With 18 days left in the regular season, the playoff races in each conference simply are on fire. Almost 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 the games that directly can impact the playoff races.
Here is the installment for Thursday, March 24:
PITTSBURGH (42-23-8, 92 points) at PHILADELPHIA (44-19-9, 97 points)
Where they stand: The Penguins are fourth in the East; the Flyers are first in the East.
What's at stake: Philadelphia leads Pittsburgh by five points in the Atlantic Division, but Washington is just one point behind the Flyers in the race for the East's top seed. A win could give Philly some needed breathing room, but the Penguins could use the room themselves. Pittsburgh is just three points ahead of Tampa Bay for the fourth seed, which means home ice in a potential first-round playoff matchup with the Bolts.
How's it going: The Penguins have won three of their last four, including Monday's wild 5-4 shootout win in Detroit. Philadelphia has won just two of its last five, but the Flyers are still picking up points. Four of those games went to overtime or a shootout.
Upcoming: Pittsburgh returns home Friday night for a three-game homestand against New Jersey, Florida and a rematch with Philadelphia. The Flyers visit the Islanders Saturday night before hosting Boston on the second half of a back-to-back one night later.
MONTREAL (40-27-7, 87 points) at BOSTON (40-22-10, 90 points)
Where they stand: Montreal is sixth in the Eastern Conference; Boston is third in the East.
What's at stake: In an enormous game between these division rivals, the Bruins are looking to hold off the Canadiens, who are making a late charge at the Northeast crown. Boston only has a three-point lead on Montreal as the season winds down, and losing out on the division title could easily drop the B's into the bottom half of the East playoff bracket and, consequently, place them on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
How's it going: Montreal lost to Buffalo in its last game Tuesday night and has slowly started to struggle with just three wins in its past seven games. The Bruins beat up the Devils, 4-1, on Tuesday night, but prior to that had lost five of seven and appeared to be slipping after a hot end to February.
Upcoming: The Canadiens come home Saturday night to host Washington, and have one more home game -- against Atlanta -- before heading to Carolina to wrap up March. Boston hosts the Rangers Saturday afternoon before visiting Philadelphia to face the Flyers 30 hours later.
ATLANTA (30-30-12, 72 points) at NY ISLANDERS (29-33-12, 70 points)
Where they stand: The Thrashers are 11th in the East; the Islanders are 13th in the East.
What's at stake: While the Islanders appear to be out of the race, Atlanta still has hopes of getting the East's final playoff berth. The Thrashers are still a ways back, however, sitting nine points back with 10 games to play, but a win could get them one step closer to an unlikely postseason appearance.
How's it going: Atlanta has won two of its last four games, but the Thrashers have struggled throughout the second half in general, winning just one game in regulation since the All-Star Break. The Islanders have won two straight, including an impressive 5-2 win Tuesday night against Tampa Bay.
Upcoming: After Thursday's visit to New York, the Thrashers will come home for visits by Vancouver and Ottawa later this week. New York hosts Philadelphia on Saturday night before wrapping up March against its two metro-area rivals, the Devils and Rangers.
OTTAWA (27-37-9, 63 points) at NY RANGERS (40-30-4, 84 points)
Where they stand: The Senators are last in the East; the Rangers are seventh in the East.
What's at stake: After scrapping to stay in the top eight for most of the past month, the Rangers suddenly have a shot of climbing even higher in the standings. New York is just three points behind Montreal for sixth place, and if the Habs slip up in Boston, the Rangers might well be kicking at their heels.
How's it going: The Sens have been out of the race for a while now, but lately they haven't played like it. Ottawa has won five of its last eight games, toppling playoff hopefuls like New Jersey, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. New York might be playing as good as any other team in the League, winning seven of its last eight games.
Upcoming: Ottawa hosts the Capitals on Friday before hitting the road for a three-game swing through Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Florida. The Rangers head to Boston on Saturday before also visiting Buffalo, the Islanders and Philadelphia.
