April 5, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (39) moves the puck against the defense of Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell (33) during the second period at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

NHL Playoff Schedule Released: Quest For Stanley Cup Begins Wednesday

The 2012 NHL playoffs will kick off Wednesday, with six teams beginning their quests for the Stanley Cup. Six more teams begin Thursday, while New Jersey and Florida must wait until Friday.

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65 Total Updates since March 27, 2012
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2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 6 Questions Before The Postseason

As we prepare for the 2012 NHL playoffs, there are plenty of questions to ask. Just how good are the Nashville Predators? What about the Florida Panthers? Mike Smith? Will this be the best Battle of Pennsylvania ever?


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NHL Playoffs 2012 Schedule And Bracket

The NHL announced the complete schedule for the first round of the 2012 NHL playoffs on Sunday afternoon. The quest for Lord Stanley's Cup gets underway Wednesday.

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NHL Playoffs 2012: Matchups Set After Season Ends Saturday

The 2012 NHL Playoffs are set following Saturday's action. 15 games were played on the season's final day, and in some cases it took until the very last second ticked off the clock before we learned exactly who would play who in the Conference Quarterfinal round, but at long last, we finally know.

Here's a full look at the eight different match-ups that will kick off the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

WESTERN CONFERENCE

For full coverage of the 2012 NHL postseason, stick with SB Nation's NHL hub and our network of team-specific hockey blogs.

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NHL Playoffs 2012: Ottawa Senators Loss Leaves Door Open For Washington Capitals To Grab No. 7 Seed

The Washington Capitals have their eyes on the No. 3 seed and another Southeast Division championship on Saturday night as they face the New York Rangers, but that's a position that's out of their control. The Florida Panthers will win the division with one single point against the Carolina Hurricanes in their final game.

If Florida wins, the Capitals won't be stuck with the No. 8 seed, though. Thanks to an Ottawa Senators loss to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon, the Capitals can grab the No. 7 seed with a victory over the Rangers. If the Capitals lose, they'll be stuck in eighth regardless of what happens between between Florida and Carolina.

The seventh seed will travel to face the Boston Bruins in the first round while the eighth seed will prepare for a date with the top-ranked Rangers.

Stick with our StoryStream for full coverage of Saturday's complete day of NHL action.

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Blackhawks Vs. Red Wings: Chicago's Shootout Win Seals Home Ice For Nashville, No. 6 Seed For 'Hawks

The Chicago Blackhawks have clinched the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference after blowing a two-goal lead against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 82 of the regular season. Pavel Datsyuk (of course) scored in the final minute of regulation time to tie the score at 2-2, but Patrick Kane's shootout goal sealed two points for Chicago.

Ceding one point to Detroit was enough to miss out on the No. 5 seed, however, and the Blackhawks were well aware of that following Datsyuk's goal. Joel Quenneville pulled goaltender Corey Crawford following the Datsyuk goal even though the score was tied, but they were unable to retake the lead.

Once the final second ticked off the regulation clock, the Blackhawks were locked in to the sixth spot. By sending the game to overtime, Detroit guaranteed a date with the Nashville Predators in the first-round, but they needed two points to have a chance at home-ice advantage and the No. 4 seed in that series.

By losing the shootout, Detroit locked themselves into the No. 5 seed. It also means that the Nashville Predators clinched the No. 5 seed, making their game Saturday evening vs. Colorado completely meaningless.

Chicago, meanwhile, will go home and watch from their couch as the mayhem unfolds Saturday night between Phoenix, San Jose and Los Angeles. The winner of the Pacific Division will host the Blackhawks in Round 1.

For complete coverage of the final day of the NHL season, stick with our StoryStream.

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NHL Standings: Every Western Conference Playoff Team Has Something To Play For Saturday

Only three of the eight Eastern Conference playoff positions are still to be determined on the final day of the NHL season.In the Western Conference, there's a whole lot more up for grabs. In fact, there's not one single position that's been determined out West, so let's just run through this team-by-team.

