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Stanley Cup Playoffs countdown: Lightning chasing history

Blue Jackets all in or all out, Coyotes' push among 12 storylines to watch

by Tracey Myers @TraMyers_NHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin one month from today, and aside from the Tampa Bay Lightning clinching a berth in the postseason, nothing has been decided. First place in three of the four divisions and the top spot in the Western Conference are up for grabs as are the wild cards in each conference. There will be plenty of intrigue throughout the League in the final four weeks of the regular season.

Here are 12 storylines to watch in the countdown to the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

 

Blue Jackets all in or all out 

The Columbus Blue Jackets went all in before the NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel in separate trades from the Ottawa Senators, while also holding on to forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. All four can become unrestricted free agents on July 1, so the pressure is on for Columbus, which has never won a postseason series, to make a deep playoff run. But getting to the playoffs is not a guarantee. Columbus (38-28-3) is 3-5-0 since the deadline and holds the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, tied in points with the Montreal Canadiens (79). Duchene has four points (goal, three assists) in 10 games with Columbus and Dzingel has three points, all assists, in eight games.

 

Lightning chasing history

The Tampa Bay Lightning (53-13-4) have a 17-point lead over the Boston Bruins for first place in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division. They need nine wins in their final 12 games to tie the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most victories (62) in one season. Forward Nikita Kucherov, who has 111 points (33 goals, 78 assists) through 70 games, has a chance to do something done only once before in NHL history. He could finish with 130 points on a team that finishes with 130 points. Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur had 136 points on the 1976-77 Canadiens. The 1995-96 Red Wings (131) are the only other team that finished with at least 130 points, but Sergei Fedorov was their leader with 107 points.

Video: DET@TBL: Kucherov scores to set club record

 

Bruins' torrid pace

The Boston Bruins likely will not catch the Lightning for first in the conference and division, but they have plenty to play for over the next four weeks. Boston, which had a 19-game point streak (15-0-4) end with a 4-2 loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday, leads the Toronto Maple Leafs by four points for second place in the division. With the Bruins (42-18-9) and Maple Leafs likely to face off in the Eastern Conference First Round for the second straight season, the second-place team would get home ice. Boston won Game 7 at home last season.

 

Binnington's breakout season

Jordan Binnington is a big reason why the St. Louis Blues (36-25-7) went from last place in the Western Conference on Jan. 2 to third in the Central Division. The 25-year-old rookie goalie is 16-3-1 with a 1.80 goals-against average and .929 save percentage since his first start on Jan. 7, but a playoff push is unchartered territory for Binnington, whose only other NHL start before this season came in January 2016. Is he ready for the pressure that comes with the postseason? If the calm he's displayed during the regular season continues, the Blues will be in good hands.

Video: BOS@STL: Binnington flashes glove to rob Backes

 

Islanders' run in Metropolitan Division 

There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the New York Islanders at the start of the season. Barry Trotz was named coach on June 21 and their longtime captain John Tavares signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent on July 1. But the Islanders (40-22-7) have been perhaps the biggest surprise in the NHL this season. They are two points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan. The Islanders and Capitals play at Capital One Arena on April 6, the final day of the regular season.

 

Penguins looking for lucky 13

Pittsburgh is trying to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 13th straight season but have plenty of work to do to get there. The Penguins (37-23-9) hold the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference and have a four-point lead over the Blue Jackets and Canadiens.

 

Coyotes make playoff push

When you consider the Arizona Coyotes have 330 man games lost to injury this season, it's impressive they are very much in the hunt for a wild card in the West. The Coyotes (34-30-5) have won eight of their past 10 and are one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the second wild card in the West. If the Coyotes can pull it off, it would be their first postseason appearance since 2012, when they advanced to the Western Conference Final.

Video: LAK@ARI: Grabner beats Campbell on the rush for SHG

 

Flames goalie situation 

The Calgary Flames have used Mike Smith and David Rittich on an equal basis this season. Smith is 19-13-2 with a 2.90 goals-against average and .896 save percentage in 35 games; Rittich is 23-7-5 with a 2.65 GAA and .911 save percentage in 39 games. It's worked well, with Calgary (42-20-7) one point behind the San Jose Sharks for first place in the Western Conference and Pacific Division. It will be interesting to see how coach Bill Peters plays this. Does he stay with the even split over the final 13 games of the regular season or does Smith, who has played in 19 Stanley Cup Playoff games, or Rittich, who has no postseason experience, get the bulk of the starts?

 

Stars peaking at right time

It's been an up and down season for the Dallas Stars. From forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin being called out by team president Jim Lites on Dec. 29, to newly acquired forward Mats Zuccarello breaking his arm a day after he was traded by the New York Rangers, there has been plenty of drama in Dallas. But the Stars (35-28-5), who had a four-game winning streak end on Saturday in a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, hold the first wild card in the West and are four points behind the third-place Blues in the Central Division.

 

Hurricanes' Storm Surge

The Carolina Hurricanes are in third place in the Metropolitan Division, but if they're going to clinch a playoff berth for the first time in 10 seasons, they'll have to finish strong. The Hurricanes (38-24-7) play four teams that are currently in the playoffs over the final month of the season: the Penguins (March 19), Lightning (March 21), Wild (March 23), and Capitals (March 26, 28). The postgame celebrations have been fun. Imagine if they reach the playoffs.

Video: CAR@NSH: Williams tips shot home on power play

 

Avalanche chances without Landeskog

The Colorado Avalanche made a surprise run to the playoffs last season, defeating the St. Louis Blues on the final day of the regular season to get in. But they are struggling to get back this season and now will have to do it without captain Gabriel Landeskog, who is out 4-6 weeks because of an upper-body injury. The Avalanche (30-28-12), who were tied with the Nashville Predators for first place in the Central Division on Dec. 10, are 13-20-7 since then and are two points behind the Wild for the second wild card in the West.

 

Canadiens' power failure

The Montreal Canadiens are tied in points with the Blue Jackets (79). If they're going to finish strong, the Canadiens (36-26-7) need to get their power play going. When Montreal scored a power-play goal in an 8-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday, it was their first power-play goal since Feb. 23. Of their remaining 13 games, six are on the road, and five are against teams currently in postseason position (Islanders, Thursday; Hurricanes, March 24; Blue Jackets, March 28; Winnipeg Jets, March 30; Capitals, April 4).

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