Thursday night is poised to be a massive night in the NHL playoff picture, both in the East and the West. There is a chance that every open playoff spot, two in the East and three in the West, could be clinched tonight, needing the right combination of results, of course.
In the East, the big marquee game of the night sees the Florida Panthers head to the US capital to take on the Washington Capitals. The Panthers only need 1 point to clinch the East, but a win would send the Capitals into some real damage control into Saturday's final day of action. If the Capitals win, that will put the pressure on the Sabres to come up big in their game against the Flyers and if the Capitals beat the Panthers in overtime, then Florida clinches and Washington is in the driver's seat for 8th.
The Sabres and Flyers will then take a little bit of a back seat, unless the Panthers can pull off the win, then they are at the forefront, trying to help themselves eliminate Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. Both games will be starting at the same time, so there will be plenty of scoreboard watching between shifts in these games.
In the West, it's a little bit more complicated, but it is still going to be fun to watch. There are five teams vying for three spots and five of those teams are going on Thursday night, the only one who is idle is Phoenix.
The first game on tap is the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators, where the Stars desperately need a win to stay alive in the race. A regulation loss would put them out of contention immediately, while an overtime loss would need some help from the Los Angeles/San Jose game, meaning the Kings would have to beat the Sharks in regulation to keep the Stars alive. If the Stars drop a point in this game, the Coyotes, while idle, will clinch their playoff spot before hitting the ice on Friday.
Much is the same with the Colorado Avalanche, who potentially hold a tie-breaker against the San Jose Sharks, anything less than 2 points against the Columbus Blue Jackets will, in fact, eliminate them. Colorado would need a regulation or overtime win to keep the tie-breaker alive as well, assuming that they do not have the season series in their favour, which I haven't been able to research yet.
Either one of those games could go for naught, if the San Jose and Los Angeles game goes in favour of the visitors, which could do some real damage at the bottom of the table. The Kings could move closer to clinching the division title with a win, but a regulation loss will see the division lead go to the Sharks and the Kings would drop below Phoenix, due to the games played tie-breaker. The Sharks, depending on earlier results, could be in trouble with a regulation loss, so they could very well be trying for overtime, just to make sure they get that extra point in the standings and then play for the bonus.
There is lots of intrigue still left in the playoff races, but as much as teams would like their playoff fates to be decided, and by decided, I mean clinched, before the last day of the season, there is no guarantee of it and that's why they play the game.