Vancouver (109 pts, 42 Regulation + OT Wins): The Canucks control their destiny for the No. 1 seed in the West. With a single point in Edmonton against the Oilers, they'll clinch the top-seed. If they lose, the Blues can pass them in the standings via tiebreaker situations.

Vancouver can also win the Presidents' Trophy depending on what the New York Rangers do in their game vs. the Washington Capitals.

St. Louis (107 pts, 44 ROW): The Blues have clinched at least the No. 2 seed, but fell out of contention for the Presidents' Trophy with their loss to Phoenix Friday night. They need a Vancouver loss and a win of their own over Dallas to have a chance at the No. 1 seed. St. Louis holds the tiebreaker if the teams end up tied.

Nashville (102 pts, 42 ROW): They can finish in either the No. 4 spot or the No. 5 spot. With a single point vs. the Avalanche, the Predators will clinch home-ice against either the Red Wings or Blackhawks in Round 1, but with a regulation loss, the Preds could fall to the No. 5 seed should Detroit win their game against Chicago. If the Wings fail to beat the Hawks, Nashville will clinch the No. 4 seed.

Detroit (101 pts, 39 ROW): The Red Wings can finish anywhere between fourth and sixth. If Nashville earns a point, Detroit will be eliminated from contention for the No. 4 seed, thus making the Saturday showdown between the Wings and Blackhawks a battle for the No. 5 seed.

If Chicago wins in regulation, the teams would finished deadlocked in points and ROW but the Blackhawks would win the second tiebreaker as winners of the season series. If Detroit grabs one point, they'll clinch at least the fifth spot.

Chicago (99 pts, 38 ROW): Chicago is fighting for the No. 5 seed and the right to travel to Nashville for the first round, although finishing sixth and playing the eventual Pacific Division winner might be the ideal scenario for them. The Blackhawks need two points in regulation to pass Detroit via tiebreaker for the No. 5 seed. Otherwise, they'll finish sixth.

Phoenix (95 pts, 35 ROW): The Coyotes' win over St. Louis on Friday night kept them in the running for the Pacific Division title and the No. 3 seed. With two points vs. Minnesota Saturday, Phoenix will clinch the division, thus forcing Los Angeles and San Jose into a battle for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.

Since the Sharks and Kings play each other head-to-head, one of them is guaranteed to finish with 96 points, meaning that Phoenix will lose their shot at the division championship if they fail to get at least a point vs. the Wild. If they only grab a single point, tiebreaker scenarios will come into play.

The Coyotes have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Sharks, but it's a little more dicey with the Kings. An L.A. shootout win would give Phoenix the Pacific via the ROW tiebreaker, but if L.A. were to beat San Jose in regulation or overtime, the Kings would tie Phoenix in both points and ROW, pushing it to the second tiebreaker. Los Angeles earned eight points in six games vs. Phoenix this season compared to seven points in those games for the Coyotes, thus giving the Kings that tiebreaker.

Los Angeles (94 pts, 34 ROW): With a loss to San Jose in any form, the Kings will finish in the No. 8 spot. They need a win and help from Phoenix to keep hope for the Pacific Division title alive. There's hope via the tiebreaker if Phoenix earns one point, but if the Coyotes grab two, the Kings and Sharks will be playing for seventh and eighth on Saturday night.

San Jose (94 pts, 33 ROW): The Sharks face the same situation. A loss means they finish in eighth place, but even with a win they need help the Minnesota Wild to beat Phoenix in regulation to have a shot at the Pacific crown.

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Tired yet? Literally every Western Conference playoff team still has something to play for on the final day of the season, and that's really all we can ask for. The dust will clear in a few short hours.

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NHL Playoffs 2012: Eastern Conference Seeding, Southeast Division Title Up For Grabs Saturday

It's the final day of the 2011-12 NHL regular season, and while all eight participants in the Eastern Conference playoffs have punched their tickets to the ball, they still don't know the order in which they'll be seated at their tables.

