NHL 2014 stretch drive games to watch this week (March 3 - April 6)

Monday March 31st, 2014

Coach Randy Carlyle and the Maple Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle (center, in tie) must duck an angry fan and stop the Leafs' free fall. (Nick Turchiaro/Icon SMI)

By Allan Muir

Try as I might, it's impossible not to make this column about the Maple Leafs. I mean, here's a team that could have pulled to within a single point of the Canadiens with a win over Montreal on March 22. Instead, Toronto dropped that decision, and the loss has sent the Leafs spiraling into an epic late season collapse. They've lost eight in a row and now trail the Habs by 13 points. That leaves Toronto with a 4.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to SportsClubStats.com.

Plus, there's an an ex-heavyweight champ looking to beat up coach Randy Carlyle, so every Maple Leafs' game now becomes a death watch in more ways than one.

Toronto is still, of course, in the race in the tightly packed Eastern Conference, but the Leafs need to start winning some games, starting with Tuesday night's contest against the Flames, a team that's only too happy to play the spoiler down the stretch as it tries to establish an identity that will carry it into contention a few years down the road.

Here's a look at that contest, and five other must-watch matches on the schedule this week:

Tuesday, April 1: Flames at Maple Leafs (7:00 p.m. ET; SNET West, SNET Ontario)

Maybe it won't take 92 points to secure a playoff spot in the East, but with 80 in the bank and six games to be played, the Maple Leafs essentially have to run the table to save themselves from a disastrous March. And not that any game is easy for a team that's lost eight straight, but the Flames pose a unique challenge. A hard-working group that's figured out how to punch above its weight, Calgary is the kind of team that Toronto wants/needs to be. Also, Phil Kessel -- two goals in his last 10 games -- needs to step up.

Tuesday, April 1: Stars at Capitals (7:00 p.m.; FS-SW+, CSN-DC)

The Stars have won just two of their last eight road games, which doesn't bode well for a team that will finish the season playing five of eight away from the American Airlines Center. Like the Capitals, Dallas stands one point out of the final wild card spot in its conference, so anything less than five points on the Stars' four-game swing through the former Southeast Division could be fatal. Washington has lost four of five, but managed to sneak a point out of three of those games. It's better than nothing, but the Caps need to start piling up points by the pair if they want to keep pace in the four-team Eastern race.

Tuesday, April 1: Canadiens at Lightning (7:30 p.m.; RDS, TSN-Habs FS Florida)

Powered by the hottest line in hockey -- David Desharnais between Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek -- the Canadiens have ripped off five consecutive wins to grab second place in the Atlantic. The Lightning are just as hot, going 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, but they find themselves looking up at the Canadiens after losing on Sunday to the Red Wings. With Montreal and Tampa Bay locked in for a first-round playoff match-up, this isn't just an opportunity to set the tone for the series, it's a chance to claim to home ice advantage. With each of their first three meetings requiring extra time to arrive at identical 2-1 scores, this one should be a dilly.

Thursday, April 3: Sabres at Blues (8:00 p.m. ET; MSG-B,BELL TV,FS-MW )

It doesn't take a playoff race to add some sizzle to the schedule. Ryan Miller faces his old teammates for the first time. Hot enough for ya?

Thursday, April 3: Kings at Sharks (10:30 p.m. ET; TSN2, NBCSN)

The Sharks would love to avoid a first round date with the red-hot Kings (14 wins in their last 17 games), but to do that they'll have to slip past the Ducks into first place in the Pacific. Anaheim has two games in hand, so San Jose has no room to slip up, making this meeting with L.A. -- which took three of their first four meetings -- a must-win.

Sunday, April 6: Blues at Blackhawks (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, TSN2)The Blackhawks probably see this one as a chance to get their game back on track as much as a chance to break out the measuring stick. Chicago has dropped three straight and four of its last five, getting blanked twice in the process. The Hawks are saying all the right things about urgency, but that drive hasn't been evident in their play. And it won't help on Sunday now that Jonathan Toews has joined Patrick Kane on the sidelines against a St. Louis team that has won three of four to solidify its lead in the Central Division.

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