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Playoff Countdown: Questions abound in final week

by Brian Compton

The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Sunday, the League is down to 55 games remaining on the schedule, with three to be played Monday. 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 seven-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.

The 2013-14 regular season ends Sunday, but there are still plenty of questions that need answers in the final week of games before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16.

We know the Boston Bruins are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but the St. Louis Blues have not secured that spot in the West. The Anaheim Ducks, who led the Pacific Division for much of the season, could still finish second in the division and be faced with the task of playing their heated rival, the Los Angeles Kings, in the first round.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, who were in prime position to make the playoffs for much of the season, are in serious danger of seeing their season end Saturday night.

Here are seven questions to be answered in the final week of the regular season:

1. Who gets the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference? -- A handful of teams are still in the mix for a wild-card spot, including the New Jersey Devils, who have managed to stick around despite being 0-11 in shootouts this season. The Detroit Red Wings seem primed to land the first wild card and earn a berth in the playoffs for the 23rd straight season. But the Devils, Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals are separated by four points.

2. Who gets the final playoff spot in the Western Conference? -- The Dallas Stars moved past the Phoenix Coyotes and into the second wild-card spot when they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. The Stars failed to extend their lead when they lost 3-2 to the Florida Panthers on Sunday. Phoenix, which hasn't scored more than two goals in regulation since March 25 (a span of five games), will host the Stars next Sunday, the final day of the regular season. That game at Arena may very well determine which team gets into the postseason.

3. Which teams get home-ice advantage in the Atlantic Division? -- It's basically a foregone conclusion that the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning will face each other in a first-round matchup, but which team will host Game 1? The Canadiens have won eight of their past 10 games and have built a four-point lead on the third-place Lightning, but Tampa Bay has a game in hand. The Lightning can inch a bit closer Tuesday, when they'll host the Maple Leafs. Montreal is idle until Wednesday, when it visits the Chicago Blackhawks.

4. Which teams get home-ice advantage in the Central Division? -- In another heated race, the Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche are battling to determine which team will host Game 1 in their likely first-round matchup. Colorado, one of the surprise stories of the 2013-14 season, has a two-point lead on Chicago for second place in the Central with a game in hand. Chicago is forced to play its remaining regular-season games without star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, though they're expected back for the playoffs.

5. Who wins the Pacific Division? -- The Ducks and San Jose Sharks have been going back and forth in recent weeks in an exciting race for first place. The winner faces a wild-card team in the first round, and the second-place finisher gets an awfully tough opponent in the Kings. San Jose had a golden opportunity to pass the Ducks on Saturday, but fell short in a 3-0 loss on home ice to the Nashville Predators. Anaheim, which has a game in hand, returned the favor Sunday night, losing 4-2 to the Edmonton Oilers to start a two-game road trip and failing to build on its one-point lead. The Ducks play at the Vancouver Canucks on Monday before their showdown against the Sharks on Wednesday in Anaheim.

6. Can Ovi get one more? -- With four games remaining on the Washington Capitals' schedule, captain Alex Ovechkin is one goal shy of scoring 50 goals in a season for the fifth time in his career. Ovechkin, who last scored 50 in 2009-10, is the only player with a realistic chance of reaching that plateau this season; Ducks forward Corey Perry has 42 goals with four games left.

7. Can the Blue Jackets catch the Philadelphia Flyers? -- It wasn't too long ago the Flyers were focused on catching the Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Though they trail New York by two points with a game in hand after a 5-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday, Philadelphia must be wary of the Blue Jackets, who are two points behind the Flyers for third place in the division. A New York-Columbus matchup in the first round would certainly be intriguing given Rick Nash's history with the Blue Jackets.


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