That's what Saturday in the NHL is all about. All 30 teams in the league are in action -- it's just the fourth time in history that's happened -- and a good number of them will be jockeying for position when they hit the ice. Here's what we already know in the East:

  • The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will face each other in Round 1. Pittsburgh has clinched the No. 4 seed while Philadelphia has clinched the No. 5 seed. The teams play each other on Saturday afternoon but the game will have no impact anything but emotion.
  • The New York Rangers will finish with the No. 1 seed in the East. With a win Saturday against the Washington Capitals, they'll also hoist the Presidents' Trophy as the best regular season team in the NHL.
  • The Boston Bruins will finish with the No. 2 seed. Their opponent is to be determined Saturday.
  • The New Jersey Devils will finish with the No. 6 seed. Their opponent is to be determined Saturday.
  • That leaves three spots -- the No. 3 seed, No. 7 seed and No. 8 seed -- open in the Eastern Conference, all to be determined Saturday.

The Florida Panthers enter Game 82 with a two-point lead on the Capitals for the Southeast Division title, so all they need is a single point against the Carolina Hurricanes to clinch their first-ever division crown. If the Panthers fail to earn a point, the Caps would clinch the division with two points in any fashion, as they hold the tiebreaker over Florida.

If the Panthers win the division, it's possible that the Capitals can still catch the Ottawa Senators for the No. 7 seed. Should Ottawa lose to the New Jersey Devils and should Washington beat the Rangers in any fashion, the Capitals will move up to the seventh spot. Ottawa would then move down to the No. 8 seed.

If the Capitals win the Southeast title, the Senators will clinch the No. 7 seed regardless of what they do vs. New Jersey, just as they will if they earn just a single point Saturday.

Stick with our StoryStream for full coverage of Saturday's complete day of NHL action.

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NHL Playoffs 2012: Coyotes Still In Running For Pacific Title After Beating Blues

The Phoenix Coyotes jumped into third place in the Western Conference in Game 81 of their regular season, pulling one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division.

Each team has one game remaining on the schedule. The Sharks and Kings play head to head on Saturday night in San Jose while Phoenix travels to Minnesota to take on the Wild in Game 82. With two points against the Wild, Phoenix will clinch the Pacific Division title and the No. 3 seed in the West, regardless of what happens between the two teams from California.

Fortunately for our viewing pleasure, the Phoenix vs. Minnesota game will conclude well before the San Jose vs. Los Angeles game, so we'll know about midway through the game exactly what the Sharks and Kings are playing for. Should Phoenix lose, that game will decide the Pacific crown, as the two teams are deadlocked at 94 points entering Saturday's action.

With the loss, the St. Louis Blues lost their shot at the Presidents' Trophy and the No. 1 overall seed in the league, but they can still grab the top seed in the Western Conference with a victory vs. Dallas and a Vancouver loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

Stick with our StoryStream for full coverage of Saturday's complete day of NHL action.

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Coyotes Vs. Blues: Friday's Lone Game Has Impact On NHL Playoff Standings

There's one game in the NHL on Friday night, and it just so happens to be between the only two clubs in the NHL that didn't play hockey on Thursday night. The Phoenix Coyotes, fresh off clinching a playoff spot from their couch, are in St. Louis to take Blues, who still have a President's Trophy and the West's top seed to play for in their final two games.

The Blues control their own destiny in the Western race. If they win on Friday night vs. Phoenix and on Saturday night vs. Dallas, they'll finish with the best record in the conference regardless of what the Canucks do Saturday vs. Edmonton. If both teams win their remaining games, they'll tie with 111 points on the year, but the Blues hold the tiebreaker over Vancouver.

In the President's Trophy race, the New York Rangers clinch with two points on Saturday against Washington. They can also max out at 111 points but New York holds the tiebreaker over St. Louis. The Blues' only hope for the top spot in the league comes if they win both of their games while the Rangers fail to earn two points in their final game.

