Playoff Primer April 18: Leafs, Canucks can clinch
The 2012-13 season is racing toward the finish line. In fact, the regular season ends Sunday, April 28. Although the finish line is clearly in sight, the Stanley Cup Playoffs qualification picture is far less clear. To help make sense of the numerous permutations that exist for the playoffs, NHL.com's Playoff Push Primer looks at some of the biggest movers and shakers among the postseason hopefuls.
N.Y. Islanders at Toronto: Each team is looking to end playoff droughts this season; the seventh-place New York Islanders haven't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007 and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who currently sit fifth in the East, last participated in the postseason back in 2004. Thursday marks the beginning of a five-game road trip for New York; Toronto will be aiming to bounce back from Tuesday's 5-1 loss to the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center.
Florida at N.Y. Rangers: Many believed the acquisition of Rick Nash was the final piece to the New York Rangers' championship puzzle. Instead, with six games remaining on their schedule, they're fighting for their playoff lives. The eighth-place Rangers fell three points behind the Islanders on Tuesday and enter Thursday's action tied with the Winnipeg Jets at 46 points, but the Blueshirts have a game in hand.
Tampa Bay at Montreal: What's happened to the Montreal Canadiens? All the things that made them so successful for much of the season have seemingly vanished in the past week, as Michel Therrien's club dropped its third straight in a 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. The latest setback saw Montreal fall from second to fourth in the conference, as the Boston Bruins have moved back atop the Northeast Division.
Washington at Ottawa: A big game for both teams, as the Washington Capitals continue their push for a Southeast Division crown and the Ottawa Senators try to hold on to sixth place in the East. Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin is guiding the Caps' late-season surge -- they've won eight in a row -- as he leads the NHL with 28 goals. The Senators, meanwhile, have won three straight and are 14-3-3 at Scotiabank Place.
New Jersey at Philadelphia: The New Jersey Devils have lost 10 in a row since Martin Brodeur won his 666th career game and Ilya Kovalchuk suffered a shoulder injury, and have dropped to 12th place in the East. Kovalchuk told reporters he would join the team on the ride down the New Jersey Turnpike and participate in Thursday's morning skate, but coach Peter DeBoer later said that would not be the case. The Philadelphia Flyers, meanwhile, have won back-to-back games to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. They enter Thursday's action five points behind the Rangers and Jets.
Carolina at Winnipeg: The Jets are hoping their favorable schedule will guide them into the playoffs, as Thursday marks the fifth of a six-game homestand. Winnipeg has won four straight games and has earned 20 regulation/overtime victories, three more than the eighth-place Rangers. If the ROW tiebreaker is required, it's certainly looking as though it will fall in the Jets' favor.
Phoenix at St. Louis: The St. Louis Blues have won seven of their past 10 games and enter Thursday's action in seventh place in the Western Conference. Much of their recent success has to do with the play of goaltender Brian Elliott, who is 6-1-0 in his past seven appearances with a 1.00 goals-against average, .963 save percentage and three shutouts. The Phoenix Coyotes appear to be on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in four years. They're in 11th place in the West with 43 points.
Vancouver at Dallas: Five games remain on the Vancouver Canucks' regular-season schedule and four points separate them and the Minnesota Wild in the Northwest Division standings. The Canucks have fared well in Dallas of late -- they're 4-0-1 in their past five games at American Airlines Center. Despite trading away several big pieces at the NHL Trade Deadline, the Dallas Stars remain alive in the playoff race. The Stars, who saw their five-game winning streak come to an end Monday in a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, are four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final playoff spot in the West.
Columbus at Los Angeles: Are the Blue Jackets destined to make the playoffs? The resilient bunch earned a hard-fought, 3-2 overtime win against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday and moved into sole possession of eighth place in the West, two points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings. The Los Angeles Kings enter Thursday's action in a heated battle for fourth place in the West with the San Jose Sharks, as each team has 53 points -- two more than No. 6 Minnesota.
Minnesota at San Jose:Mike Yeo's club has won back-to-back games and still has a chance at catching Vancouver for the Northwest Division crown (they trail the Canucks by four points), but the Wild can at least move into fifth place with a regulation win against the Sharks. The Sharks have also won their past two games as they attempt to move past the Kings and into fourth place, which guarantees home-ice advantage in the opening round.
Teams on the rise:
Boston Bruins: The Bruins experienced an incredibly emotional night at TD Garden on Wednesday, a little more than 48 hours after the Boston Marathon bombing. Boston was unable to come away with a victory against the Buffalo Sabres, but the Bruins did collect a point and moved ahead of Montreal and into first place in the Northeast Division. The Bruins and Canadiens are tied at 57 points apiece, but the B's have a game in hand. Boston will play four of its final six regular-season games on home ice.
Teams on the decline:
Montreal Canadiens: For a third straight game, the Canadiens saw their starting goaltender pulled. On Wednesday, it was Peter Budaj who took a seat after allowing three goals on nine shots in a 6-4 loss at Pittsburgh. Montreal, which lost its grip on the Northeast Division lead Wednesday, has been outscored 18-8 in its past three contests.
Detroit Red Wings: Hard to imagine the Stanley Cup Playoffs without the Red Wings, but there's a chance of that happening as they fell into ninth place Wednesday after a 3-2 loss to the Calgary Flames, combined with Columbus' come-from-behind victory at Anaheim. Detroit, 3-5-2 in its past 10 games, has to go to Vancouver on Saturday before beginning a three-game homestand Monday.