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Though the Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to get underway in April, there is still plenty to be decided in the NHL‘s Eastern and Western Conferences.
While a few teams have separated themselves from the pack in the divisional standings, there are plenty of potential wild-card teams in the mix for the final two playoff berths in each conference.
In the NHL playoff format, the top three teams from each division and the top two wild-card squads fill out the eight playoff positions in each conference.
The lowest-ranked wild-card teams face the No. 1 overall seeds in their respective conferences, and the wild-card teams with the better records face the other division winners.
Teams that place second and third in each division go head-to-head in the first round of the playoffs.
1. Washington: 87 points
2. Pittsburgh: 87
3. Philadelphia: 81
1. Tampa Bay: 100
2. Boston: 96
3. Toronto: 91
1. Columbus: 81
2. New Jersey: 80
3. Florida: 77
4. Carolina: 71
5. New York Rangers: 71
6. New York Islanders: 70
1. Nashville: 102
2. Winnipeg: 94
3. Minnesota: 85
1. Vegas: 95
2. San Jose: 85
3. Los Angeles: 84
1. Colorado: 84
2. Dallas: 83
3. Anaheim: 82
4. Calgary: 80
5. St. Louis: 79
The race for the wild-card positions in the East seems straightforward, with the Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils leading the way.
However, Florida is lurking right behind the Blue Jackets and Devils, holding two games in hand and with a critical trip to Columbus coming up Thursday.
Before that meeting at Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets have three games. One of those is against a playoff opponent, while the Panthers take on a trio of Canadian teams.
There’s potential for the Columbus-Florida game to have extra meaning if the Devils slip up during the remaining three games of their four-game West Coast road trip.
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The Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are on the docket for the Devils, who are 18-12-5 on the road. They face the champion Pittsburgh Penguins to conclude their trip.
New Jersey has a favorable path thereafter, with six of the team’s final eight games at home.
The Blue Jackets appear to have the easiest schedule of the three wild-card contenders in the East, but if the race goes down to the final few days of the season, it may be tough for them to secure a berth, with games against Pittsburgh and the Nashville Predators closing out their regular-season slate.
Columbus and New Jersey both still have a chance to vault into third place in the Metropolitan Division, as the Blue Jackets are tied on points with the Philadelphia Flyers. However, the Flyers could create some distance, with games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers coming up.
Prediction: 1. New Jersey, 2. Columbus
The wild-card hunt in the West is more muddled than it is the East, as five teams are fighting for two positions.
The Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars are in the best spots to qualify for the postseason, but that could change in a heartbeat, with the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues all within five points of the Avalanche.
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More drama could ensue if the Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks or Los Angeles Kings get pulled into the wild-card race.
Minnesota carries a one-point lead over Colorado in the Central Division and a two-point advantage over Dallas into Friday, while the Sharks, Kings, Ducks and Flames have five points between them in the Pacific Division.
Of the 12 games left on their schedule, the Avalanche have to play seven against teams in playoff positions, including a home-and-home with the Pacific-leading Vegas Golden Knights.
The Stars face the same amount of playoff teams, but only have four home games remaining. The Ducks, Flames and Blues all have six left in their buildings.
There are a few forthcoming games that could change the complexion of the wild-card race, as the Ducks and the Flames face off Wednesday, while the Avalanche and the Kings square off Thursday.
No matter which teams finish in the West’s wild-card spots, they will have earned those spots since the sprint to the finish appears set to be loaded with dramatic twists.
Prediction: 1. Colorado, 2. Anaheim
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.