Each Friday throughout the season Kevin Weekes brings you his Friday Four. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, or trends that have caught his eye.
1. Battle for top spot in the West
It's going to come down to Game No. 82 to decide the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
The Dallas Stars had a chance to clinch the Central Division and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference on Thursday, but were unable to do so. They did their part with a 4-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche, but the St. Louis Blues had a big comeback win late against the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime, 2-1.
The Stars and the Blues have identical 49-23-9 records, but the Stars have the tiebreaker, with three more regulation and overtime wins. That means the Blues need to get one more standings point than the Stars on Saturday. St. Louis plays the Washington Capitals on Saturday and the Stars play the Nashville Predators. If Dallas wins Saturday, it claims the No. 1 seed.
Nobody thought the Stars would be able to keep up this level of play in the absence of Tyler Seguin, out with an injury. Jamie Benn, if even possible, has played better. The Art Ross Trophy winner last season (who won it in the final minutes of the last game of the season) has been able to do it without his running mate. Benn scored his 40th of the season earlier in the week. Defenseman Kris Russell returned from injury Thursday; he helps their defending 5-on-5 and on their power play. Jason Spezza didn't play and call-up Jason Dickinson got his first NHL goal. The Stars continue to click in spite of injuries.
The Blues tied the game with an extra attacker before winning 2-1 in overtime after being minutes away from losing out on a chance at the division. Vladimir Tarasenko scored with 1:16 left and then again in overtime. Even if the Blues don't win the division, they'd be the No. 2 seed and host the Blackhawks in the first round. The Blues have proven this season they can beat Chicago.
The coaching staff, led by Ken Hitchcock, has done an excellent job; the Blues never self-destruct. They also have an excellent blue line when everyone is healthy. Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, to go along with Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, have helped the team tremendously.
Jake Allen and Brian Elliott have taken turns this season when the other hasn't been healthy, and they've managed to keep winning and shutting out opponents.
Video: STL@DAL: Allen lunges, smothers Roussel's shot in 1st
2. Last playoff spot in the East
The Philadelphia Flyers blew a chance to gain ground in the wild-card race on Thursday, coming back before falling to the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime. The loss, coupled with the Boston Bruins' 5-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings, has the Flyers on the outside looking in, though they have a game in hand. Detroit didn't even show up and they needed to win that game. True, they're third in the Atlantic Division, but they are anything but a lock to make the playoffs for the 25th straight season. Their finale is Saturday against the New York Rangers, who also are fighting for playoff positioning.
Prior to Thursday, Jimmy Howard had propelled the Red Wings to three straight wins, but he got no help against the Bruins. The Flyers have also stayed in it with goaltender Steve Mason's heroics recently. The Bruins face a tricky test Saturday in the Ottawa Senators, who are already eliminated from the playoffs but knocked off the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers on Thursday. The Bruins probably need to win that game in order to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
Just like the No. 1 seed in the West, the third spot in the Atlantic Division and the second wild card spot will be decided in Game No. 82.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals 4-3 in overtime for their eighth straight win and 14th in 15 games. They've locked up the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division and will host the New York Islanders or New York Rangers in the first round.
They have a plus-44 goal differential and have been on an incredible run without goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and center Evgeni Malkin. Rookie goalie Matt Murray has played like a veteran and Sidney Crosby has become the player we knew he was. Defenseman Kris Letang should be a Norris Trophy Finalist, I believe. Then you throw in the midseason additions of forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Trevor Daley, and they only get better.
The depth players for the Penguins, Tom Kuhnhackl, Conor Sheary, Matt Cullen, have been great support for Crosby, Malkin and Patric Hornqvist.
4. Florida Panthers
How about a hat tip for the Atlantic Division champions? It's only the second time they've won the division, the only previous time in 2011-12, when they lost in the first round of the playoffs. But this team can go farther.
Video: FLA@BOS: Jokinen tips in the puck top-shelf for goal
Jussi Jokinen has 58 points, part of a three-way tie for second place on the team, trailing only Jaromir Jagr with 65 points (27 goals, 38 assists) for the team lead. Defenseman Brian Campbell, 36, played in his 1,000th NHL game this week but can still produce and has flourished on a pair with Aaron Ekblad. Not only does Campbell have six goals and 25 assists, he is a plus-31, which ranks first among defensemen in the NHL and tied for third overall.
Florida has blended veterans and rookies, and coach Gerard Gallant has done a great job with them.
Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators had his 81st point on Thursday (16 goals, 65 assists) to pass former Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom for the single-season record for points by a Swedish-born defenseman. Karlsson also leads the League in assists.