The battle for the NHL's eight playoff spots in each conference is down to nine teams.
In the Eastern Conference, seeds No. 4 through No. 9 are separated by just five points. The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers are in a strong position to lock up a playoff spot with another win, and the New York Islanders in all likelihood would have to fall apart to bow out as well.
But from the Philadelphia Flyers down to the Boston Bruins, it's going to be an interesting final few games. The Flyers currently hold an advantage because they've played 78 games, compared to Boston and the Detroit Red Wings' 79 apiece. Wednesday night's game in Detroit will likely go a long way toward determining whether it's the Flyers or Wings who wind up taking one of the spots remaining.
“It’s really important,” Wings rookie Dylan Larkin said of continuing the team's playoff streak, currently at 24 seasons, per Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press. “I think it’s a little bit more about getting in the playoffs. As a team, we want to be a part of this. Personally, I want to be a part of the streak.”
The Flyers and Bruins may have paved the way for Detroit on Sunday. Philly went on the road and laid an egg against the Penguins, as Pittsburgh scored three goals within the first 31 minutes on its way to a 6-2 rout. The Penguins' win keeps them ahead of the Florida Panthers in the race for the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed.
NHL bracket can be found here.
"Every game has been critical for us over the last two months," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "Do they get bigger as we get into the final week of the season? You could say that, but every game we have left is critical."
The Bruins, meanwhile, dug themselves a 6-0 hole before a comeback effort failed against the Chicago Blackhawks. Patrick Kane lit the lamp three times on his way to passing 100 points on the season, and the Bruins seemed utterly lost defensively. They wound up scoring four goals in what amounted to garbage time, but Chicago was never in danger of losing.
"With what's at stake, we've got to be a lot better," Bruins star Patrice Bergeron said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "Focus is definitely what cost the game early on by making mistakes and giving them the space that they wanted and the plays that they wanted."
In the West, seven of the eight playoff spots have been decided. The race for the eighth and final spot is coming down to the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. The Wild have a massive five-point advantage, with two games remaining on their schedule. All they need is one more win to lock up a chance to knock off the top seed in their first-round matchup.
Their first chance to lock up a playoff spot Sunday night ended in disappointment. Minnesota watched five goals go into its net against the lowly Winnipeg Jets, who are playing more for lottery positioning than wins and losses at this point. The Wild have now dropped three straight overall, a streak that's made getting the No. 7 seed nearly an impossibility.
"We're going to get throttled if we're going to play like this going in," goaltender Devan Dubnyk said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "I'm not worried about it. I don't think we are. But I think we all know that's not even going to come close come playoff time. We don't want to be sliding in. We've got two games to get on track and get going and I'm sure that's what we'll do."
The battle for the top seeds in both conferences offers a similarly opposite feeling. The Washington Capitals have been racing away from the East field for months. Their 116 points are 11 better than any other team, and they have a good chance of reaching the hallowed 120-point plateau.
Meanwhile, out West, the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues are separated by two points heading into the stretch run. St. Louis can erase those two points by picking up an extra win this week, as it has only 79 games played to Dallas' 80. The teams are almost eerily equal in every record category, so it'll be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming days. The Blues appear in far worse shape, as they'll go on the road against Chicago and host Washington in their final two games.