Phoenix can leap from eighth place in the West to third place in the West with a win in regulation. Should they win in overtime, they'll grab the division lead for the time being thanks to tiebreakers, but there would be a three-way deadlock between the Coyotes, Kings and Sharks in the division race. A win in the shootout would keep Los Angeles in

If Phoenix loses in regulation to the Blues, they'll lose any hopes of winning the division, creating a one-game battle for the Pacific crown between the Sharks and Kings on Saturday night.

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NHL Playoff Standings: Pacific, Southeast Contenders Vie For Dubious Division Titles

2011-12 will be just the third season since the 2005 lockout that NHL divisions will be won by teams that could not even manage 100 points.

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NHL Playoff Standings: Sharks, Kings, Coyotes Clinch Spots As Avalanche, Stars Fall

The Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche don't have to worry about scoreboard watching this weekend. Their minds can instead wander to the golf course.

With their 2-0 regulation loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday night, the Stars killed any hopes they had of reaching the postseason, and they'll instead watch from the couch for the fourth straight year. Defending Big D is disappointed, of course, but they have an optimistic view of a team nobody expected to challenge for a playoff spot.

The fact that this team, predicted to finish dead last in the entire league by some, and last in the western conference by most, came into game 81 of 82 with a shot at the playoffs is more than many expected at the beginning of the season.

While the Stars only needed one point to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Avs needed an outright win in regulation or the shootout to keep their season going. Cam Atkinson notched his first-career hat trick, the final goal coming with an empty net, as the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets played spoiler in a 5-2 win.

The San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings were still in action as they learned they'd clinched playoff spots, and the Phoenix Coyotes were sitting home Thursday night, preparing for a Friday night matchup with the St. Louis Blues. Dallas and Colorado eliminated themselves. It wasn't the other way around.

Now all that's left in the Western Conference is seeding, which will be determined on Saturday as all 30 teams in the league are in action.

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Capitals Vs. Panthers: Washington Wins, But Both Teams Clinch Playoff Spots

The Washington Capitals clinched their fifth straight playoff appearance with a 4-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, but even with the loss, the Panthers were able to seal up a playoff spot of their own. Both have the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers to thank.

Philly's 2-1 come-from-behind regulation win over the Sabres gave the Panthers a guaranteed playoff spot, and the Buffalo loss combined with Washington's win gave the Caps a playoff spot.

Jay Beagle, Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich opened up a 3-0 lead for the Capitals before Mikael Samuelsson and Ed Jovanovski pulled Florida within a goal. There was hope for the Panthers -- and thus the Sabres, watching from the locker room in Philadelphia -- late in the third, but an Alex Semin goal with 1:02 left in the third sealed the deal and Buffalo's fate.

Now, all that's left in the Eastern Conference playoff picture is seeding. The Capitals' win gives them a shot at the Southeast Division title on Saturday night when the NHL season comes to a close. They need to beat the New York Rangers and hope for a Carolina regulation win over the Panthers to grab the Southeast title. Otherwise, Florida will win its first ever division title.

For more coverage of all the playoff scenarios across the NHL, stick with our StoryStream.

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NHL Playoff Standings: Southeast Division Race Could Wrap Up Thursday

There are three teams battling for two spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and it could all come to a head on Thursday night. The Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers are set to duel in the District of Columbia, while the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres are in Philadelphia to take on the Flyers.

Eastern Conference Playoff Race
GP
W-L-OT
Pts
ROW
3.* Florida Panthers 80 37-25-18 92 31
8. Washington Capitals 80 40-32-8 88 36
9. Buffalo Sabres 80 39-31-10 88 32

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

The Panthers can clinch the Southeast Division and lock down the East's No. 3 seed with a single point against the Caps, but should they lose in regulation, things get mighty interesting in the Southeast Division race.

