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NHL week ahead: playoff implications

The NHL schedule is full of important games in all division playoff races, including Blackhawks vs. Stars.

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With three weeks remaining in the regular schedule, nearly every game from here on has playoff implications. These are this week's can't-miss contests.

Monday, March 21: Kings at Predators (8:00 p.m. ET; FS-W, FS-TN, SNE, SNP)

The Kings have their playoff berth in hand. Now they have their eyes set on earning the second division crown in franchise history and their first since 1990-91. They've won four straight, and are 11-2-1 in their past 14, having opened a four-point lead on Anaheim in the Pacific. If they nail that spot down, they could face the Predators in the first round. Nashville, which lost a 2–1 decision in overtime to the Kings at Bridgestone back on Feb. 20, still has its sights set on catching Chicago and grabbing the third spot in the Central. The Preds have a game in hand on the Hawks, but trail by six points. A loss in this one pretty much puts an end to that dream and steers them towards that first-round meeting with the Kings.

Tuesday, March 22: Stars at Blackhawks (8:30 p.m. ET; FS-SW, CSN-CH)

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Here's another one that's pregnant with playoff implications. The Stars enter the week with a four-point bulge over the Hawks in the battle for top spot in the Central, with St. Louis sitting directly between them. A Dallas win all but puts the defending champs in their rearview mirror and buys them breathing room over the Blues. A Chicago win turns the the final eight games of the season into a dogfight for all three teams. The Stars swarmed the Hawks in their last meeting back on March 11, winning 5–2. They've gone 2-1-1 since, but lost second-leading scorer Tyler Seguin to an Achilles injury. Look for Kari Lehtonen to get the start in net. The incumbent is 5-1-1 during his past seven starts with a 2.48 goals-against average and seems to have beaten out Antti Niemi for the No. 1 spot heading toward the postseason. The Hawks are likely to go with Scott Darling, who stopped 32 of 32 shots before losing 3-2 to the Wild in a shootout on Sunday.

Wednesday, March 23: Bruins at Rangers (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1)

This battle features two teams that are desperately trying to reestablish their identities as they head into the home stretch. The B's are coming off an awful California road trip that saw them play maybe 60 minutes of competitive hockey in total. Boston's an enigmatic team, as likely to dominate a game as it is to sleepwalk through it. Finding some consistency during the last couple of weeks will be critical. If they're going to get things back on track, the Bruins might want to take advantage of a Rangers' penalty kill that is one of the worst in the NHL at 77.3%. The Blueshirts need to step up in front of Henrik Lundqvist. The veteran keeper is 0-3-2 in his past five starts, though that's more reflective of the defense in front of him than his own play.

Thursday, March 24: Flyers at Avalanche (9 p.m. ET; CSN-PH, ALT)

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With wild-card berths on the line, this is a must-win for both Philadelphia and Colorado. The Avs enter the week having won three straight to grab a one-point lead over the Wild in the battle for the second spot in the West. They need this one to build a cushion before their head-to-head meeting with Minnesota on Saturday. The Flyers meanwhile were on an 8-1-1 run before they managed a season-low 17 shots in Saturday's dismal 4–1 loss to Pittsburgh. This will be the third of a four-game road swing that could make, or break, their season.

Friday, March 25: Islanders at Lightning (7:30 p.m. ET; MSG+, SUN, NHLN-US, TVAS)

The Isles, who appear to be in one of their disastrous last-season skids, enter this week in a bad way, having won just one of their past six games (1-3-2) to fall from third place in the Metropolitan Division into one of the East's two wild-card spots. Fortunately, they play just four of their final 12 games on the road, including this trip to Amalie Arena, and have a chance to make up some ground at home. However, the Bolts have been tough in their own barn, posting the third-best home record in the East, and can count on some great goaltending. Ben Bishop leads the league with a 2.02 goals-against average and has earned shutouts in two of his past three starts. If the Isles come away with a point, it will be a major get.

Saturday, March 26: Blues at Capitals (7 p.m. ET; FS-MW, CSN-DC)

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It might not match the playoff intrigue of some other contests on the schedule (Bolts vs. Panthers should be a beauty, along with that Avs vs. Wild game), but there's a heavyweight aspect to this one that makes it the one to watch. Both the Blues and Capitals are legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup, though both sides have much to prove. Washington has struggled against top competition of late, dropping two of three in California and its last meetings with the Hawks and Stars. This offers a good opportunity for the Caps to test themselves against the sort of heavy, grinding hockey they're likely to face later in the postseason. The Blues have something to prove as well, having dropped two of three last week and wasting a chance to take over the top spot in the Central. Look for Brian Elliott to get the start in net. Since the All-Star break, he's gone 5-0-0 on the road, with a 1.60 GAA, .937 save percentage and two shutouts.

Sunday, Mar. 27: Penguins at Rangers (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS)

Heading into the week these two are sides are deadlocked in the Metro with 88 points, but headed in very different directions. The Penguins have won six straight, including five in a row without Evgeni Malkin, to bolt from the wild card field into second place in the division. Meanwhile, the Rangers have just one win in their past five, a stretch that includes a 5–3 loss to Pittsburgh back on March 13. They're also coming off one of their worst performances of the season, a 4–1 loss in San Jose that saw them outshot 52-26. The pressure is on the big guns to start chipping in. Rick Nash hasn't scored a goal in 14 games. Eric Staal has two points in 10 games since coming over in a deadline trade from Carolina. 

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The numbers game

• The Penguins (40-24-8, 88 points) have won 40 games for the 16th time in their history, and ninth in their past 10 seasons, moving past the Rangers into second place in the Metropolitan Division, thanks to Pittsburgh's head-to-head tiebreaker (2-1-0). The two teams play their final game against each other on Sunday at New York's Madison Square Garden.

​• San Jose's bearded wonder Brent Burns now owns the franchise's single-season record for points by a defenseman, breaking the mark set by Sandis Ozolinsh (64) in 1993-94.​

• Scott Wedgewood has become the first Devils netminder to win in his NHL debut since Martin Brodeur did it against Boston on March 26, 1992.

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• Not sure what's cooler here: that New Jersey rookie Scott Wedgewood earned the win in his NHL debut or that he was quickly congratulated by the most famous Devils fan ever.