NHL Playoff Picture 2011: Sabres Clinch, Hurricanes Push Rangers To Brink, Hawks A Point Away

A few things have been settled in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday night before the late games get going. One team has clinched, one is a period away from doing so, and one more can clinch late tonight. 

Everyone in the early games appears to either have taken care of or are taking care of business. First off, the Sabres came back to tie the Philadelphia Flyers on a highlight reel goal by Nathan Gerbe (who tallied twice). Then they got the winner in overtime, as Thomas Vanek cashed in at 1:16 of the extra period. The Sabres have now clinched a post-season berth. They can move as high as sixth in the conference if they beat the Blue Jackets in Columbus tomorrow and Montreal loses to Toronto.  

The Carolina Hurricanes perhaps made the loudest statement of the evening, taking advantage of the opening the Rangers have given them, beating the Atlanta Thrashers handily, 6-1 in Atlanta. Ironically, it was the Thrashers who opened the door for the Hurricanes by beating the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Six different players scored for Carolina. The Hurricanes now have a tie-breaker on the Rangers, putting them in the eighth seed for now. A loss by the Rangers to New Jersey in regulation tomorrow afternoon, or a Carolina win in regulation or overtime at home against Tampa Bay will get the Hurricanes into the post-season. 

In the West, the Nashville Predators are inching towards another playoff berth, as they lead Columbus 3-1 late in the third period. Patrick Hornqvist has tallied twice for the Preds. Nashville can move as high as fourth in the Western Conference, which would give the club their first ever home-ice advantage in a Stanley Cup Playoff series. 

The Dallas Stars miraculous run appears to be continuing. The Stars lead the Colorado Avalanche 2-1 late in the second period. It is the second straight night the two teams are playing. Dallas has gotten goals from Mike Ribeiro and Loui Eriksson. They'll eventually need the Blackhawks or Ducks to lose to create an opening, and they can't afford a shootout, but there is still belief in Big D. 

The Ducks and Kings are scoreless in the first, and that's a game you can follow along with me here on SB Nation. The Ducks clinch a post-season spot with a win. 

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