The push to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs is in high gear with less than two weeks left in the regular season. The stakes have been raised and the games are of greater magnitude.
Here are the CFP Keys to Success for teams either holding on to precious playoff positions or trying to improve their place in the standings:
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
The New York Rangers will clinch a playoff berth with a regulation or overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday at PNC Arena (7 p.m. ET; MSG, FS-CR, NHL.TV). The Rangers lead the Pittsburgh Penguins by one point for second place in the Metropolitan Division and have their eyes on home-ice advantage for the Eastern Conference First Round.
"To be able to get into the playoffs you have to be playing good hockey," coach Alain Vigneault told BlueshirtsUnited.com. "There's no team that's getting in that hasn't played well. Now we can clinch, and after that if we can get home ice that's something we're going to strive to do, but we can only do that by continuing to play well."
Video: PIT@NYR: E. Staal buries Hayes' perfect feed
Forward Eric Staal will face the Hurricanes for the first time since New York acquired him on Feb. 28. Staal appears to be heating up at the right time. He scored twice in a 3-2 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday in his second game at left wing after having a goal and two assists in his first 12 games with the Rangers playing center. The Rangers are hoping Staal has found his comfort zone to the left of center Kevin Hayes and right wing Jesper Fast.
"It takes a little time, probably longer than I would have hoped, but every game and every day I'm feeling more comfortable and more confident with the way I can help this team," Staal said. "I feel like I will be able to do that going forward."
The Florida Panthers are even in points with the Tampa Bay Lightning (93) in the battle for first place in the Atlantic Division, but the Lightning hold the top spot with a 41-35 advantage in regulation/overtime wins after the Panthers' 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Because the Detroit Red Wings lost to the Montreal Canadiens, Florida's magic number to clinch a playoff berth is five.
"We just have to regroup," forward Jaromir Jagr said. "There's always next game. It's not like we lost and we're out of the playoffs. We have to forget about it and get ready for next game. It's going to be even bigger."
Video: FLA@BOS: Trocheck rips in a shorthanded goal
The Panthers' finish to the regular season, which continues against the New Jersey Devils at BB&T Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; MSG+2, FS-F, NHL.TV), got tougher with the loss of forward Vincent Trocheck on Tuesday with what the Miami Herald reported as a non-displaced fracture in his ankle. Trocheck was injured blocking a shot. He is expected to be in a cast for 10 days and won't return before the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Key for the Panthers is finding a way to secure first place without Trocheck, who has 25 goals and 53 points. Nick Bjugstad will move up to center the second line between Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith, and forward Rocco Grimaldi was recalled from Portland of the American Hockey League.
"He was our best player for a long time, so it's tough," Jagr said. "Not only we lost this game, we lost our best player. Hopefully somebody else is going to step up. He was playing so well and the whole line was playing so good."
Though the Lightning's quest to finish first in the Atlantic is likely to last for the rest of the season, they can clinch a playoff spot with any combination of four points gained by them or lost by the Red Wings. But they will be without one of their most reliable defenseman, Anton Stralman, for the next 4-6 weeks because of a fractured left fibula. Stralman was injured last Friday in a 7-4 victory against the New York Islanders.
Video: TBL@NJD: Carle pushes lead to four in the 3rd period
Key to the Lightning's success is defensemen Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr stepping up while playing additional minutes. Stralman has nine goals, tops among Lightning defensemen, to go with his 99 hits, 73 blocks and a plus-16 rating while averaging 22:05 of ice time.
"It's not just Anton's 22 minutes a night, it's the importance of those minutes," associate coach Rick Bowness told the Tampa Tribune. "He plays the power play, the penalty kill and goes against the best lines every night. Now that responsibility has shifted to a few guys.
"What we don't expect is for anyone to get out of their game because of Anton's absence. We don't ask for anything more than they can give."
The Lightning play the Montreal Canadiens at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; RDS, SNE, SUN, NHL.TV).