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.
Teams that clinched Thursday: None. The Vancouver Canucks could have clinched a spot with a victory, but lost 5-1 to the Dallas Stars.
Teams that can clinch Friday: In the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins can clinch the No. 1 seed if they defeat the Boston Bruins in any fashion.
Playoff positions to be claimed: 11
Days remaining in regular-season: 10
Total games remaining in regular season: 69
Pittsburgh at Boston: The Pittsburgh Penguins need one more victory to lock up first place in the Eastern Conference, and they'd like nothing more than to end any suspense by completing a sweep of the season series against the Boston Bruins. While the Penguins have had the Atlantic Division title locked up for weeks, Boston enters the night one point behind the Montreal Canadiens in the race for the Northeast Division title, though the Bruins have two games in hand.
New York Rangers at Buffalo: The Buffalo Sabres have kept their flickering playoff hopes alive by winning their past three games, including a 3-2 shootout victory at Boston on Wednesday. If they're going to have any hope of catching the eighth-place New York Rangers, they need a regulation victory at First Niagara Center; that would move them within two points of the Rangers, who would still have a game in hand. Anything less than that and the Sabres' hopes are gone.
Dallas at St. Louis: Both teams are playing the second half of back-to-backs, but the St. Louis Blues have the advantage of not having to travel after beating the Phoenix Coyotes 2-1 in a shootout. That victory gave the Blues 52 points -- five more than the ninth-place Dallas Stars and 10th-place Red Wings. The Stars kept their playoff hopes alive by beating the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 at home on Thursday.
Nashville at Chicago: The Chicago Blackhawks have already locked up the Central Division and Western Conference titles, but they need to keep winning to assure themselves of the Presidents' Trophy and home ice for as far as they go in the playoffs. Nashville is already looking toward next season.
Anaheim at Calgary: The Anaheim Ducks still have the inside track to the Pacific Division title, but not if they don't snap out of their recent funk. The Ducks start a four-game road trip with a stop at Scotiabank Saddledome, where the Calgary Flames are closing out their home schedule. It could be the last home start for goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who led the Flames within a victory of the Stanley Cup in 2004. Kiprusoff has struggled this season, but he turned back the clock on Wednesday by making 36 saves in Calgary's 3-2 victory against the Red Wings.
Teams on the rise:
Ottawa Senators: They're still missing star defenseman Erik Karlsson and first-line center Jason Spezza, but the Ottawa Senators are closing in on a postseason berth. The Senators dominated the Washington Capitals in a 3-1 victory on Thursday night, snapping the Caps' eight-game winning streak and extending their own streak to four consecutive victories. With 52 points, the Senators are sixth in the Eastern Conference but trail the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs by one as they prepare for this season's final edition of the Battle of Ontario on Saturday night at Scotiabank Place.
St. Louis Blues: The St. Louis Blues are raising winning ugly to an art form. They've won two games this week, beating the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday and the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday by the same score -- 2-1 in a shootout. With 52 points, the Blues are in excellent shape to make the playoffs, and even to move up from sixth place. Their next three games after Friday are a home-and-home with the last-place Colorado Avalanche and a visit by the 14th-place Calgary Flames, giving the Blues a chance to pad their point total before the Chicago Blackhawks come to town next Saturday in the regular-season finale.
Winnipeg Jets: Like the Blues, the Winnipeg Jets won't get any points for style -- but they're more than happy to keep piling up standings points. The Jets won their fifth in a row on Thursday night by beating the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 in overtime, though for the second straight game, they had to go past regulation time after blowing a two-goal lead in the third period. They have 48 points, the same as the eighth-place New York Rangers (who have a game in hand) and three fewer than the seventh-place New York Islanders. The Jets' fate will be decided in their next three games -- they host the Islanders on Saturday before back-to-back visits to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday and Washington Capitals on Tuesday.
Teams on the decline:
Toronto Maple Leafs: Maybe it was fatigue -- the Toronto Maple Leafs were playing their third game in four days and fourth in six when the New York Islanders came to Air Canada Centre on Thursday. Whatever the reason, the Maple Leafs saw an early 2-0 lead vanish before the first period was over and wound up losing 5-3 -- their second loss in three days and the third time this week they've been badly outplayed. Toronto is still fifth in the Eastern Conference, but the sixth-place Ottawa Senators are just one point behind heading into Saturday's visit to Scotiabank Place.
Vancouver Canucks: The Vancouver Canucks' quest to wrap-up a playoff berth will last another couple of days. The Canucks finished a five-game road trip with a 5-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday; they allowed four third-period goals to the Stars. The only positive from the loss is that they'll get a chance to clinch the playoff berth in front of the home folks when the Red Wings come to Rogers Arena on Saturday night.
Buffalo Sabres: Watching and waiting can be the worst part of a playoff race; that certainly was the case for the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. The Sabres started the night two points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers and ninth-place Winnipeg Jets -- only to see both teams win their games. To make things even worse, the seventh-place New York Islanders and sixth-place Ottawa Senators also won. The Sabres probably need to win all four of their remaining games in regulation to have a chance -- they do have one meeting each with the Rangers and Jets.