Down the stretch they come...

Tuesday April 3rd, 2012

The Sharks-Kings season-ending home-and-home could have a big impact on the West's playoff field. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at how the Eastern and Western Conference playoff races were shaping up for the top and bottom qualifiers. Not surprisingly, the races for postseason positioning appear as though they may not be settled until Saturday, the final day of the regular schedule, setting up the possibility of some real drama before the even bigger drama of the postseason gets underway next Wednesday.

The big action seems to be in the West, where two of the three clubs battling for the Presidents' Trophy reside. There's also a terrifically tight contest for fourth place -- the final home ice advantage spot in the opening round -- and the still wacky Pacific Division race as well as the battle among five teams for the seventh and eighth spots, the last two playoff qualifiers. The Rangers are the sole Eastern club in the hunt for first overall and the Capitals and Sabres are the only teams clawing for the final spot in that conference, but if you think the East seems relatively placid by comparison to the West, well, you didn't watch the Penguins-Flyers game last Saturday.

Once again, here are the tiebreaking criteria if teams finish the season with the same number of points.

1. The greater number of games won, excluding games won in the shootout. On, that is the “ROW” (for regulation and overtime wins) column in the standings).

2. This one’s complicated: The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any “odd” games, shall be used to determine the standing. Got that?

3. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season. In the standings, a victory in a shootout counts as one goal for, while a shootout loss counts as one goal against

So here's a quick look at the hottest races remaining.

For the Presidents' Trophy:

Rangers -- 107 points with 50 wins, 46 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 1 home (Capitals), 2 road (Flyers, Penguins).

Canucks -- 107 points with 49 wins, 42 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 2 home (Ducks, Oilers), 1 road (Flames).

Blues -- 106 points with 48 wins, 44 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 2 home (Red Wings, Coyotes), 1 road (Stars).

The Canucks have the best schedule of the three, with all three of their opponents being non-playoff clubs. The Rangers have the edge in the ROW tiebreaker. None of that takes into account the fact that, with big leads in their divisions, their coaches might rest players in preparation for the first round. Some would argue, of course, there is no resting for John Tortorella's Rangers as each of their games is approached with Game 7 intensity.

In the Western Conference, for fourth place and home ice advantage in the first round:

Red Wings -- 99 points with 47 wins, 39 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 2 home (Devils, Blackhawks), 1 road (Blues).

Predators -- 98 points with 45 wins, 41 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 2 home (Wild, Stars), 1 road (Avalanche).

Blackhawks -- 98 points with 44 wins, 38 in regulation and overtime. Two games remaining: both on the road (Wild, Red Wings).

Not only is this for home ice between the two top finishers, who will end up fourth and fifth, but the team that comes in sixth will draw the winner of the Pacific Division, which is seeded third. That is currently the Kings, who have opened up a three-point lead on the Sharks with their win on Monday night so, some might believe, finishing sixth could end up being the best outcome, as we discussed last week. The head-to-head game on the season's last day between the Wings and Hawks could have significant consequences. The Predators appear to have an edge with the best schedule of opponents and the ROW tiebreaker.

In the Eastern Conference, for fourth place and home ice advantage in the first round matchup between these teams:

Penguins -- 102 points with 48 wins, 39 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 2 home (Rangers, Flyers), 1 road (Bruins).

Flyers -- 101 points with 46 wins, 42 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 2 home (Rangers, Sabres), 1 road (Penguins).

The most fierce rivalry in the NHL today, these teams will meet head-to-head on the season's last day in what could decide this race. Each also plays the Rangers, while as a third foe, the Penguins draw the playoff-bound Bruins, who can't go up or down. The Flyers draw the Sabres, who are battling for their playoff lives. The Flyers have the ROW edge. Fasten your seatbelts.

In the Eastern Conference for the last playoff spot:

Capitals -- 88 points with 40 wins, 36 in regulation and overtime. Two games remaining: 1 home (Panthers), 1 road (Rangers).

Sabres -- 86 points with 38 wins, 31 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 1 home (Maple Leafs), 2 road (Flyers, Bruins).

Washington blew a chance on Monday night to give itself some breathing room, but couldn't protect the regulation tie it achieved with just over three minutes remaining, surrendering the winning goal to Steven Stamkos and the Lightning with 67 seconds left on the clock. That gave Buffalo renewed hope. The Sabres were in the driver's seat a week ago, but dropping two straight -- especially losing in Toronto over the weekend -- really hurt the Sabres. They don't have the edge in the ROW tiebreaker, so they have to win on points. They do have a game in hand, which benefits them, but their final two opponents are tough. Their game against the Leafs tonight (Tuesday), their final home game, is crucial for their chances.

And the craziest race of all: for first place in the Pacific Division and the final playoff spots in the Western Conference:

Kings -- 93 points with 40 wins, 34 in regulation and overtime. Two games remaining: 1 home (Sharks), 1 road (Sharks).

Coyotes -- 91 points with 39 wins, 33 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 1 home (Blue Jackets), 2 road (Blues, Wild).

Sharks -- 90 points with 40 wins, 32 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 1 home (Kings), 2 road (Stars, Kings).

Stars -- 89 points with 42 wins, 35 in regulation and overtime. Three games remaining: 2 home (Sharks, Blues), 1 road (Predators).

And here are the Avs, who are not in the Pacific Division, but they still have an outside shot at the last Western spot, which the Sharks currently hold:

Avalanche -- 88 points with 41 wins, 32 in regulation and overtime. Two games remaining: both at home (Blue Jackets, Predators).

This is, essentially, as it has been for the last couple of weeks, five teams fighting for three spots. The Sharks remain the team that best controls its own destiny in this group. Starting Tuesday night in Dallas, all three of their remaining games are head-to-head affairs, with a home-and-home finale against the Kings looming as a major challenge. Obviously, the Kings also control their destiny, although they now have one fewer game, but their victory on Monday night over the Oilers has given them a bit of daylight over the field. The other remaining teams are pulling for the Kings and Sharks to knock each other off in regulation. The Coyotes have a pretty good schedule, facing two non-playoff clubs (although the Wild have played the spoiler role pretty well recently). The Avs have a good schedule, too, but they may have too large a gap to close and too few games left to squeak in. The Stars have a tough schedule, but they hold the lead in the ROW tiebreaker and, with all this traffic, that could come into play here.

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