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NHL scores 2016: Eastern playoff races looking clearer after Devils fall to Penguins

With a month left to go in the regular season, the Eastern Conference playoff races are shaping up.

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Once upon a time, the New Jersey Devils were in playoff position. If you can believe it, they were as high as third in the Metropolitan Division, but they mostly held the fourth spot for good portions of this season. That was, until the Penguins decided to play to their talent level and effectively choke the Devils out of a playoff spot.

New Jersey has been running on borrowed time for most of the year. With a mishmash offense and a goaltender playing out of his mind, it was only a matter of time before the Metropolitan Division would get better enough to knock the Devils out of the running.

It hasn't officially happened yet, but the Devils are six points out and have more games played than any team ahead of them in the standings. Plus, with just two wins in their last 10 games, New Jersey has almost no momentum swinging their way with 15 games left in the schedule.

Also hurting the Devils? The absence of netminder Cory Schneider, whose .923 save percentage and 2.17 goals against average are good enough for top 10 in the league. Schneider's injury just a few days prior -- a MCL sprain in his knee from stretching out for a save that will keep the goaltender out for a few weeks -- will probably kibosh any hope the Devils have of making a stretch run for the Wild Card.

It certainly led to some problems against the Penguins on Sunday, as backup netminder Keith Kinkaid allowed six goals to high-flying Pittsburgh. Sure, it's hard to stop Evgeni Malkin when he's on a tear, as the forward scored twice in the 6-1 victory for the Penguins, but the loss did the Devils no favors.

And it didn't do favors for the other teams in the hunt. The Philadelphia Flyers, who are now four points out of a Wild Card spot behind the Red Wings and five out from the Penguins, certainly didn't benefit either from the Devils collapse. The Hurricanes and the Senators are all locked up with the Devils at 69 points, but each have played just one game less than New Jersey.

There's hope that the Red Wings slide out of that final Wild Card spot and open the race up once more. However, the Eastern Conference playoff teams are looking more and more like locks as bubble teams continue to falter against the tougher competition.

Scores

Blackhawks 4, Red Wings 1
Stars 2, Senators 1
Penguins 6, Devils 1
Islanders 6, Rangers 4
Oilers 2, Jets 1
Blues 4, Wild 2

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3 things we learned

1. The Rangers almost had the comeback of the day

You know what's not the best strategy to win a hockey game? Allowing three goals in the first five minutes. The Rangers did just that to their Metropolitan Division rivals in the Islanders, as the other team from New York scored three goals in the span of two minutes in the first period.

The three-goal hole was then erased as the Rangers potted four of the next five goals that were scored to tie the game at 4-4. Cal Clutterbuck's late tie-breaking goal was the difference for the Islanders in the end as they stole two points from their rivals in New York. With the games winding down, every point matters. Those two points the Rangers squandered could be the difference between a second place finish and a third.

2. Devan Dubnyk is flatlining for the Wild at the wrong time

Coming into Sunday, the Wild had won four straight. Up against the buzzsaw that is the St. Louis Blues, who have gone 7-3-0 in their last 10 games, Minnesota couldn't crack the third best team in the Central. Even worse, goaltender Devan Dubnyk was pulled in the 4-2 loss and hasn't done well for the Wild as of late. With 15 games left in the season and the Wild holding onto that last Wild Card spot in the West, Minnesota better hope their goaltender finds himself again. As Dubnyk goes, so do the chances for the Wild.

3. You know who else might be in trouble? Detroit.

It's gut-check time for the Red Wings. A 4-1 loss to the Blackhawks in a very uninspired effort on Sunday has fans worrying that their 24-year playoff streak might be coming to an end. The Penguins have jumped the Red Wings by a point in the Wild Card standings and just four points separates Detroit from the surging Flyers. The Red Wings have been in trouble of dropping from the playoffs for years now, but if they can't step up their play in the final leg of the season, it could be the end of the longest active playoff appearance streak.

Impact Moment

You know it's a bad night when you're getting in your own way on goals, as Jon Merrill found out against Evgeni Malkin in an easy goal for the opportunistic Pittsburgh forward.

Stat of the Night