In that scenario, the Capitals would sit just two points back of the Panthers with a game to play, and since Washington has already clinched the first tiebreaker (non-shootout wins) over the 'Cats, the division title would come down to Saturday's action. Washington visits the top-ranked New York Rangers in the season finale and the Panthers visit the lowly Carolina Hurricanes, and it would be the same situation on Saturday. The Panthers would need just a point to clinch, but should the Panthers lose in regulation and the Capitals win, Washington would clinch the division title.

Of course, that all hinges on Thursday's game. It should be a good one, to say the least.

RACE FOR EIGHTH

Where do the Buffalo Sabres fall in all of this? They can only finish eighth, as they're not a Southeast Division club. They'll only face elimination Thursday under the following scenario:

  • The Sabres lose in regulation to Philadelphia, keeping their point total at 88 ...
  • AND the Capitals beat the Panthers in overtime or a shootout. Florida would clinch the Southeast Division by earning a point (giving them a total of 93) and the Sabres would be unable to pass Washington for the eighth seed (point total of 90), thanks to Washington owning the regulation plus overtime wins (ROW) tiebreaker.

On the flip side, the Sabres could pass Washington for the No. 8 spot with a win on Thursday night, provided the Capitals also lose to the Panthers. In a nutshell, the Capitals control their own destiny for the No. 8 spot thanks to owning the tiebreaker, so the Sabres need to hope the Caps cede at least one of their four remaining points.

Forgetting the Capitals, though, Buffalo could also find their way into the postseason if the Panthers drop their final two games. For that to happen, Florida would have to lose twice and the Sabres would have to win twice. They'd then hold the ROW tiebreaker over the Panthers. One point still clinches a playoff spot for Florida, however.

For more coverage of all the playoff scenarios across the NHL, stick with our StoryStream.

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NHL Playoff Standings: Western Conference Participants Could Be Set Following Thursday's Action

With two games remaining in the 2012 NHL season, theere are still five teams in the running for three playoff spots in the Western Conference. That can all wrap up on Thursday night, when four of those five teams hit the ice around the NHL. Here's how the playoff standings look heading into the evening:

Western Conference Playoff Race
GP
W-L-OT
Pts
ROW
3.* Los Angeles Kings 80 40-27-13 93 34
7. Phoenix Coyotes 80 40-27-13 93 34
8. San Jose Sharks 80 41-29-10 92 33
9. Dallas Stars 80 42-33-5 89 35
10. Colorado Avalanche 80 41-33-6 88 32

Here's how each game Thursday night can impact the race:

Stars at Predators: Back-to-back losses to the Sharks have dramatically hurt Dallas' playoff chances. They now need to win both of their games -- maxing out with 93 points -- while hoping the San Jose loses both of their games. Without at least a point against Nashville, the Stars' season will be over.

Blue Jackets at Avalanche: With any loss or even with a win in the shootout, Colorado will be eliminated from playoff contention. The Avs can max out with 92 points, so they need to hope San Jose fails to get any points while also taking care of their own business.

They need two wins in regulation or overtime because they also must finish with more non-shootout wins than San Jose. Should the teams tie in both points and ROW (regulation plus overtime wins), the Sharks would get in thanks to a better head-to-head record. San Jose finished with seven points in the season series. Colorado finished with just two.

Sharks at Kings: Regardless of what the Avs do vs. Columbus, the Sharks can eliminate Colorado by just earning one point vs. Los Angeles.

Of course, they want to do much more than that, as they're still in the running for the top spot in the Pacific Division and the No. 3 overall seed. If San Jose earns two points and Dallas loses to Nashville, the Sharks will clinch a playoff spot and the Stars would be eliminated, clinching playoff spots for the Kings and Coyotes in the process.

San Jose could overtake Los Angeles for the top spot in the Pacific Division with the win, but they'd need to earn the win in regulation or overtime, as the Kings would take the ROW tiebreaker even with a shootout loss.

A regulation win would give San Jose a one-point lead over L.A. with one game remaining between the clubs. An overtime win would tie the teams in both points and ROW. It would also tie the season series to date, giving both clubs six points in games against each other this season.

