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Playoff countdown: Must-see games down the stretch

by Corey Masisak

The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Wednesday, the League will be down to 88 games remaining on the schedule. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff qualification, playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the 12-day countdown to the end of the season April 13 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.

There are 12 days remaining in the 2013-14 NHL regular season, but there is still much to be decided and plenty to play for before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.

Seven playoff spots still need to be secured, along with three division titles. There are a couple of first-round playoff matchups that look like safe bets to happen, but the others remain in a state of flux.

Will the Boston Bruins or St. Louis Blues win the Presidents' Trophy, or will the Anaheim Ducks or San Jose Sharks make a late run? Can the Ducks hold off the Sharks to win the Pacific Division and avoid a brutal first-round series with the Los Angeles Kings?

Answers to those questions, along with what teams earn the final invitations to hockey's big dance, are coming in the next dozen days. With that in mind, here's a game-a-day look at the furious finish to the regular season.

April 2: Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings, (8 p.m., NBCSN, TSN2, RDS)

The Red Wings closed last season on a 5-1-3 run, including wins in the final four games, to extend the franchise's playoff streak to 22 seasons. Detroit has been decimated by injuries this season, but the Red Wings are rolling of late with the help of a lot of guys who played in the American Hockey League at some point in 2013-14.

Boston is trying to wrap up not only the top spot in the Eastern Conference but also the Presidents' Trophy. The Red Wings would take a huge step towards securing one of the two wild-card spots, and possibly a first-round matchup with the Bruins, by defeating Boston at Joe Louis Arena.

April 3: Columbus Blue Jackets at Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m., FS-O, CSN-PH)

The Blue Jackets made a valiant push for the playoffs a season ago but came up just short. They are in a position to make it in 2014 if they just take care of the deal on their end.

Philadelphia is trying to edge out the New York Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division and home-ice advantage in what looks like a certain opening-round series between the two teams. The Flyers are likely to face old friend Sergei Bobrovsky in this game.

April 4: Washington Capitals at New Jersey Devils (7 p.m., NBCSN, CSN-DC+)

Each team lost a critical game Tuesday night, and this is pretty much an elimination game, especially if there is a winner after 60 minutes of play. The Devils have been a strong possession team, but they are 0-11 in the shootout and poor goaltending has cost them at times.

The Capitals have the League's leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin and one of the best power-play units, but they have been a mess at even strength. Expect the Devils to have the majority of the shot attempts in this one.

April 5: Dallas Stars at Tampa Bay Lightning (2 p.m., ALT, FS-W)

The Stars have missed the playoffs the past five seasons, consistently teasing but never finishing in the top eight in the West. This Dallas team is different than recent editions, and the duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn might lead the Stars back to the postseason.

The Stars have won three straight to edge past the Phoenix Coyotes; each team has 85 points but Dallas holds the second wild card by virtue of having a game in hand. This game could be a tricky one because the Lightning are one of the hottest teams in the League and are trying to secure home-ice advantage in the first round for what appears to be a forthcoming series with the Montreal Canadiens.

April 6: Pittsburgh Penguins at Colorado Avalanche (8 p.m., RDS2, ALT, ROOT)

The Avalanche are almost certainly going to play the Chicago Blackhawks in round one unless they can catch the Blues with a huge finishing flourish. That task became tougher with the loss of elite center Matt Duchene to injury.

This game could give rookie Nathan MacKinnon a chance to prove he can handle playing center against world-class competition. He could be matched up against idol and summer workout partner Sidney Crosby in the second edition of the "Cole Harbour Bowl."

April 7: Anaheim Ducks at Vancouver Canucks (10 p.m., PRIME, SNET-P)

The Ducks have snapped out of a mini-slide just in time to still have a chance to win the division, the conference and even the Presidents' Trophy. A soft section of the schedule has certainly helped, and the Ducks are back in Vancouver to face the Canucks for the second time in as many weeks. The Canucks are mathematically alive as of Wednesday, but they might not be by the time this game starts.

April 8: Phoenix Coyotes at Columbus Blue Jackets (7 p.m., FS-A, FS-O)

There aren't many games in the final 12 days that feature teams competing for wild-card spots in opposite conferences, but here is one. The Coyotes were a great story in 2012, reaching the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Phoenix missed the playoffs last season and needs to track down Dallas or the Minnesota Wild to return to postseason play.

April 9: San Jose Sharks at Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m., NBCSN, TSN2)

Will the Pacific Division be on the line for this Wednesday night showdown? The Sharks moved in front of the Ducks by beating Anaheim 3-2 on March 20, but a 2-2-2 stretch allowed the Ducks to jump back over San Jose into the top spot.

The Sharks or Ducks have won the Pacific Division seven times since 2003-04; one of them is going to make it eight.

April 10: St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild (8 p.m., NBCSN, TSN2)

This could be a preview of a first-round matchup. The Wild are trying to ensure that they are in the playoffs for a second straight year, and they’d like to win more than one game this time. Minnesota could have acquired former Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak at the NHL Trade Deadline, but went with Ilya Bryzgalov instead.

April 11: St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars (7 p.m., CSN-CH, CSN-DC)

One night after dealing with a team likely still trying to win its way into the playoffs, the Blues will be in the same situation against the franchise that used to be based in the Twin Cities. The Blues have a tough schedule to close the season, so don’t be surprised if the Bruins or Ducks end up on top of the League standings.

April 12: Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators (7 p.m., CBC)

The Senators pretty much need to win out and get help, so their postseason chances are incredibly slim. The Maple Leafs ended their long slide with a win Tuesday against the Calgary Flames, but probably need to win at least four of their final five games to have a chance. Even if the Senators are eliminated at this point, don’t be surprised if they put forth a big effort if there is a chance for them to knock their Ontario rivals out of playoff contention.

April 13: Dallas Stars at Phoenix Coyotes (9 p.m., FS-SW, FS-A)

This could be a big one. The Stars had a chance to make the playoffs on the final day of the season in 2011 but missed when the Wild knocked them off. This could be for the final spot in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or it could help determine the positioning of the wild-card teams in the Western Conference.

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