NHL playoff picture: Sabres and Rangers face off in must-win for both

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Emboldened by their win over the Bruins on Wednesday, the Sabres look to move within two points of the eighth spot.

The biggest news on the playoff bubble on Thursday happened in the Western Conference, though there were big games on both sides of the NHL.

The Columbus Blue Jackets missed a big opportunity with a one-goal loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Even a point would've forced the Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings into a must-win mentality for both teams' next two games, which they now have in hand on the Blue Jackets. Now, both the Stars and Red Wings know that they're more or less competing against each other, with the Jackets forced to wait it out with only two games in the next seven days. The Stars, for their part, beat up the Canucks and now sit in ninth, two points back with two in hand.

As far as the teams currently in slightly more secure playoff position go, the Minnesota Wild are getting closer and closer to dropping off that particular list. The Wild were blown out in San Jose, and unless the Stars and Red Wings lose two straight in regulation, will probably be in a must-win situation, more or less, when they take the ice again Sunday. The Sharks getting a win puts their magic number at three points gained by them/lost by Dallas/Detroit. The Kings' win over the Jackets puts theirs at two (since they have a regulation/OT wins tiebreaker over both). Vancouver continues to avoid clinching in their loss to the Stars. St. Louis nearly suffered a bad loss to the Coyotes, but pulled out two points in a shootout.

Back in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers and Jets both won, so things remain at status quo on the bubble. The Rangers remain ahead due to the fact that they've played one less game (see more later) as both are at 48 points. The Islanders came closer and closer to putting themselves in with a Sharpie by beating the Maple Leafs on the road. Ottawa got some breathing room from the nine line by beating the Capitals, which also helped the Jets, as they sit two points back of the Southeast Division lead.

Here's a look at the playoff picture entering competition on Friday.

Eastern Conference

Clinched Playoff Spot:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins, 66 points (43 games played)

2. Montreal Canadiens, 59 points (44 GP)

4. Boston Bruins, 57 points (42 GP)

Currently in Playoff Position:

3. Washington Capitals, 50 points (44 GP)

5. Toronto Maple Leafs, 53 points (44 GP)

6. Ottawa Senators, 52 points (43 GP)

7. New York Islanders, 51 points (44 GP)

8. New York Rangers, 48 points (43 GP, 18 ROW)

On the Bubble:

9. Winnipeg Jets, 48 points (44 GP, 21 ROW)

Western Conference

Clinched Playoff Spot:

1. Chicago Blackhawks, 70 points (42 GP)

2. Anaheim Ducks, 60 points (43 GP)

Currently in Playoff Position:

3. Vancouver Canucks, 55 points (44 GP)

4. Los Angeles Kings, 55 points (44 GP)

5. San Jose Sharks, 55 points (44 GP)

6. St. Louis Blues, 52 points (43 GP, 20 ROW)

7. Minnesota Wild, 51 points (44 GP, 20 ROW)

8. Columbus Blue Jackets, 49 points (45 GP, 16 ROW)

On the Bubble:

9. Dallas Stars, 47 points (43 GP, 20 ROW)

10. Detroit Red Wings, 47 points (43 GP, 18 ROW)

Here are the games on Friday night that could directly affect playoff positioning.

Pittsburgh vs. Boston, 7 p.m. ET

Both teams having clinched a playoff spot, this game really only means something to Boston, who is fighting for a Northeast Division title. Boston would still hold a games played tiebreaker over the Canadiens, so a win tonight puts them in the second spot. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, can wrap up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for good with a victory.

NY Rangers vs. Buffalo, 7 p.m. ET

Here's the bigger of the two games in the Eastern Conference tonight. This is a game in hand for the Rangers over the Winnipeg Jets. They win, they get two points closer to the playoffs. The lose, they fall into ninth place, as Winnipeg has the tiebreaker in terms of regulation/overtime wins. Also, if they lose, the Sabres -- suddenly winners of three straight and 6-3-1 in their last 10 -- would move within two points of both New York and the Jets for eighth. Buffalo is nowhere near either of those teams in regulation/OT wins, but it certainly would add another dimension of crazy to this stretch-run.

Dallas vs. St. Louis, 8 p.m. ET

Another huge one. Simple math for the Stars is win, and take over the eighth seed from Columbus with a game in hand still to be played. Lose and fall back into tenth behind the Red Wings on the games played tiebreaker. They're traveling for a back-to-back game against a team that was home last night, so easier said than done. St. Louis, meanwhile, could definitely use a victory of their own. With just 52 points, they sit a mere five points away from the ninth-place Stars.

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