That would push the division race to the fourth tiebreaker, goal differential. Entering the game, the Kings have a one-goal advantage, but that would swing in the Sharks' favor should they win the game. Of course, that would all be moot as soon as Saturday when the two teams face again, a game that could decide Pacific Division title.

The Kings cannot clinch the division title even with a win in regulation vs. San Jose, but they can clinch a playoff spot with just a single point. A win in regulation would guarantee at least seventh-place in the final standings.

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NHL Playoff Standings 2012: Florida Panthers Fail To Capture Southeast Division

The 2012 NHL playoff races are down to the final couple of games for each team, but that just means we're in for some exciting finishes, with the Pacific and Southeast divisions still up for grabs.

In the Southeast, the Florida Panthers maintain the division lead despite a 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Picking up the overtime-loss point, the Panthers now have 92 points for the season and a four-point cushion on the Washington Capitals. Florida can clinch the division title on Thursday when they clash with the Capitals at the Verizon Center.

The Capitals can also make the playoffs by winning the No. 8 spot, but the Buffalo Sabres are hot on the heels of those skates. The Sabres landed a 6-5 overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, picking up two points and joining the idle Capitals with 88 points. Should the two teams finish in a tie for the final playoff position, Washington would take the spot.

The Pacific Division remains in a tight contest. The San Jose Sharks defeated the Dallas Stars, 5-2, on Tuesday night and temporarily moved ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes for the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings. However, a 2-0 Coyotes victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets moved Phoenix back into the No. 7 spot. The Los Angeles Kings remain atop the Pacific Division with 93 points and the tiebreaker over the Coyotes.

For more coverage of all the playoff races across the NHL, stick with our StoryStream.

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NHL Playoffs: Florida Panthers Can Clinch First Ever Southeast Division Title With Win Vs. Winnipeg Jets

All they need is one more win and the Florida Panthers will clinch their first-ever Southeast Division title. They can do just that on Tuesday night when they host the Winnipeg Jets, their natural division rivals, at BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise.

It's all thanks to the Washington Capitals' loss on Monday evening to the Tampa Bay Lightning. That loss left the Caps with 88 points through 80 regular season games, and should the Panthers beat the Jets Tuesday, they'll sit with 93 points through 80 games. Since it's an 82 game season and you can't earn five points with two games remaining, this is how divisions are won.

By clinching, the Panthers would seal up the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. It's likely they face the New Jersey Devils in the first round, but that's not yet guaranteed. The Devils have a magic number of three to guarantee at least the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Regardless, with an Ottawa loss to Carolina Tuesday, a New Jersey win over the New York Islanders and a Florida win over Winnipeg, a Devils vs. Panthers first-round series will be clinched.

For more on the Panthers, check in with Litter Box Cats. For continued coverage of all the playoff race across the NHL, stick with our StoryStream.

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NHL Playoff Picture: Bruins, Blackhawks Can Clinch Friday

The defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins can officially punch their ticket to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday night without even stepping on the ice. If their Northeast Division rival Buffalo Sabres defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in regulation, the Bruins will officially clinch a spot in the postseason.

Buffalo, of course, is desperate for points. They sit tied in points with the Washington Capitals, and Friday's game vs. Pittsburgh is the lone game in hand they hold over their ninth-place foes. A loss in regulation puts the Sabres right back outside the playoff picture since Washington holds the tiebreaker over them.

The Penguins are losers of two straight while the Sabres have been red hot for ... well, basically over a month now. Pittsburgh needs the points too, however, as they are embroiled in a heated battle with the Philadelphia Flyers for home-ice in what will likely be a first-round battle between those two rivals.

Out West, the Chicago Blackhawks can also clinch on Friday night without taking the ice. Should the Los Angeles Kings lose to the Edmonton Oilers, whether that be in regulation, overtime or a shootout, the 2010 Cup Champs will also clinch a playoff spot. The Kings enter the evening needing a win to stay a step ahead of the San Jose Sharks for the eighth-seed in the Western Conference.

