Rivalry games in the final weekend of the season are going to have a huge impact on determining not only the remaining berths in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but also where the 16 teams are seeded.
There are 10 teams who have booked their reservations, while eight teams are vying for the final six spots with three days remaining in the regular season. Which eight teams make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference will be determined by Saturday night, but the final spot (or more) in the Western Conference could be up for grabs Sunday.
Call it the Race for 98 in the West -- There are four playoff berths still available in the conference and anyone who can get to 98 points is assured a bid, though that number will be lower if the ninth-place Dallas Stars do not defeat the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night.
Buffalo and Carolina will claim the final two spots in the East if they reach 93 points, while the New York Rangers are going to need some help to return to the playoffs after missing out last spring on the final day of the season.
Nashville and Phoenix are close to safe -- Both clubs need one point gained or one lost by Dallas to clinch. All three teams are in action Friday night. The best bet for the Stars is likely to chase down Anaheim or Chicago.
The Ducks are the one team that is assured a spot with 97 points thanks to their 41 non-shootout wins, so the magic number for Anaheim is two (combination of points earned and points lost by Dallas). The problem for Anaheim is the Ducks finish the season with a home-and-home against arch rival Los Angeles and the Kings are still trying to lock down fourth place and home-ice advantage in the first round.
Chicago faces an equally daunting task -- The Blackhawks might need to beat Detroit twice in the next 72 hours to have a chance to defend their championship. The Blackhawks are currently two points up on Dallas and have one more non-shootout win.
The Stars hold the next tiebreaker (points earned in head-to-head series), so if Dallas wins twice in regulation or overtime (against Colorado and Minnesota) and Chicago wins once in regulation or overtime but loses in regulation in the other contest, the Stars will claim the final spot in the West.
Not only could Los Angeles and Detroit play a direct role in keeping their rivals out of the 2011 postseason, but Minnesota could have a chance on the final day of the season to keep the franchise that left town from earning a spot.
The Rangers lost hold of their destiny with a 3-0 loss to Atlanta on Thursday, and now there will be plenty of New York residents masquerading as Thrashers fans Friday night. Carolina has not been in a top-eight position since March 5, but the Hurricanes are guaranteed a playoff berth with two wins -- provided both aren't in the shootout.
Here's how the final two available spots in the East breakdown:
- Buffalo is guaranteed a spot with a point earned in the final two games (home against Philadelphia and at Columbus). The Sabres will also be in if the Rangers do not win Saturday or if the Hurricanes lose either of their final two games.
- Carolina is guaranteed a spot with four points earned against Atlanta and Tampa Bay -- again, as long they aren't both shootout wins.
- New York needs to win Saturday against rival New Jersey, and the Rangers need Carolina to drop at least one point or for the Sabres to lose twice in regulation. The Rangers could also slide into the final spot if the Hurricanes win twice in the shootout and they beat the Devils in regulation or overtime.
Buffalo is going to own the tiebreaker against the Rangers, and Carolina will own the second tiebreaker against New York if both teams end up with the same number of non-shootout wins.
Another interesting race to monitor this weekend in the West is the battle for the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds.
Any of the five teams -- Los Angeles, Phoenix, Nashville, Anaheim, Chicago and Dallas -- could still finish in at least fifth place (Chicago and Dallas can only rise to fifth). Two of those teams will finish fourth and fifth and face each other in the first round, while the teams that slot in sixth, seventh and eighth will have to face Vancouver, San Jose and Detroit in an order that has yet to be determined.
Nashville should be considered the favorite to claim the No. 4 seed because the Predators finish with games against Columbus and St. Louis, while Phoenix has a home-and-home with the Sharks, who are still trying to claim the No. 2 seed, and Los Angeles, Anaheim and Chicago have the rivalry home-and-homes.
Vancouver has the top seed locked up, but San Jose and Detroit are battling for the second spot. The Sharks have a slight edge with a point in hand and because they are likely to be facing a less desperate team in Phoenix -- though that could change if they beat the Coyotes on Friday and the other contenders for the final four spots win.
Washington can clinch the top spot in the East with one point against Florida on Saturday or if Philadelphia does not win its final two games against Buffalo and the N.Y. Islanders. The Flyers are technically fighting on two fronts, because the Atlantic Division crown is the last of the six left unclaimed.
Pittsburgh is one point back of Philadelphia and the Penguins have road games against the Islanders and Thrashers to finish the season. One of those two teams will face Tampa Bay in the first round -- the Lightning are locked into the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup but could still grab home-ice against the Penguins but not the Flyers.
Montreal can solidify the No. 6 seed with a win Saturday against rival Toronto or if the Sabres fail to collect more than two points. The Rangers and Hurricanes could both finish seventh, but at this point both franchises will just be happy to reach the postseason, because it is more than likely that one of them won't unless the Sabres collapse.