The Rangers will roll into the Wachovia Center on Sunday for a nationally-televised showdown with the New York Rangers. The matchup is a promising one between two playoff-bound teams looking to solidify their position in the standings.
The Flyers are also looking to get back on track to their winning ways and put some space between themselves and the Capitals and Penguins, both of whom are hot on their tail for the top of the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers are looking to gain ground on the teams ahead of them, most notably Montreal, who they're tied with, and Tampa Bay, who sits four points ahead of them.
The Rangers have to be liking the possibility of a quarterfinal series with Pittsburgh, who they've dominated all year, and if they can manage to get up to fifth place, that's the opponent they'll get. With Tampa Bay slumping, this is still a definite possibility, making these two points just as critical for the Rangers as they are the Flyers.
Monday, April 4
10:00 p.m. ET
TV: Versus, TSN, CSN California
Yet another game between two of the best teams in the hotly-contested Pacific Division comes next Monday in a nationally-televised contest between the Kings and the Sharks.
The Kings have been sitting pretty in the fourth or fifth position in the West for the better part of February and are still pushing the Sharks (and the Coyotes too) for all they're worth. This would be a huge win for Los Angeles if they were able to take two points and put themselves in better position to lock up home-ice in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
Once again, this will be a tall order with their top scorers in Kopitar and Williams both being out until pretty much the end of the first round of the playoffs. And it doesn't help either that the Sharks have been playing some of their best hockey of the year thus far, taking at least a single point in nine of their past 10 games. The Kings did however get the better of these two the last time they met, taking a 4-3 shootout victory in Los Angeles on March 24th.
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