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Playoff implications throughout Sunday slate

by David Kalan
With 22 days left in the regular season, the playoff races in each conference simply are on fire. Almost every game has added significance, with points at such a premium, as teams jockey for positioning. is here to give you a Down the Stretch daily that will highlight what you need to know about the games that directly can impact the playoff races.

Here is the installment for Sunday, March 20:

NY RANGERS (38-30-4, 80 points) at PITTSBURGH (41-22-8, 90 points)

Where they stand: The Rangers are seventh in the Eastern Conference; the Penguins are fourth in the East.

What's at stake: While the Rangers are still in the top eight, the bottom of the East's playoff bracket is far from settled. New York only has a two-point edge on eighth-place Buffalo and four points on ninth-place Carolina. A win, or even a regulation tie, against Pittsburgh Sunday (12:30 ET, NBC) would be valuable in helping the Rangers secure their playoff fate. Pittsburgh could need the points to keep itself at home in the first round with Tampa Bay hot on its trail. An outside shot at overtaking Philly for first in the Atlantic is also still not out of the question.

How it's going: Things are going better than they have in a long while for the Rangers. New York has won five of its last six and picked up a big 6-3 win over Montreal Friday night. The Penguins are also playing well, having won four of their last five and beating up the Senators 5-1 in their last outing Tuesday night in Ottawa.

Upcoming: New York comes home Tuesday for a soft spot on the schedule with two games against Florida and Ottawa. After Sunday's meeting with New York, Pittsburgh heads on the road for a challenging two-game stretch in Detroit Monday and Philadelphia Thursday.

NASHVILLE (37-25-10, 84 points) at BUFFALO (35-28-8, 78 points)

Where they stand: The Predators are eighth in the Western Conference; the Sabres are eighth in the East.

What's at stake: A quirk of the schedule has both eighth-place teams facing off Sunday evening and the game is going to be extremely valuable for both teams. Buffalo's lead over Carolina for the final East playoff spot is just two points. Nashville is only one point up on ninth-place Anaheim, but a win could lift the Preds up to fifth in the West.

How it's going: The Preds have started surging at just the right time, winning four of their last five games. The Sabres have been inconsistent of late, and while they've won three of their last five, they've alternated wins and losses. A more noteworthy sign of how inconsistent Buffalo has been might be its offense, which scored six goals against Ottawa last Sunday and eight against Atlanta last night, but was shutout at home against Carolina in between those wins.

Upcoming: After a brief visit to Buffalo, Nashville will return to Bridgestone Arena for an important four-game homestand against Edmonton, Anaheim, Dallas and Vancouver. Buffalo will head to Montreal Tuesday before coming back home for games against Florida and New Jersey later this week.

NEW JERSEY (33-34-4, 70 points) at COLUMBUS (33-28-10, 76 points)

Where they stand: The Devils is 12th in the East; the Blue Jackets is 12th in the West.

What's at stake: New Jersey's miracle run has taken some hits and without a win in Columbus Sunday, the Devils, who are still eight points out, could be in about as dire straits as a team can be. While the Jackets are not often mentioned in the West race, they, too, are eight points out and it would be disinenguous to assume they are done while New Jersey is not, but with four teams between them and the eighth spot, a playoff berth will be tough to come by.

How it's going: The Devils might be playing for their season after two absolutely devastating losses this week in Ottawa and at home against Washington. Those defeats were the first consecutive losses New Jersey had suffered in more than two months, but they may have been enough to derail its unlikely postseason pursuit. While the Jackets are just eight points out they have shown few signs of life lately. Columbus defeated Minnesota in overtime Saturday night, but it was just its second win in 10 games this month.

Upcoming: Sunday's game opens a crucial four-game road trip for New Jersey which will also take the Devils to Boston, Pittsburgh and Buffalo later this week. Columbus will head to Colorado Tuesday and on to Phoenix Thursday before returning home for a two-game stretch against Vancouver and Florida.

MONTREAL (39-26-7, 85 points) at MINNESOTA (35-29-8, 78 points)

Where they stand: The Canadiens are sixth in the East; the Wild are 11th in the West.

What's at stake: Montreal seems unlikely to drop out of the postseason bracket with a five-point cushion on seventh-place New York and six teams still jockeying for position behind it, but perhaps more important is that the Habs could take aim at home ice in the first round with fourth-place Pittsburgh just five points ahead. Minnesota is just six points back of Nashville for the final spot in the West, but with time running out, the Wild need to pick up wins to stay in the hunt.

How it's going: The Habs took a jarring loss in New York Friday night, giving up five goals in the first period. The game was indicative of how inconsistent Montreal has been -- winning two of its last five -- after going on an impressive five-game winning streak earlier this month. The Wild's playoff hopes are fading in a hurry. Minnesota picked up a point in an overtime loss at home against Columbus Saturday night, but the Wild had lost their previous four games in regulation.

Upcoming: The Canadiens host Buffalo Tuesday night before going to Boston Thursday and then returning to the Bell Centre to face the Capitals on Saturday. This is the second outing on a four-game homestand that will also bring Toronto and St. Louis to the Xcel Energy Center later this week.

CHICAGO (38-25-8, 84 points) at PHOENIX (39-23-11, 89 points)

Where they stand: The Blackhawks are seventh in the West; the Coyotes are fourth in the West.

What's at stake: Chicago is in the top eight and in line to defend its Cup, but just one point separates the Hawks from ninth place. Every win will be crucial if the Blackhawks are to have any shot at gunning for a repeat. Phoenix appears safe for now, but with the Sharks, a division title and the third seed just three points ahead, the Coyotes have plenty to play for in the season's final weeks.

How it's going: The Blackhawks have won just one of their last five games, including a brutal 5-0 loss in Dallas Thursday, that has jeopardized their playoff status. The Coyotes, meanwhile, have heated up once again, winning five straight games, the last four of which all came on the road. Phoenix hasn't lost in regulation in 17 days.

Upcoming: Chicago comes home Wednesday to host Florida and then Anaheim later in the week before going on a three-game trek to Detroit, Boston and Columbus. Sunday's game opens a six-game homestand that will also see visits from St. Louis, Columbus, San Jose, Dallas and Colorado.

CALGARY (37-27-9, 83 points) at ANAHEIM (39-27-5, 83 points)

Where they stand: The Flames are 10th in the West; the Ducks are ninth in the West.

What's at stake: Both Calgary and Anaheim sit just outside the top eight with 83 points -- just one point back of eighth-place Nashville -- but the Flames have played more games than any other team in the chase for the final spots, meaning they absolutely need to pull a win out of what is essentially a four-point game Sunday night. For the Ducks the stakes are no different. Anaheim is outside the postseason field, but could climb as high as fifth with a win.

How it's going: The Flames' 5-2 win against Colorado Thursday was their first in regulation in 11 days. Prior to that Calgary had lost three straight. The Ducks had a big 2-1 overtime victory over the Kings Saturday night in L.A., giving them four wins in their last five games.

Upcoming: Sunday's game is the opener of a four-game swing for Calgary that will also take it to L.A., San Jose and Edmonton. Anaheim will go on the road Wednesday to open a big three-game trip to Dallas, Nashville and Chicago.
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