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Down the stretch: Leafs, Hawks meet in showdown

Saturday, 03.05.2011 / 11:36 AM / Countdown to the Playoffs

By Corey Masisak - Staff Writer

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Down the stretch: Leafs, Hawks meet in showdown
There are 10 games on tap Saturday in the NHL, with seven of them having serious playoff implications.
With 37 days left in the regular season, the playoff races in each conference are simply on fire. With points at such a premium as teams jockey for position, every game has added significance. 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 Saturday, March 5:

Eight could be great: The Chicago Blackhawks are looking more like defending Stanley Cup champions by the day, and a convincing 5-2 victory Friday night against Carolina was more evidence. Now the Blackhawks will try to collect an eighth straight victory in Toronto on Hockey Night In Canada.

When this streak began the Blackhawks sat in 11th place in the Western Conference and four points shy of the top eight. Exactly two weeks later Chicago has moved to the front of the trailing pack in the West in fourth place -- still only three points clear of ninth but also a mini-slump by the Detroit Red Wings away from entertaining a push for a division title and a top three seed in the postseason.

Their opponent Saturday is also surging. The Maple Leafs are 6-0-3 in their past nine contests and each of them have been decided by one goal. New Jersey's remarkable run has garnered a lot of attention, but Toronto has completed a similar rise and is much closer to realizing the postseason goal.

The Maple Leafs were 14 points off the playoff pace at the All-Star break, but five weeks later are four points shy of eighth-place Carolina and five back of seventh-place New York with two games in hand.

Eight could be great, part two: The Blackhawks aren't the only team searching for an eighth-straight victory Saturday night. Boston plays host to struggling Pittsburgh and the Bruins, currently second in the Eastern Conference, have a chance to close the gap on Philadelphia and earn some separation from third-place Tampa Bay pending those teams' results.

This game could be more important for the Penguins. Chris Kunitz could be back, so that would give them one of their top three scorers for the first time in weeks. Pittsburgh is 3-6-4 since Evgeni Malkin was lost for the season with a knee injury and none of the wins have come in regulation. The Penguins are in danger of losing their hold on the fourth spot in the East to their rivals in Washington, so they'll take two points in any matter.

Nine would be better: As hot as the Blackhawks and Bruins are, it is the San Jose Sharks who will be looking to extend the NHL's longest winning streak on this night. San Jose's streak has already reached eight games, and the Sharks will be after win No. 9 in a row against Dallas. The Sharks were in ninth place in the West at the All-Star break -- they now are atop the Pacific Division and could have a larger lead than Detroit by the end of the night.

This is another critical game for the Stars, especially to rebound from a Friday night collapse. Dallas had won three straight and took a two-goal lead into the third period against Anaheim, but lost 4-3 in overtime. Dropping a point only cost the Stars one place in the standings, but the loss of momentum could prove far more crippling if it lingers.

Top team sputtering? The Philadelphia Flyers had an eight-point cushion for the top spot in the East just nine days ago, and a nine-point advantage on the closest division leader, but two straight losses combined with Boston's surge has left them with only a three-point lead in the race for the No. 1 seed. Philadelphia's power play is not clicking, and the Flyers have dropped four of six while trying to fight off complacency before the postseason arrives.

Buffalo is in the midst of a seven-game road trip, and will play three games in the next four days. That is notable because the eighth-place Hurricanes will not play during that span. The Sabres are three points back of Carolina, but won't have the "games in hand" to fall back on by the middle of next week. They also might be in a playoff position by then as well.

Top team sputtering, part two? Vancouver had a four-game slide in January, but three of those defeats came after regulation. The Canucks have lost six of their past 11 contests since Feb. 9 and all of them have come without claiming a point for extending the game. Just like their counterparts in the East, the first-place Canucks will be trying to keep their play crisp while waiting for the playoffs.

The Canucks will be in Los Angeles on Saturday night and the Kings have won four of five since returning to California at the end of a 10-game road trip. Marquee addition Dustin Penner will be looking for his first goal with Los Angeles and the Kings could find a little bit of breathing room between them and the teams outside the top eight with a victory.

First-round preview? If the season ended Friday, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens would square off in a juicy Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup. The Quebecois connections would dominate the headlines -- Tampa Bay is led by coach Guy Boucher and stars Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Simon Gagne.

The Canadiens have won three straight and have to think fourth place in the East is an attainable goal considering the inconsistent play of Washington and the struggles of a wounded Pittsburgh club. The Lightning are trying to fend off the Capitals, and those two franchises will meet at St. Pete Times Forum on Monday.

First-round preview, part two? Phoenix has yet to win a playoff series since moving to the desert, but the Coyotes pushed the two-time defending conference champs, Detroit, to a seven games in the first round last season. These two clubs would meet again in the first round if they were to finish in their current positions.

The Coyotes have dropped five straight contests, including four in a row to teams between fourth and 12th place in the West. The schedule is not getting any easier with a pair of games against both Vancouver and red-hot Calgary in the immediate future.

Quote of the Day

That group is not satisfied until we win a Stanley Cup. When we do win that Stanley Cup, I don't think we'll be satisfied then either. We're going to want another one. We have the group to do it. We have all the pieces. We just need to put them together.

— Ducks forward Ryan Kesler after signing a six-year extension with Anaheim this past July