The NHL’s regular season ends April 10 and although the big story for many is the imminent arrival of the post-season, there still are some can’t-miss games before then.
Here are the top 10 NHL games to watch prior to the playoffs:
10. Anaheim at Calgary, March 30
This could be one of the last gasps for the Flames, losers of six of their past eight games and three points behind the Blackhawks (who have a game in hand) for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference. The Ducks, meanwhile, have lost just three times in their past 14 games, but are a far worse road team (19-16-3) than they are at home (24-12-2).
9. Boston at New York Rangers, April 4
As potential first round opponents, the Blueshirts and Bruins will have much to prove against each other when they square off at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers have won two of the three games the teams have played this season, but at this stage, they need the points more than Boston.
8. Dallas at Los Angeles, April 2
The Stars currently sit tied with Calgary for ninth in the West with just seven games to play; if they lose a crucial game to the Sharks on Thursday, this tilt may not matter to their playoff hopes. But if Dallas can stay in the hunt, this game against a division rival promises to be worth the view. The Kings have won three of the five games between the two franchises this season; that said, L.A. will be without injured veterans Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams.
7. Montreal at Carolina, March 30
The Hurricanes are three points behind Buffalo for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with six games to play, meaning they need this win. The Canadiens have dropped three of their past four and are in danger of being passed by the Rangers and/or Sabres for sixth in the East, meaning they need this win. And the raucous crowd at the RBC Center in Raleigh will be deafening in their support for the home side.
6. Philadelphia at Buffalo, April 8
Another potential first round matchup, this Flyers-Sabres game promises more of what we’ve seen from the two teams in recent years: dazzling offense and smothering defense from Philadelphia; Ryan Miller’s goaltending and a can-do attitude from Buffalo. The Flyers won the first two games between the teams this year, but the Sabres won the most recent showdown.
5. Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, March 31
If the playoffs started today, the Penguins and Lightning would be squaring off against one another in the first round. (Crosby vs. Stamkos, anybody?) Without No. 87 for Pittsburgh, this game will be a contrast in styles - the offense-dependent Bolts and the more-than-defensively-capable Pens.
4. New York Rangers at Buffalo, March 30
Given the lower playoff seeds in the East are far from decided; and given the Sabres could pull even with the Rangers in the standings with a regulation win in this game; and given any matchup between the two intra-state franchises is a little more electric than a typical playoff race game, this one ought to be great.
3. Detroit at Chicago, April 10
The second-last game of the final day of the regular season is also likely to be the most important. The Red Wings will be trying to correct a late-season stumble that began in March, while the Hawks could very well be fighting for their playoff lives (or at least a more favorable seeding) right until the last whistle of this game.
2. San Jose at Phoenix, April 8
San Jose has won all four games against their division rivals from Arizona this season and has also been one of the NHL’s best teams in the second half of the campaign. However, the Coyotes have been on a hot streak of their own since March 5 (9-2-1). This first game of a home-and-home series to end the season will provide a key glimpse into a matchup that could be witnessed again - perhaps as early as the first round.
1. Anaheim at Los Angeles, April 9
As it stands right now, neither the Kings nor the Ducks are assured of a playoff spot. But even if only one of the two franchises is in contention during the final weekend of the season, this game will be fascinating on a number of levels. For starters, it will be the second game of a back-to-back, home-and-home, season-ending series between the teams; it also will be the third game in four nights for the Ducks; and even if one team has fallen out of the race, it will be in position to play spoiler in a big way. But if both are still in the top eight, these final two showdowns will have serious implications on the West’s playoff bracket.
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