With 39 days left in the regular season the playoff races in each conference simply are on fire. Every game has added significance with points at such a premium as teams jockey for positioning. NHL.com is here to give you a Down the Stretch daily that will highlight what you need to know about that night's games.
Here is the installment for Thursday, March 3:
Eight is enough: For the Sabres and Hurricanes, regular-season games don't get much bigger than the one they're going to play Thursday at the RBC Center in Raleigh. Carolina is eighth in the East with 69 points, two more than Buffalo. The Sabres have two games in hand, so a regulation win would give Buffalo the No. 8 spot in the East standings.
The Sabres have been the hotter of the two teams, with wins in three of their past four games, but that doesn't matter much now because both are coming off one-goal victories. Buffalo got a goal from deadline acquisition Brad Boyes in his debut, a 3-2 win Tuesday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, while Cory Stillman, who Carolina got from the Panthers last week, has scored in each of the last two games.
The makeovers are finished and the Sabres and Hurricanes are fighting for the same thing. They both can make the playoffs if the Rangers' slide continues, but the only thing that matters Thursday is the No. 8 spot.
Stop! You're going the wrong way: Just when it seems like every other team is trending forward, the Rangers and Minnesota Wild are sliding the other way. One team can stop and turn around tonight when they meet at Madison Square Garden.
The Wild are coming off a dreadful 4-1 loss on Long Island on Wednesday that dropped them to 11th in the Western Conference. Cal Clutterbuck told Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "We were just bad," and Kyle Brodziak added, "We weren't responsible at all." Andrew Brunette was just as brutal in his assessment, telling Russo, "I don't know where the energy level was."
This obviously can't happen to a team fixating on a playoff berth.
The Rangers are in a better predicament considering they currently occupy a playoff spot (No. 7 in the East), but they're trying to end a two-game losing streak before it gets any worse, and they will have to do it without Marian Gaborik and maybe Marc Staal, too.
Gaborik (concussion symptoms) has missed the last three games and Staal (knee) has sat out the last two. Coach John Tortorella told reporters after practice Wednesday that Gaborik would not return Thursday, but Staal might be able to play.
The Rangers need them both, but they might need Staal even more with such a young defense corps.
Still a factor: If the Columbus Blue Jackets think they are still a factor in the Western Conference playoff race despite being five points out in 12th, well they had better win in Edmonton.
The Blue Jackets haven't been able to climb out of that No. 12 position despite a solid 10-4-2 stretch since Jan. 19. The light at the end of the tunnel has faded, however, as they're winless in two straight games (0-1-1), but it can brighten with a win in Edmonton and some help from the Coyotes and Rangers.
This is not a "hope to play a solid road game and still get a point" kind of night. The Blue Jackets must come away with two points, but they are in a position where if they had to play a three-point game to get it, then so be it. The Oilers aren't a factor in the race, so giving them an extra point won't matter.
Columbus goes to Calgary for another big game Friday.
Don't forget to look up: The excitement in the West starts at the No. 4 spot and goes through No. 12, but let's not forget the top dogs. San Jose has put itself up there with Detroit and Vancouver thanks to its seven-game win streak. The red-hot Sharks have climbed within five points of the Red Wings for second in the conference.
And look at who they're hosting Thursday -- none other than those very same Red Wings, who had a two-game win streak snapped with an overtime loss in Anaheim on Wednesday. Still, the Wings continue to be one of the best teams in the NHL.
In fact, it's utterly amazing how Detroit can be so far under the radar and yet be so good all the time. GM Ken Holland's lone move at the deadline was to re-sign goalie Jimmy Howard to a two-year deal, and it was the best move he could have made. Mike Modano's return this past Saturday was another key addition that cost Holland nothing but a contract he already signed.
The Sharks have been riding the hot play of goalie Antti Niemi, who also just signed a new four-year contract. Logan Couture continues to be rock solid and Patrick Marleau's production is on the rise. This one could be a dandy, and it has some playoff implications even though both teams figure to be locks now.
Where's the howl?: What is going on with the Phoenix Coyotes? They looked like world beaters just a week and a half ago and now they can't scrape together two points even when they score twice in the final 3 1/2 minutes of a close game.
The sting of Jamie Benn's goal with five seconds left Tuesday can't linger because the Kings certainly won't have any mercy on the slumping Coyotes Thursday at Staples Center. They have to be smelling blood.
Phoenix is still OK, sitting fifth with 76 points despite its 0-3-1 stretch since winning eight games in a row, but the eighth-place Kings, with 74 points, are nipping at them, just like almost every other team below them in the West. Los Angeles is coming off a 7-4 loss to Detroit on Monday, but they will look different tonight with Dustin Penner making his Kings' debut.
Penner was brought in to bolster the offense by cashing in on some goals as a physical presence in front of the net. Expect him to play on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Wayne Simmonds. If he has an immediate impact, it'll have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl