Boston and Florida are battling hard for the final wild-card spot in the East. (Steve Babineau/Getty Images)
It’s just about playoff time, which means every single point is important for those teams still in the race. As the NHL enters the homestretch, here are 10 must-watch games, most of which have playoff implications.
With the trade deadline over and clubs deep in the race for the playoffs, nearly every single evening presents to us a must-watch game with postseason implications.
Whether it be for division seeding or to squeak into a wild-card spot, points are at their most critical. However, there’s also another race to watch and that’s the race to the bottom of the NHL’s standings for a shot at selecting either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, the consensus first- and second-overall ranked players in the upcoming draft.
Here are the ten games to watch down the stretch:
10. Thursday, March 26 – Arizona at Buffalo
The mid-week contest between the Coyotes and Sabres should help decide the battle for the basement. Both rosters are nearly barren of NHL ready talent in hopes that finishing last will allow either team to select McDavid or Eichel. To paraphrase Arizona GM Don Maloney, the prize for being bad this season is quite nice.
This is the first of a home-and-home between the basement dwelling Coyotes and Sabres. Four days later the two sides will clash again in Arizona, where the objective might be to lose the season series.
9. Saturday, March 7 – Vancouver at San Jose
While Anaheim is running away with the Pacific Division, the Canucks are currently sitting three points up on each of the Flames, Kings and Sharks. A win Saturday could pull the Sharks one point back of the Canucks and potentially vault them into third place in the division if the Flames and Kings fail to pick up points in their upcoming games.
It’s the final game of the season series between the two clubs, and if San Jose wants to make their move, it’s going to have to be now. They didn’t trade goaltender Antti Niemi at the deadline, which means they’re taking one final shot with their current roster.
8. Sunday, March 29 – Chicago at Winnipeg
The Jets have been a thorn in the Blackhawks’ side all season, and, depending how things go for both clubs leading up to their late-March contest, the final game of the season series could potentially move Winnipeg ahead of Chicago in the standings.
The Blackhawks are five points up on the Jets, but both teams have been inconsistent this season. New additions to Winnipeg, such as Drew Stafford, Jiri Tlusty and Tyler Myers, will get their first taste of playing in the Central Division rivalry. Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen will get their first look at Winnipeg while skating for Chicago.
7. Tuesday, March 10 – New York Rangers at New York Islanders
The Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup final last season and could very well make it there again. However, in order to make the route to the final easier, they’re going to have to make sure they lock up the top seed in the Metropolitan Division and home-ice advantage through at least the first two rounds.
The Islanders have been surprising this year and off-season acquisitions Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk have been a part of that. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak has played well for the Islanders and with John Tavares in the lineup the Islanders are always a threat. This could be the game that gives either club the division lead for good.
6. Sunday, March 29 – Florida at Ottawa
Many thought it strange Tampa Bay and Florida were included in a division with the likes of Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Ottawa and Buffalo, but the Atlantic Division has panned out much better than expected. Florida has made themselves one of the more competitive teams in the division and stands a shot at sneaking in as one of the Eastern Conference’s wild-card entries.
Their March 29 contest with Ottawa, however, could have a lot to do with whether or not they’re playing into mid-April. The Senators have been hot as of late under coach Dave Cameron. With two games in hand, Ottawa sits only two points back of Florida. They’re also chasing the Bruins, who have also played 62 games but have 71 points, four more than Ottawa’s 67.
Ottawa ends the season with three games outside of their division, so they need to make their move on Atlantic Division foes while they still have the chance.
4. Monday, March 30 – Tampa Bay at Montreal
Many consider the Lightning frontrunners in the Eastern Conference as they’re one of the most complete teams in the league, but Montreal has held down the Atlantic Division lead for most of the season. The two sides will face off March 16, but the final showdown comes at the end of the month, by which time you shouldn’t be surprised if a single point separates the sides.
This could be an Atlantic Division final preview, as few see Montreal’s Carey Price losing four times in a seven game series with the way he has been playing.
4. Saturday, March 28 – Los Angeles at Minnesota
This isn’t a divisional matchup so it doesn’t have the added intrigue of a rivalry that has been bred through familiarity, but it does feature two teams that are fighting tooth and nail for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles has been inconsistent this season and could miss the playoffs after winning the whole thing in 2013-14. With the Wild hot thanks to the play of Devan Dubnyk and the Kings being the type of team that can wear opponents down until they break through, this could be playoff hockey in March.
3. Monday, April 6 – Winnipeg at Minnesota
The Wild finally figured out their goaltending situation with the acquisition of Dubnyk and they’ve subsequently made a run for the playoffs. On the strength of Dubnyk’s goaltending, Minnesota is holding down the final wild-card spot in the West and are only a point back of the Jets for the first wild-card berth. Not to mention Minnesota has two games in hand on Winnipeg.
When the Jets and Wild clash on April 6, seeding could be up for grabs, which could be the difference between an early exit and sticking around into the second round of the postseason.
2. Saturday, April 11 – San Jose at Los Angeles
As of Thursday, the Kings and Sharks are tied at 72 points in the Pacific Division, but both on the outside looking in. The Flames lost defenseman and team MVP Mark Giordano to injury for the rest of the season and that could be the blow that keeps Calgary’s surprising season from ending with a playoff berth, which leaves San Jose and Los Angeles to battle it out for the final spot in the Pacific Division.
The season series is tied at two games apiece and the season-ending matchup is setting itself up to be about more than just pride.
1. Saturday, March 21 – Boston at Florida
The NHL’s schedule makers likely didn’t predict the Panthers would be challenging the Bruins for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference come the end of the season, but that’s exactly the position Boston and Florida find themselves in.
Boston has been underwhelming this season and the high hopes for the squad have been squashed by repeated injuries, including those to Zdeno Chara and David Krejci. But Florida has their injury woes, too. Earlier this week, goaltenders Robert Luongo and Al Montoya went down with injury in the same game. That forced the Cats to call up Dan Ellis.
This is the first of three matchups between the two sides. They play again on March 31 and April 9. By the final meeting of the season, there’s little doubt it’s going to be a battle for a spot in the playoffs.