With 33 days left in the regular season the playoff races in each conference simply are on fire. Every game has added significance, with points at such a premium, as teams jockey for positioning. NHL.com is here to give you a Down the Stretch daily that will highlight what you need to know about that night's games.
Here is the installment for Wednesday, March 9:
The Hurricanes caught a break Tuesday when the Penguins edged Buffalo in Pittsburgh. As a result, Carolina can jump back into eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a win against Atlanta on Wednesday at the RBC Center.
Carolina led Buffalo by three points when it last played (a 5-2 loss in Chicago on Friday), but watched the Sabres win two of three over the last four days.
The Hurricanes, though, might benefit from their late-season break. For instance, goalie Cam Ward
had started 24 games before giving way to Justin Peters
in Chicago, so the five days off hopefully were beneficial to him as Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice
hinted that Ward will start the final 16 games of the regular season -- health permitting, of course.
Atlanta also caught some breaks Tuesday thanks to regulation losses by New Jersey and Buffalo and the overtime loss by Toronto. The Thrashers can move within five points of a playoff spot and one point of 10th place in the Eastern Conference with a win Wednesday. If they make it a regulation win they'll be four points out of ninth.
The Thrashers can have a direct impact on the race and influence their competitors' playoff hopes over the next 11 days because not only do they play Carolina on Wednesday, but they play New Jersey twice and Buffalo once. Ten of their final 16 games are on the road, however, including five in a row bridging March into April.
Richards could return in battle for fourth: Brad Richards
plans to give it a go Wednesday morning in Dallas, and according to the Dallas Morning News, if he comes through the skate without any recurrence of post-concussion symptoms, there's a good chance he will return to the Stars' lineup Wednesday night against Calgary.
Richards has missed 10 games with concussion symptoms, but he told the newspaper that he's "going to the arena as a player" Wednesday. Richards' timing -- should he come through the morning skate OK -- couldn't be better as the Stars have a chance to move into fourth place in the Western Conference on Wednesday. They were ninth just six days ago.
The Stars have to win and hope Chicago loses to the Lightning in Tampa. Dallas trails the Blackhawks by a point but has a game in hand. Calgary also can take over fourth place Wednesday with a win coupled with a Blackhawks regulation loss. The Flames were in eighth place as recently as March 3.
Dallas and Calgary each bring two-game winning streaks into Wednesday's meeting. The Stars are 5-0-1 in their last six games while the Flames are 4-1-0 in their last five. Calgary has won all three of their games against Dallas this season.
While Richards might return, Calgary definitely will be without its top-line center as Brendan Morrison
(knee) likely will remain out at least another 2-3 weeks. Morrison hurt his knee late in last Wednesday's loss in Chicago.
Dallas' Jamie Benn
and Calgary's Jarome Iginla
each bring four-game goal-scoring streaks into the game.
Back on the beam:
The Blackhawks have no time to waste dissecting why, despite outshooting Florida by almost a 3-to-1 margin (39-15), their eight-game winning streak ended Tuesday against the Panthers. Instead, they traveled to Tampa after the game, and they'll take on the slumping Lightning on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS) at the St. Pete Times Forum.
With a win Chicago will retain fourth place in the West and potentially move within four points of Detroit for first in the Central Division. The Red Wings, who have six more points than Chicago, host Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Chicago goalie Corey Crawford
, who made his 12th straight start Tuesday, was pulled after giving up three goals on eight shots in the first period. Marty Turco
faced only seven shots over the final 40 minutes and stopped them all. As of early Wednesday morning there was no indication if Turco or Crawford will start Wednesday.
No matter who starts in Chicago's net, the Lightning are hoping to find their offense and perhaps move back into first place in the Southeast Division, though they would need Edmonton to win in regulation at Washington. The Lightning trail Washington by two points, but have a game in hand on the Capitals.
Tampa Bay has scored just five goals during its 0-3-1 stretch and just nine goals in its last six games; the Lightning had eight against Phoenix on Feb. 23, the game before this current skid began. Steven Stamkos
, stuck on 41 goals, hasn't scored since that 8-3 win against the Coyotes. Stamkos and Martin St. Louis
have a combined 2 points and minus-9 rating in the last four games.
East meets West in critical clash:
The Rangers will stay seventh in the East no matter what happens Wednesday at Anaheim, but this is no time to stay content. Anaheim has its own race to deal with and it starts the day 11th in the Western Conference, but that could change by the end of the night.
Anaheim could climb to ninth and within a tiebreaker of eighth, but it has to win and hope the Kings lose to Detroit in regulation. The Ducks then would own the non-shootout wins tiebreaker against the Kings, but Minnesota would have it on both of them and therefore jump to eighth without playing.
Ducks goalie Ray Emery
could make his season debut Wednesday as All-Star Jonas Hiller
continues to suffer symptoms from vertigo. Emery was recalled from Syracuse of the American Hockey League on Tuesday after winning back-to-back games for the Crunch. He hasn't played an NHL game in more than 13 months.
The Rangers control their own destiny and they're hoping to build on a rousing 7-0 win Sunday against Philadelphia. They remain seventh in the East, three points ahead of the ninth-place Hurricanes, but they'll know by the time the puck drops at Honda Center if Carolina beat Atlanta to move into eighth.
Wings looking for winning feeling:
The team with a lot at stake Wednesday in Detroit is the Los Angeles Kings
, considering they are in the middle of the wild West playoff race. However, the Red Wings are winless in their last three games (0-1-2) and are starting to see the Blackhawks in their rearview mirror.
Detroit enters Wednesday with a six-point lead on the Hawks that could be anywhere from four to eight points by the end of the night. More than anything, though, the Red Wings just want a win, something they haven't gotten since beating the Kings 7-4 in Los Angeles on Feb. 28.
The Wings went through a long practice Tuesday after taking Sunday and Monday off following their West Coast trip. Defenseman Brian Rafalski
, who has missed five games with back spasms, told the Detroit Free Press that he is progressing but still has no target date for his return.
The eighth-place Kings clearly have more to play for Wednesday. They will move up with a win, but possibly only one spot depending if the Flames and Stars play a three-point game in Dallas. They definitely will move down with a loss and it could be all the way to 10th depending on the outcome of the Rangers-Ducks game in Anaheim.
The Capitals can jump to second place in the Eastern Conference or potentially fall to second place in the Southeast Division.
Washington will move into second place in the conference with a win or an overtime/shootout loss to the Oilers at Verizon Center. If they lose in regulation and the Lightning beat Chicago, the Capitals will fall to second in the Southeast and fifth in the conference.
The Capitals, who have won five in a row, enter the game in third place with 84 points, the same as the idle Bruins. The Capitals last won six in a row from Oct. 30-Nov. 11. They haven't had as much as a four-point lead in the Southeast Division since Dec. 10, when they had a five-point advantage on Tampa Bay. The Capitals have trailed the Lightning by as many as six points.
Making matters harder, the Caps might be without star center Nicklas Backstrom
and goaltender Michal Neuvirth
, neither of whom skated Wednesday morning.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl