The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Wednesday, the League is down to 37 games remaining on the schedule, with 11 to be played Thursday. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff qualification, playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the four-day countdown to the end of the season April 13 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, NHL.com will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.
The eight teams that will represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been decided, with the final two punching their tickets Wednesday night.
For the 23rd consecutive postseason, the Detroit Red Wings will have an opportunity to play for the championship. Detroit clinched a playoff berth Wednesday by earning a point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, meanwhile, will compete in the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Columbus clinched a spot with a 3-1 win against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.
There is still much to be determined, however. Playoff matchups still need to be determined in each conference, and one postseason spot is still available in the Western Conference.
The Phoenix Coyotes, who are still vying for that second wild-card spot in the West, will be one of 22 teams in action Thursday night when they face the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Phoenix trails the Stars by two points with a game in hand.
The Colorado Avalanche, who trail the St. Louis Blues by two points for the Central Division lead, will visit the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena. The Blues, meanwhile, will be at Xcel Energy Center to face the Minnesota Wild. St. Louis has lost three in a row.
Minnesota, which has clinched the first wild card in the West, has won three straight and continues to benefit from stellar goaltending by Ilya Bryzgalov; in 10 starts since arriving via trade from the Edmonton Oilers, Bryzgalov is 7-0-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average and three shutouts.
The Anaheim Ducks wrapped up the Pacific Division title Wednesday with a 5-2 win against the San Jose Sharks, who now know they will play the Los Angeles Kings in a Western Conference First Round series. The Ducks are one point ahead of the Blues for the top spot in the West.
Which team will finish second in the Metropolitan Division? The New York Rangers, who are two points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus, can inch closer toward securing home-ice advantage in the first round with a win against the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden.
Philadelphia will visit the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are without injured goaltender Ben Bishop (upper body) for the remainder of the regular season. The Lightning trail the Montreal Canadiens by three points for second place in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand. Montreal, which lost in overtime at the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, will host the New York Islanders at Bell Centre.
Here's a rundown of the action Thursday:
Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers (7 p.m. ET, MSG-B, BELL TV, MSG)
Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET, CSN-DC, FS-CR)
New York Islanders at Montreal Canadiens (7:30 p.m. ET, RDS, MSG PLUS 2, TSN-HABS)
New Jersey Devils at Ottawa Senators (7:30 p.m. ET, MSG PLUS, SNET-E)
Philadelphia Flyers at Tampa Bay Lightning (7:30 p.m. ET, CSN-PH, SUN)
Toronto Maple Leafs at Florida Panthers (7:30 p.m. ET, LEAFS TV, FS-F)
Phoenix Coyotes at Nashville Predators (8 p.m. ET, FS-A, FS-TN)
St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild (8 p.m. ET, TSN2, NBCSN)
Boston Bruins at Winnipeg Jets (8 p.m. ET, NESN PLUS, TSN-JETS)
Los Angeles Kings at Edmonton Oilers (9:30 p.m. ET, TSN, FS-W)
Colorado Avalanche at Vancouver Canucks (10 p.m. ET, ALT, SNET-P)
The Stanley Cup Playoffs consist of 16 teams, eight in each conference, but it is now division-based and a wild-card system has been added.
The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It is possible for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three.
Seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined on the basis of regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second-fewest points.
The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. There is no reseeding as the tournament moves to the second round and winners of that series advance to the conference championship series and the right to play in the Stanley Cup Final.
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor