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Thursday pivotal with final playoff berths up for grabs

by Adam Kimelman /

With 11 games on the NHL schedule Thursday, it's a pivotal day for many of the teams either in Stanley Cup Playoff hunt or looking to keep their postseason hopes alive.

All eight teams in the Eastern Conference could be decided by the end of games Thursday, as the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers both can clinch their playoff spots with victories Thursday -- the Senators at the Winnipeg Jets, the Rangers at the Carolina Hurricanes.

If either of those teams fails to get two points, the Winnipeg Jets' flickering playoff hopes could remain alive. The Jets, who host the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, will be the first team to play all 48 games. For them to get into the playoffs, they need to gain more points against the Canadiens than the Rangers do in their final two games (Thursday at Carolina, Saturday at home against the New Jersey Devils) or the Senators do in their final three (Thursday at Washington, at home Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers, Sunday at the Boston Bruins).

If the Jets lose in regulation, the Rangers and Senators would clinch playoff spots regardless of whether they win or not Thursday.

While the Jets are desperate for points, the Canadiens also need a win to stay in the race for the Northeast Division title and the second seed in the conference.

The Canadiens, who have won once in their past six games, enter their game tied with the Boston Bruins with 59 points, but the Bruins have played one fewer game, allowing them to hold the lead heading into their game Thursday at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the middle of the conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders head into their games Thursday fighting for playoff positioning. The Maple Leafs, who play at the Florida Panthers, are fifth in the East, one point ahead of the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Maple Leafs also need a win to remain alive for the Northeast Division title; a loss would mean the highest they could finish is fifth in the conference.

In the Western Conference, much hinges on the game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.

Entering their game, the Blue Jackets are ninth in the West, one point behind the eighth-place Detroit Red Wings. The Stars are 10th, three behind Columbus and four behind Detroit.

For the Stars to stay alive in the playoff chase they need to beat the Blue Jackets in regulation -- something they haven't done in two previous meetings this season -- and have the Nashville Predators beat the Red Wings in regulation.

They'll be rooting for the Stars on Thursday in Minnesota -- a Stars regulation win would clinch a playoff spot for the idle Wild.

For the Blue Jackets to remain in playoff contention, they need to gain at least one point against the Stars. A victory, combined with a regulation loss by the Red Wings, would vault the Blue Jackets back into eighth place in the West and allow them to go into their final game with a shot at the second playoff berth in franchise history.

However, the Red Wings can end all the suspense Thursday with a win against the Predators. Any defeat of the Predators, combined with a win by the Stars, would put Detroit in the postseason for the 22nd straight season. The Red Wings also can clinch if they gain a point against the Predators, as long as the Stars beat the Blue Jackets in regulation.


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