NHL playoff picture: Wild look to take back Northwest Division lead

USA TODAY Sports

The Wild battle the Stars, trying to get back to a top three seed, while the Devils look to gain ground on the increasingly tight Eastern Conference bubble.

The Eastern Conference some how got tighter and more separated on Friday. The Islanders defeated the Flyers in a shootout, tying them for eighth place with the Rangers (albeit behind on games played), and creating a two-point gap between seventh and ninth between New Jersey and the two New York teams. It also, however, created a three-point gap between ninth and tenth, with the Carolina Hurricanes losing an important game to Toronto. There's now a three-point gap between tenth and 14th, so you wonder if we're about to lose a few of the pretenders in this race.

Out in the Western Conference, things remain tight as ever. The Kings won, and with the rival Ducks on a four-game losing streak, are now within shouting distance (eight points) of the once-inconquerable Pacific Division lead. San Jose won, moving up to seventh after falling to ninth as late as this weekend. St. Louis is now in eighth after a loss to Los Angeles, but they have a two point (and one game in hand) lead on the Predators, who lost a wild one to Phoenix and hold ninth place. There is now a one-point separation between ninth and 13th. Unbelievable.

Here are the current playoff standings after Thursday's games:

Eastern Conference

Currently in Playoff Position:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins, 54 points (35 games played)

2. Montreal Canadiens, 47 points (33 GP)

3. Winnipeg Jets, 38 points (35 GP)

4. Boston Bruins, 46 points (32 GP)

5. Ottawa Senators, 44 points (34 GP)

6. Toronto Maple Leafs, 42 points (35 GP)

7. New Jersey Devils, 37 points (33 GP)

8. New York Rangers, 35 points (33 GP)

On the Bubble:

9. New York Islanders, 35 points (34 GP)

10. Carolina Hurricanes, 32 points (32 GP)

Western Conference

Currently in Playoff Position:

1. Chicago Blackhawks, 53 points (32 GP)

2. Anaheim Ducks, 48 points (33 GP)

3. Vancouver Canucks, 44 points (34 GP)

4. Minnesota Wild, 42 points (32 GP)

5. Los Angeles Kings, 40 points (33 GP)

6. Detroit Red Wings, 39 points (34 GP)

7. San Jose Sharks, 38 points (33 GP)

8. St. Louis Blues, 36 points (33 GP)

On the Bubble:

9. Nashville Predators, 34 points (34 GP)

10. Dallas Stars, 33 points (32 GP)

11. Edmonton Oilers, 33 points (33 GP)

12. Phoenix Coyotes, 33 points (34 GP)

13. Columbus Blue Jackets, 33 points (34 GP)

Here are games scheduled for Friday that could directly affect playoff positioning:

New Jersey vs. Tampa Bay, 7:30 p.m. ET

The Devils have a weekend back-to-back trip to Florida, and could they ever use at least three points out of these two games in Tampa and Sunrise this weekend. Not only do they have two games in hand on Toronto, with a chance to catch up if they sweep the weekend, it's a real opportunity to keep the Islanders and Rangers (who are both off tonight and play tough opponents on the road Saturday) at bay. The Lightning, meanwhile, are in pretty much must-win mode every night now. Not exactly the most comfortable situation for the first game with new head coach Jon Cooper.

Anaheim vs. Chicago, 8:30 p.m. ET

Remember when these teams played like, nine days ago, and the Ducks won and everyone thought it might be Anaheim's chance to take over the Western Conference lead from Chicago? Well, the Ducks have lost four consecutive games, now trail the Blackhawks by five points, and can for the first time this season see the second-place Kings in their rearview mirror. A win would be helpful to keep things from heading into a late-season tailspin, even though they're all but assured a post-season berth. The Hawks could use a win to jump back in front of the Penguins in the President's Trophy race.

Minnesota vs. Dallas, 8:30 p.m. ET

Simple stuff for the Wild, who trail the Vancouver Canucks by two points and whom they have two games in hand on: win tonight and take back the Northwest Division lead and the No. 3 seed. Lose... and, well, you play tomorrow and get another shot at it. Sometimes things aren't as dramatic as we want them to be. Dallas, however, needs to get some separation from the whole four teams tied with 33 points thing. A victory puts them in ninth, and one point behind the Blues for the eighth spot.

Columbus vs. Calgary, 9 p.m. ET

It's a bit of a stretch to put this game in here, but hey, the Blue Jackets can also get to the ninth spot with a win. They need the Stars to lose, but it can still happen. That said, if you lose to this Calgary team without Jarome Iginla when you need two points the most... it might be time to pack in the silly "What about the Blue Jackets, you guys?" discussion we've been having the past week or so.

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