Thursday's heavy slate could provide playoff clarity
All 16 playoff spots -- if not the actual seedings -- could be decided at the conclusion of Thursday's games.
The biggest game of the night will take place at Verizon Center between the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers. All the Panthers have to do to secure the Southeast Division and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference is earn a point. Florida can clinch a playoff berth -- but not the division title -- if they lose in regulation to Washington and if the Buffalo Sabres lose to the Philadelphia Flyers in a game that will take place at the same time.
The Capitals still have an outside chance at claiming their fifth straight division title, but they will need to win their final two games and have the Panthers lose their final two games in regulation to make it happen. More important to the Caps is staving off the Sabres for the No. 8 seed. If the Caps win and the Sabres lose in Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Caps will secure a playoff spot.
The Sabres-Flyers contest at Wells Fargo Center also has tremendous bearing on the East playoff picture. A Sabres win coupled with a Capitals loss will move the Sabres into eighth place, but a loss can mean the end of their season.
The fifth-place Flyers can climb to fourth, but will need to win their final two games and have the Pittsburgh Penguins earn one point or less in their final two contests. The sixth-place New Jersey Devils can still overtake the Flyers for fifth, but the Flyers need to finish 0-2-0 while the Devils win their last two games.
The battle for the postseason in the East isn't all that's at stake during 14 games Thursday. Here are all the games that will affect the playoff picture:
San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings -- In by the far the biggest game in the West, the Kings can take control of the Pacific Division with a win at Staples Center. If the Kings win in regulation/OT and the Coyotes lose to the Blues on Friday night, the division and No. 3 seed belongs to Los Angeles. If the Kings simply take this game beyond regulation, that point will earn them a playoff spot. The eighth-place Sharks need to sweep this home-and-home with the Kings in order to have a chance at winning the division. A Sharks victory of any kind would guarantee them a playoff spot.
Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators -- To keep their hopes alive for the postseason, the Stars must win in Nashville, where they rolled to a 4-1 victory earlier this season. The ninth-place Stars are three points out of eighth and must get help from the Kings or their season could end. Meanwhile, the Predators remain locked in a battle for the No. 4 spot in the West with the Detroit Red Wings. The fifth-place Preds are point back, but own the tiebreaker. The idle Phoenix Coyotes will clinch a playoff spot if Dallas loses in regulation.
New Jersey Devils at Detroit Red Wings -- The Devils appear locked into the No. 6 spot in the East, but could climb to fifth by winning their final two games and having the Flyers lose their last two in regulation. The Red Wings are simply trying to earn home-ice in the first round, and they would do just that with a win and a loss by Nashville in regulation.
New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins -- This looked to be a massive game for both teams as little as a week ago. Instead, the Rangers have clinched the No. 1 seed in the East while the Penguins have a magic number of two for securing the No. 4 spot. The Rangers, who can win the Presidents' Trophy with a victory and a regulation loss by the Vancouver Canucks, will likely start backup goaltender Martin Biron.
Vancouver Canucks at Calgary Flames -- The only thing on the line here is the Presidents' Trophy for the Canucks and the chance to move four points ahead of the Blues for the top seed in the West. The Blues own the tiebreaker, but if the Canucks earn three points in their final two games, home-ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs is theirs for the second straight year.
Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild -- The Blackhawks enter Thursday in sixth place, but they can still finish fourth by winning their final two games and getting some help from New Jersey and Dallas. The Blackhawks face the Red Wings in Saturday's season finale. They can't look past the Wild, though, who are 3-0-1 in their past four games.
Boston Bruins at Ottawa Senators -- The Bruins have nothing left to gain this season -- they will be the No. 2 seed in the East no matter what happens the rest of the way. The seventh-place Senators will be the Bruins' first round opponent as long as they earn at least a point in their final two games or the Capitals lose one of their two final games.