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16 teams set for Stanley Cup Playoffs

by John Kreiser

The participants for the Stanley Cup Playoffs are all set. The question of who plays whom in the opening round is still up in the air.

In the East, Florida wrapped up a playoff berth despite a 4-2 loss to Washington at Verizon Center. Both teams were assured of playoff berths when Philadelphia beat Buffalo 2-1. For the Panthers, it's their first trip to the postseason since 2000 and ends the longest playoff drought in NHL history. The win also assured the Caps of a playoff berth.

The field in the West was completed when Dallas lost 2-0 at Nashville and Colorado was beaten 5-3 at home by last-place Columbus. Those outcomes assured Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix of the final three openings in the West.

But while the 16 playoff teams are set, the only one of the eight pairings that's certain is in the East, where fourth-place Pittsburgh will play fifth-place Philadelphia in an all-Pennsylvania matchup. The others won't be settled until Saturday, when the Southeast Division winner will also be determined.

None of the four Western pairings is settled, and three teams -- Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix -- still have a chance to grab the Pacific Division title and the third seed. The Sharks topped the Kings 6-5 in a shootout in Los Angeles, giving both teams 94 points, while the Coyotes were one of two teams to have the night off. Phoenix can jump over both teams and into first place with a win on Friday in St. Louis.

Friday is a night off for everyone except the Coyotes and Blues as the League prepares for Saturday's 15-game, season-ending hockey bonanza. Here's a look at how the races in both conferences shape up following the 14 games played Thursday:


Division leaders:

New York Rangers (109 points after Thursday's 5-2 loss at Pittsburgh) still control their fate in the race for the Presidents' Trophy despite losing in Pittsburgh. The Rangers can assure themselves of first place in the overall standings by beating Washington at home on Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

Boston (100 points after Thursday's 3-1 win at Ottawa) left key players like Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron at home -- and still beat the Senators behind a 44-save performance by rookie Anton Khudobin, who was playing his first NHL game in nearly 15 months. The Bruins, locked into the second seed, tune up for the playoffs when they host Buffalo on Saturday.

Florida (92 points after Thursday's 4-2 loss at Washington) missed a chance to lock up the Southeast Division title, but did clinch its first playoff berth in 11 years despite losing to the Caps. The Panthers need one point in their home game against Carolina on Saturday to earn the first division title in franchise history.

The next five:

Pittsburgh (106 points after Thursday's 5-2 win against the New York Rangers) locked up fourth place in the East by beating the Rangers for the fourth time in a row. Pittsburgh hosts Philadelphia on Saturday to close the regular season, then again in the first two games of their playoff series.

Philadelphia (103 points after Thursday's 2-1 win against Buffalo) got a goal by Matt Read with 4:21 left in regulation to beat the Sabres, assuring the Flyers of fifth place in the East and a first-round date against Pittsburgh. Ilya Bryzgalov made 24 saves.

New Jersey (100 points after Thursday's 2-1 win at Detroit) won its fifth in a row when Petr Sykora scored his 20th of the season with 8:40 remaining in the third period. The Devils are assured of finishing sixth and will play the Southeast Division winner after ending the regular season against Ottawa on Saturday.

Ottawa (92 points after Thursday's 3-1 loss to Boston) continues to struggle down the stretch. Jason Spezza had the Senators' only goal as Ottawa lost while scoring one goal for the second time in three nights. The Senators need a point against New Jersey on Saturday to assure themselves of seventh place.

Washington (90 points after Thursday's 4-2 win against Florida) locked up a playoff berth by beating the Panthers -- though they the Caps lost goaltender Michal Neuvirth with a leg injury in the second period. Alexander Semin's late goal put the game away and gave the Caps a chance to win the Southeast Division title if they can beat the Rangers on Saturday and Florida loses to Carolina in regulation.


Division leaders:

Vancouver (109 points after Thursday's 3-2 loss at Calgary) had a chance to move into first place in the overall standings but lost a game in regulation when leading after two periods for the first time in 35 games this season when Calgary scored three times in the final 20 minutes. The Canucks finish their season against Edmonton on Saturday.

St. Louis (107 points) hosts Phoenix on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN/TSN2). The Blues can finish first in the West by winning their last two games.

Los Angeles (94 points after Thursday's 6-5 shootout loss to San Jose) knew it had clinched a playoff berth before taking the ice for its season finale, but couldn't hold a 3-1 lead and wound up losing in a shootout -- though the Kings are still atop the Pacific because they have one more non-shootout win than the Sharks. The teams finish the season in San Jose on Saturday.

The next five:

Nashville (102 points after Thursday's 2-0 win against Dallas) eliminated the Stars and jumped back into fourth place in the West as Pekka Rinne stopped 28 shots for his fifth shutout. The Predators will face either Detroit or Chicago, and they'll assure themselves of the home-ice edge if they can beat Colorado on Saturday.

Detroit (101 points after Thursday's 2-1 loss to New Jersey) fell behind the Predators by losing to New Jersey and has to avoid a regulation loss in its season-finale against Chicago on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, TSN) to stay in fifth place.

Chicago (99 points after Thursday's 2-1 shootout loss at Minnesota) lost to the Wild in a tiebreaker for the second game in a row, assuring the Hawks they will start the playoffs on the road.

San Jose (94 points after Thursday's 6-5 shootout win at Los Angeles) rallied from 3-1 and 4-3 deficits, then failed to hold a 5-4 lead before Joe Pavelski scored the only goal of the shootout. The teams meet again Saturday at the Shark Tank in the final game of the 2011-12 season.

Phoenix (93 points) locked up a playoff spot when Dallas lost. They can win the Pacific Division with victories at St. Louis and Minnesota.

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