ANAHEIM (41-27-5, 87 points) at NASHVILLE (39-25-10, 88 points)
Where they stand: The Ducks are eighth in the West; the Predators are seventh in the West.
What's at stake: Nashville and Anaheim are separated by just one point at the bottom of the West's top eight, but Dallas and Calgary are right behind them. The primary concern for both the Ducks and Predators is just to stay in the playoff field, but because the West is so tight, a victory could also propel either team as high as fifth place if Los Angeles loses to San Jose Thursday night.
How's it going: The Ducks are playing as well as any team right now after a huge win against the Stars Wednesday night, both in the standings and psychologically. Not only did the win put Anaheim ahead of Dallas for the final postseason berth, but the nature in which the Ducks won -- Teemu Selanne scored with 6.4 seconds left to force overtime before Cam Fowler's wrister won it -- must have exacted a huge toll on a direct competitor. Nashville might be the only team as hot as Anaheim, however. The Preds, too, have won four straight.
Upcoming: After Thursday's showdown at Bridgestone Arena, the Ducks will head to Chicago on Saturday before coming home to host the Avs on Monday night. Nashville will finish a four-game homestand with games against Dallas on Saturday and then Vancouver on Tuesday.
TORONTO (33-31-10, 76 points) at COLORADO (28-36-8, 64 points)
Where they stand: The Maple Leafs are 10th in the East; the Avalanche are 14th in the West.
What's at stake: Colorado, which has already been eliminated from postseason contention, is playing out the string, but Toronto is still just five points back of eighth-place Buffalo. If the Leafs knock off the Avs, they could pull closer to the East's top eight -- and with time running out this season, they need to.
How's it going: Colorado has won two straight games thanks to the shootout, but the Avs haven't won in regulation since a victory in St. Louis on Feb. 22. The Leafs' 3-0 win in Minnesota Tuesday night was their third in their past four games.
Upcoming: After hosting Toronto, the Avs will head to California this weekend for games against Los Angeles and Anaheim. The Leafs go to Detroit on Saturday night before returning home to host the Sabres in a huge game on Tuesday.
COLUMBUS (33-29-11, 77 points) at PHOENIX (40-24-11, 91 points)
Where they stand: The Blue Jackets are 12th in the West; the Coyotes are fourth in the West.
What's at stake: Columbus is essentially out of the chase, but Phoenix, is not just in line to host a first-round series, but the Coyotes could pull within one point of San Jose for first place in the Pacific with a win depending on the outcome of the Sharks' game in Los Angeles.
How's it going: The Blue Jackets fell to the Avalanche in a shootout Tuesday night, marking the 11th time in their past 13 games they didn't come away with a win. The Coyotes beat St. Louis Tuesday night for their sixth win in the last seven games.
Upcoming: Columbus returns home to host the Canucks on Sunday and the Panthers on Tuesday night, before closing out march in Washington next Thursday. Phoenix is currently in the midst of a six-game homestand, which will also feature visits from San Jose, Dallas and Colorado.
SAN JOSE (43-23-8, 94 points) at LOS ANGELES (41-26-6, 88 points)
Where they stand: The Sharks are third in the West; the Kings are sixth in the West.
What's at stake: San Jose can pass Detroit for the No. 2 overall seed in the West with a win, while the Kings could hop Chicago to reach fifth place -- and potentially be just one point behind fourth-place Phoenix.
How's it going: The Sharks topped the fast-fading Flames on Wednesday night for their fourth victory in a row. The Kings also beat the Flames in their last game, though it came Monday night, courtesy of the shootout. L.A. hasn't won in regulation in three games, but it's still gotten the win in five of its last seven outings.
Upcoming: Thursday will be the start of a brief two-game road trip for the Sharks, who will also head to Phoenix on Saturday night before coming home to host Dallas, Anaheim and the Kings again. The Kings will close a five-game stay at the Staples Center on Saturday night against the Avalanche before hitting the road next week for stops in Edmonton and Vancouver.
Reach David Kalan at firstname.lastname@example.org