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NHL Playoff Race: Blues Can Clinch Central; Devils, Bruins Can Grab Berths

Three Central Division teams have clinched spots in the 2012 NHL playoffs, and on Thursday night, one other can join them. If the Chicago Blackhawks can beat the rival St. Louis Blues while getting assistance from the San Jose Sharks in beating the Phoenix Coyotes in regulation, Chicago will clinch a playoff spot.

They'd join the Blues, Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings as the four Central Division participants in the postseason party. The Columbus Blue Jackets, sadly, will be staying home.

The Blues won't be rolling over and letting Chicago in, however. With just a point vs. the Blackhawks on Thursday night, the Blues can clinch the Central Division title and at least one of the top-two seeds in the Western Conference. A win would put them four points up on the No. 2 Vancouver Canucks, who have clinched the Northwest Division.

In the Eastern Conference, New Jersey can get into the postseason with a victory Thursday over the Tampa Bay Lightning, provided the Boston Bruins also defeat the desperate Washington Capitals. The Bruins would also clinch a playoff spot with a victory, although their hold on the Northeast Division lead is still less-than-certain.

Also in action Thursday, No. 5 Philadelphia hopes to move closer to the No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins, who are on Long Island to visit the Islanders. The Florida Panthers will try to tighten their grasp in the Southeast Division with a win over Minnesota, and San Jose and Phoenix are set for a battle royale in the Pacific Division race.

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NHL Playoff Race 2012: With 3 Pacific Teams In Action, Big Western Shakeup Could Happen Wednesday

Wednesday will be a slow night in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. With the Winnipeg Jets essentially out of the mix at this point, the only Eastern team to watch is the New York Rangers, who can extend their hold on first place in the conference to five points with a victory over the Jets.

The West, however, is completely different. For starters, the Nashville Predators can again clinch a spot for the third straight night. They weren't able to win their game against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, which would have solidified their playoff spot for good, but they only need one of the Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks or Los Angeles Kings to clinch a spot despite sitting idle Wednesday. Nashville will also clinch a playoff spot if two or more of the Stars, Sharks and Kings lose beyond regulation.

But yes, that means that three of the contenders in the wild, insane Pacific Division are in action on Wednesday.

Stars at Oilers: The Oilers will be without Taylor Hall, because they decided 60-something games with a busted shoulder is enough and have opted to sit the future of their franchise for the remaining six. The Stars will take the odd timing, though. Points, points, points. They're necessary for Dallas, which sits in the seventh spot, just one point up on No. 9 Los Angeles.

Kings at Flames: It's a huge game for both teams. While the Kings are looking to keep pace with the rest of the Pacific Division, the Flames sit just one point behind Los Angeles in the Western Conference standings. If the cards fall properly for Calgary, they could find themselves in playoff positioning by the end of the night, but a regulation win is of utmost importance. Of course, it's Brent Sutter vs. Darryl Sutter behind the benches, which makes this all so much more fun ... or something.

Sharks at Ducks: Anaheim may be done, but they can frustrate the rival Sharks by stealing some vital points. San Jose sits in third place in the West with the Pacific Division lead in hand, but could easily fall out of that spot and out of the playoff picture entirely should they lose. They sit just one point ahead of the Stars and idle Coyotes and just two points ahead of the ninth-seeded Kings.

The Colorado Avalanche are also in action on Wednesday evening, facing division foe Vancouver. Colorado sits just a point back of the final playoff spot but they've played two more games than San Jose, Dallas and Los Angeles. That's not good for their chances, and it makes points even more precious at this stage.

The Detroit Red Wings face the Columbus Blue Jackets yet again on Wednesday, a good opportunity to stretch their lead over the idle Predators for the West's No. 4 seed.

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Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals Among Teams That Desperately Need To Make 2012 NHL Playoffs

As the NHL season winds down, five playoff contenders desperately need to qualify for the postseason. The Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals lead the way.

