By Allan Muir
At the start of the season's final full day, there were 32 possible permutations for the eight first-round playoff series.
By the end of a truly thrilling night of hockey, there were streaks extended, hearts broken and three series yet to be decided.
Here's how it played out:
In the West, all three teams that needed a win to qualify for the playoffs delivered two points in their finales, but there were still only two chairs available when the music stopped.
The Red Wings extended their consecutive playoff appearance streak to 22 years with a convincing 3-0 win over the Dallas Stars. "I’m proud of the guys," coach Mike Babcock said when asked about Henrik Zetterberg, who had a pair of goals including a shortie. "We had phenomenal leadership."
Detroit's fourth-straight victory down the stretch earned the Wings the seventh spot in the West and a date with the Anaheim Ducks, who long ago clinched the second seed as the champs of the Pacific Division. "We're going to Disneyland," said goaltender Jimmy Howard, who has allowed just four goals in his last six appearances.
Minnesota and Columbus both ended up with 55 points after pulling out wins on the road over Colorado and Nashville, respectively, but the pesky Blue Jackets fell just short of their playoff goal, ceding eighth to the Wild on a tiebreaker: Minnesota's win tonight was their 22nd in regulation/overtime, to just 19 for the Jackets. "It's a disappointing, sinking feeling right now," Columbus coach Todd Richards said. "I'm extremely proud of the group. You get emotional because of the time you put in. Everyone put their heart in."
The Jackets went 8-1-0 in their last nine games, but to sneak into the mix they needed help that the Avs couldn't provide, and an overturned goal by Colorado proved damaging to Columbus, which trailed Nashville 1-0 heading into the third period, but blew the Preds out of the water with a 15-0 shot advantage in the first 10 minutes of the final frame on the way to a heartbreaking 3-1 win.
Minnesota busted a four-game losing skid with the 3-1 clincher over the Avs to earn its first playoff berth in five seasons. It might not be a long trip, though. The Wild ended up in eighth, pitting them against the mighty Blackhawks.
"We're in," coach Mike Yeo said. "But let's just make sure that we're clear: we're not done. We're just not going to sit here on cloud nine and say this is a huge accomplishment. This is a step, a big step, and it was a difficult step for us. Now that the confidence is there and we know what we have to do [in the playoffs] and we believe that if we do it, then the right result will be there."
It's probably best not to write them off just yet. The Wild went 1-2-0 against the Hawks in the regular season, earning a shootout win in the midst of Chicago's record-setting points streak.
Fifth place and a meeting with the St. Louis Blues was on the line at the Staples Center, and the Kings delivered a 3-2 win over the Sharks to seal the deal. The defending champs struggled down the stretch, but finished on a high note to get a match-up they wanted. They beat the Blues in all three meetings this season.
The loss to LA left the Sharks in sixth, setting up a date with the Canucks, who gave up five goals in a span of 3:35 in the third as they were wiped out by the Oilers, 7-2. They might play the "we rested a bunch of regulars" card, but it was still a meltdown with Roberto Luongo in goal, and with Cory Schneider's injury unresolved, that's not the postseason lead-in they wanted.
And while it didn't impact the playoff race, the Coyotes' 5-3 win over the Ducks in Anaheim might go down in the books as the franchise's final game as desert dwellers. Radim Vrbata had a hat trick for the visitors, who could move to a new home as soon as next month.
While we now know all eight playoff teams in the East, only one series was settled tonight. The Caps, already guaranteed the third seed they'd locked down earlier this week as Southwest Division champs, learned they'd face the Rangers, who thumped the Devils 4-0 in their season-ender. The win clinched sixth spot for the Blueshirts, who finished the season on a 7-3 tear. Rick Nash had two goals on seven shots in a monster performance for New York.
With first spot on the line in the Northeast Division, Montreal took care of business with a 4-1 throttling of the Maple Leafs. The win bumped them to 63 points, one ahead of Boston, which lost in overtime to the Caps. The top spot remains up for grabs though, with the Bruins hosting the Ottawa Senators Sunday in a game that was rescheduled from the night of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. The B's need two points from that one in regulation, overtime or the shootout to claim the title and the second seed. With the Habs holding the tiebreak (26 regulation/overtime wins to 24 for Boston), another single point will leave the B's stranded in fourth.
The Senators lost any hope of moving up to fifth when they were dumped by the Flyers, 2-1, but still have a shot at seventh place (and dodging the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round) if they manage to win in regulation or lose in overtime or the shootout on Sunday night. If they lose in regulation, they remain in eighth. The fate of the Islanders, who closed out their campaign with Friday night's 2-1 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres, now rests with Ottawa. The Isles will stay in seventh with a regulation loss by the Sens, or drop to eighth if Ottawa pulls a point out of OT or the shootout.
By losing to the Canadiens, the Leafs were locked into the fifth spot and either a first-round rematch with the Habs or their bete noire, the Boston Bruins, depending on which team finishes fourth.