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Sweet 16: Must-Watch Games Heading into Playoffs

by Dan Rosen / San Jose Sharks

With six days left in the 2011-12 regular season, nine teams are mathematically alive for the five remaining playoff spots. The Atlantic, Southeast and Pacific Division titles have not been claimed. Three teams are within one point of each other in the Presidents' Trophy race. The top spots in each conference are still up for grabs.

This has the potential to be a photo finish across the board.


Watch all the action of the playoff chase this week on the NHL's national broadcast partners:


In fact, it's possible that the quarterfinal-round matchups for the Stanley Cup Playoffs won't be decided until the final game of the season, No. 1,230, is played Saturday in San Jose between the Kings and Sharks. That will also be the last game of a full day in which all 30 NHL teams are in action.

Including the two games on tap Monday, both with playoff implications, there are 44 games left in the regular season. Twenty-one of those games involve at least one of the nine teams that are still mathematically alive but have yet to clinch.

We've narrowed our list of must-watch games down to 16 (it wasn't easy). Here they are in order of when they will be played (all times Pacific Daylight Time):


Washington at Tampa Bay, 3 PM PDT (NBCSN, TSN2, RDSI, CSN-MA)

The Capitals are back in control of their own playoff destiny. They can extend their two-point lead over idle Buffalo for eighth in the East, and with a win will move within one point of idle Florida for first in the Southeast Division. The Caps are 4-1-2 in their last seven games and finally have Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green all healthy and in the lineup at the same time. They are 9-0-0 this season with all four stars in the lineup.

Edmonton at Los Angeles, 7:30 PM PDT (SNET-W, PRIME)

The Kings can extend their lead in the Pacific Division to two points plus the tiebreaker over Phoenix. Los Angeles is 8-2-1 in its last 11 games and has won six of the past seven it has played at Staples Center. The Kings beat the Oilers, 5-1, Friday in Edmonton. Anze Kopitar has 7 points in the last three games.


Toronto at Buffalo, 4 PM PDT (SNET-O, MSG-B)

The Sabres are chasing Washington, and in a worst-case scenario could be eliminated Tuesday. For that to happen, the Capitals have to beat Tampa Bay on Monday and Buffalo has to lose this game in regulation to the Maple Leafs. That's what happened to the Sabres on Saturday in Toronto.

San Jose at Dallas, 5:30 PM PDT (CSN-CA)

The Sharks and Stars are two of the four teams still alive in the Pacific Division. The winner, regardless if it is in regulation, will be in the top eight by the end of the night. The loser will be below the cutoff with two games left. San Jose currently has a tenuous one-point lead over Dallas for eighth place, but the Stars own the tiebreaker with three more non-shootout wins.


Detroit at St. Louis, 4:30 PM PDT (NBCSN, TSN2)

St. Louis is chasing Vancouver for the top spot in the Western Conference. It is still alive for the Presidents' Trophy as well. The Canucks, who currently hold a one-point lead over the Blues, play Tuesday at home against Anaheim. The Blues, though, own the tiebreaker with two more non-shootout wins. The Red Wings are trying to lock-up home-ice advantage in the first round. They have a one-point lead over Nashville and Chicago for fourth place. The Predators play Tuesday against Minnesota. Chicago won't play until Wednesday and has only two games left.


Buffalo at Philadelphia, 3 PM PDT (MSG-B, CSN-PH)

The Sabres are still alive in the playoff race while the Flyers are looking to get home-ice advantage in what looks like a first-round matchup against Pittsburgh. If everything breaks right for the Sabres they could have a chance to take over eighth place Thursday. Similarly, if everything breaks right for the Flyers they could have a chance to lock up the fourth seed in the East.

Florida at Washington, 3 PM PDT (FS-F, CSN-MA)

First-place in the division could be on the line if the Capitals beat Tampa Bay on Monday and the Panthers lose in any way to Winnipeg on Tuesday. Florida holds a three-point lead. It hasn't clinched a playoff berth yet, but can do so Tuesday with any combination of one point gained against Winnipeg or lost by Buffalo.

Boston at Ottawa, 4:30 PM PDT (NESN, SNET-E, TVA)

This could be a first-round preview. The Bruins are locked in at No. 2, but the Senators still need to do a bit more in order to clinch the seventh seed. They could move up to sixth or drop to eighth. As of right now they're No. 7 with 92 points, four fewer than the sixth-place Devils but four more than the eighth-place Caps. Boston holds a 4-1 edge over the Senators in the season series.

Dallas at Nashville, 5 PM PDT (FS-SW, FS-TN)

The Predators are still playing for home-ice advantage in the first round while the Stars could be fighting to stay in the playoff race. Both teams will also be scoreboard watching Thursday. The Predators will want to know how Chicago is doing in Minnesota and how Detroit is doing at home against New Jersey. The Stars will be watching the Los Angeles-San Jose game intently once they're done playing.

San Jose at Los Angeles, 7:30 PM PDT (CSN-CA)

More Pacific Division drama will unfold at Staples Center as the Sharks and Kings get together. This will be the first in a home-and-home series between the California rivals. It has the potential to knock one of them out, or ruin it for another contender if they play some three-point games. The Kings own a slight edge in the season series with five points gained in the four prior games. San Jose has four points against the Kings.


Phoenix at St. Louis, 4:30 PM PDT (NBCSN, TSN2)

It's the only game on the schedule Friday and it could be big for both teams. How big will be determined by what happens prior to the morning skates, but if the season ended today this would be a first-round playoff matchup. The Coyotes, though, could be on the outside looking in at the top eight by the time they play in St. Louis. Similarly, the Blues could be back in first place in the West.


Chicago at Detroit, 10 AM PDT (NBC, TSN2)

If things break right for both teams, this could be a first-round playoff preview. The Predators, though, would have to falter for it to happen. Chicago is tied with Nashville with 98 points, but trails in sixth place because it has a game in hand. Detroit holds a one-point lead over the Predators for fourth place.

Buffalo at Boston, 1 PM PDT (MSG-B, NESN)

It could be all or nothing for the Sabres depending on how everything plays out during the week. If it is, they might catch the Bruins resting some regulars and even using Marty Turco instead of Tim Thomas because they've already locked up No. 2 in the East.

Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, 1 PM PDT (NBCSN)

This likely first-round playoff preview will not be short on drama and emotion considering how crazy things got at the end of Sunday's game. Coaches were yelling at each other. The word "gutless" was tossed around like it was any other adjective. Players were yelling at one another, and the jawing continued with comments made in the media after the game. Oh is this going to be fun.

Washington at New York Rangers, 3:30 PM PDT (NBCSN)

Similar to the Flyers-Penguins game at Consol Energy Center, the Caps-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden could be an Eastern Conference Quarterfinals preview. The Rangers have won two of the three meetings this season in regulation.

Los Angeles at San Jose, 7:30 PM PDT (CSN-CA)

The last game of the regular season has the potential to decide the Pacific Division winner. It could also determine if both the Kings and Sharks make the playoffs, or just one of them.
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