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NHL Playoffs 2012: Nashville Predators Can Clinch Vs. Blues

The Nashville Predators face off against the NHL's best team, the St. Louis Blues, on Tuesday night, so while it won't be an easy task, they can clinch a playoff spot if they're able to pull just a point away from the contest. Nashville has had success against the Blues so far this season, winning four of the five games played thus far. This is the last meeting between the two clubs on the year.

The Predators (96 points, 76 games played) and Red Wings (97 points, 76 games played) can still catch the Blues (103 points, 76 games played), but a St. Louis win on Tuesday night will almost certainly take Nashville out of the running for the Central Division title and the No. 1 overall seed. A Nashville win, however, makes things much more intriguing.

Every game in the NHL on Tuesday night has some sort of playoff significance. Details on all of them:

  • Sabres at Capitals: It's the big one tonight. The winning team will take control of its own destiny for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Full preview here.
  • Blackhawks at Devils: Both teams need the points. New Jersey might be comfortable with the No. 6 seed in the East, given that the Devils will play the Southeast Division winner, and Chicago might be comfortable in the same spot out West, set to face the Pacific Division champion, but neither team has clinched a playoff spot just yet.
  • Panthers at Canadiens: With Washington and Buffalo breathing down their necks, the Florida Panthers see two much-needed points against the Montreal Canadiens, the worst team in the East. The winner of Sabres vs. Caps can pull within one point of the Panthers should Florida lose in regulation to Montreal.
  • Islanders at Penguins: Pittsburgh will be without Kris Letang, but the Pens can open a commanding six-point lead on the rival Philadephia Flyers in the East with a victory over the lowly Isles.
  • Rangers at Wild: A Pittsburgh win and a Rangers loss puts the Penguins in first-place in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division, which would drop New York to fourth-place.
  • Lightning at Bruins: The Lightning are all but done, while the Bruins are just three points ahead of the Ottawa Senators for the No. 2 seed and the Northeast Division title. With several games in hand over Ottawa and a three-point lead in the standings, a Bruins win on Tuesday could put the division title out of reach.
  • Hurricanes at Maple Leafs: Neither the Toronto Maple Leafs nor the Carolina Hurricanes will make the postseason, but the loser of Tuesday's contest between the two clubs will officially be eliminated from playoff contention.

Stick with our NHL playoff race StoryStream for all the storylines leading up to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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NHL Playoffs 2012: San Jose Sharks Take Pacific Lead, But Coyotes, Kings Have Easiest Road To Title

The San Jose Sharks are atop the Pacific Division, thanks to their decisive win over the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night and the Dallas Stars' loss to the Calgary Flames. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to realize how nuts the Pacific race is at this point; all you have to know is that San Jose was in the West's No. 9 position Monday and now they're in the No. 3 spot. Crazy, indeed.

That doesn't mean they're out of the woods, though. Not only could they still lose the division, but they could miss the playoffs altogether and it wouldn't take that much of a slide. San Jose has 88 points through 76 games, while No. 7 Dallas has 87 through 76 and No. 8 Phoenix has 87 through 77 games. No. 9 Los Angeles is also in the running for the division title despite sitting outside of the playoff picture at present. The Kings have 86 points through 76 games.

To make matters even more interesting, these teams all play each other a bunch of times in the final six-to-seven games of the regular season. Remaining schedules for the four teams in the Pacific race:

The Coyotes and Kings certainly have the easiest schedules of the bunch the rest of the way out. Los Angeles has four of their remaining six on the road, but they play just one team that's currently in playoff position in a home-and-home with San Jose at the end of the season.

Phoenix, meanwhile, plays three of their remaining five at home and have the luxury of matching up with the Wild and Ducks, plus what essentially amounts to a night off against the Blue Jackets. San Jose clearly has the toughest schedule on their road to a title despite currently holding the top spot with five games set against teams who are fighting for the same position they hold.

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