The 2012-13 season is racing toward the finish line. In fact, the regular season ends Saturday, April 27, a mere 16 days away. 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.
Teams that clinched Friday night: The Anaheim Ducks became the fourth team to assure itself of a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs when the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout. That victory also wrapped up the Central Division championship for the Blackhawks, who lead the Western Conference standings and the race for the Presidents' Trophy with 66 points.
Teams that can clinch Saturday: The Boston Bruins will clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth straight season if they claim at least one point against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Playoff positions to be claimed: 12
Days remaining in regular-season: 15
Total games remaining in regular season: 112
Philadelphia at Buffalo: The Philadelphia Flyers' playoff hopes are hanging by a thread, and a loss to the slumping Buffalo Sabres might end them. The Flyers have been outscored 7-2 this week in losses to the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators and are seven points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Vancouver at Colorado: The Vancouver Canucks have found their game at the right time -- they bring a four-game winning streak into Pepsi Center for an afternoon game against the last-place Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks have owned the Avalanche in recent years; they are 3-0-0 against Colorado this season, 10-0-0 in their past 10 meetings and 18-0-2 since Colorado's last regulation win on Oct. 3, 2009.
Montreal at Toronto: The Montreal Canadiens know they're headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs; the Toronto Maple Leafs are closing in on their first postseason berth since 2004. The Maple Leafs got three of four points against the New York Rangers this week and are a solid fifth in the Eastern Conference, while the Canadiens need a victory to keep them ahead of the Boston Bruins for first place in the Northeast Division.
New York Rangers at New York Islanders: There is a valid argument that it's been 20 years since these two rivals played a game that was this important to both teams. The Nassau Coliseum will be packed to see if the New York Islanders can continue a hot streak that has seen them go 8-1-1 in their past 10 games -- including a 2-1 road win against the Boston Bruins on Thursday that moved them two points ahead of the New York Rangers. The Rangers have had a couple of days off after a 3-2 shootout win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday and are 2-0-1 against the Islanders this season.
Tampa Bay at Washington: What a difference a month has made to the Washington Capitals, who enter their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a six-game winning streak and a two-point lead over the idle Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division. Washington extended its winning streak by beating the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 on Thursday -- capping a four-week stretch in which the Capitals caught fire after it looked like they might miss the playoffs. The Lightning come to Verizon Center after a 6-3 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday moved them another game closer to missing the postseason for the second straight season.
Boston at Carolina: The Boston Bruins face the reeling Carolina Hurricanes for the second time this week -- they won 6-2 at home on Monday. But a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders dropped the Bruins one point behind the Montreal Canadiens for the top spot in the Northeast Division. Boston center Patrice Bergeron made the trip to Raleigh as he works to return from a concussion that has kept him out for five games. Carolina is 1-13-1 in its past 15 games and has dropped seven in a row.
Pittsburgh at Florida: The Pittsburgh Penguins just keep rolling along. They are on top of the Eastern Conference standings after winning 18 of their past 20 games, including a 6-3 road victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night. The Florida Panthers, last in the Eastern Conference, are back home after being walloped 7-2 on the road by the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.
Columbus at Minnesota: The Columbus Blue Jackets delighted more than 17,000 fans at Nationwide Arena on Friday night by beating the St. Louis Blues 4-1 to move within two points of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. Now comes the hard part -- the Blue Jackets play their next six games on the road, beginning with a visit to Minnesota to face the Wild. Goals have been hard to come by for the Wild this month, and Minnesota has dropped to seventh in the West, only three points above the cut line.
San Jose at Dallas: Dealing off veterans at the NHL trade deadline gave the impression that the Dallas Stars were ready to throw in the towel this season. Instead, they've won four in a row, including a 5-2 road win against the Nashville Predators that moved them into ninth place in the Western Conference, two points out of the last playoff spot. They're back home to face the San Jose Sharks, who've been on a run of their own. San Jose comes to American Airlines Center after a 3-2 victory against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday and is one point out of fourth place with a game in hand.
Calgary at Edmonton: The Edmonton Oilers' playoff hopes are on life support, and they desperately need to beat their provincial rivals to retain any hopes of making the postseason for the first time since 2006. They'll be without forward Ales Hemsky (broken foot) for at least a week. But the Calgary Flames are among the NHL's worst road teams, have traded away their captain (Jarome Iginla) and are headed for another non-playoff season. They do come to Edmonton after a 3-2 overtime win at home against the Phoenix Coyotes on Friday.
Anaheim at Los Angeles: The Anaheim Ducks head up the highway for a rematch of their 4-3 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings this past Sunday, and they come into this edition of the Freeway Faceoff with a nine-point lead over the Kings in the Pacific Division standings. Both teams have seven games remaining, though the Ducks play five of theirs on the road. Both teams are coming off home games against the Colorado Avalanche -- Anaheim lost 4-1 on Wednesday; Los Angeles won 3-2 in a shootout the next night.
TEAMS ON THE RISE
Ottawa Senators: In a little more than 24 hours, the Ottawa Senators have turned a five-game losing streak into a two-game winning streak. The Senators lost the first four games of a seven-game trip before beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1 on Thursday, then blanking the New Jersey Devils 2-0 on Friday. Ottawa, still sixth in the Eastern Conference, wraps up its trip against the Boston Bruins on Monday, then plays five of its last six games at Scotiabank Place.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nationwide Arena has become a tough place for visiting teams. The Columbus Blue Jackets ended the St. Louis Blues' six-game winning streak with a 4-1 victory on Friday, giving them a 13-5-5 record at home. The Blue Jackets moved within two points of the eighth-place Red Wings. The bad news for Columbus: Six of its last seven games are on the road, beginning Saturday night against the Minnesota Wild.
Dallas Stars: To say that rookie Alex Chiasson has given the Dallas Stars an offensive boost would be putting it mildly. Chiasson, recalled from the Texas Stars of the AHL after Jaromir Jagr was dealt at the NHL Trade Deadline, scored his fourth and fifth goals in five games since joining Dallas as the Stars beat the Nashville Predators 5-2 on Friday night. A victory against the San Jose Sharks at home on Saturday would move the Stars past the Red Wings into eighth place in the Western Conference.
TEAMS ON THE DECLINE
New Jersey Devils: How does a team outshoot an opponent 33-11 and lose? The reeling New Jersey Devils found a way on Friday as they dominated the visiting Ottawa Senators everywhere but on the scoreboard in a 2-0 loss. New Jersey is only four points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers but has played one more game and is 0-5-4 in its past nine -- all without its best offensive player, Ilya Kovalchuk, who's still out with an injured right shoulder and not ready to return.
Detroit Red Wings: For the second night in a row, the Red Wings had to settle for one point instead of two. The Wings allowed the Chicago Blackhawks to tie the game in the final minutes of regulation and lost 3-2 in a shootout. The single point gives the Wings 45, two more than the Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets, with three more stops left before their four-game trip ends.
St. Louis Blues: The St. Louis Blues could have jumped into fourth place in the Western Conference with a road win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Instead, they allowed four unanswered goals after scoring early in the first period and left with a 4-1 defeat that kept them in sixth place and snapped their six-game winning streak. The good news for the Blues is that seven of their last eight games are at home.