Tonight's best: Atlantic, Pacific races take spotlight

Considering the fact that eighth place in the Eastern Conference isn’t really much to brag about, I’d say that the two most interesting tug-o-wars going forward are for the Atlantic and Pacific divisions. Today’s best games feature bouts that will affect those intriguing races. Since the remaining eight games vary from bland to lighting candles and listening to Enya, I’ll just discuss the three best of the night.

Phoenix Coyotes (46-23-5, 97 pts) at Nashville Predators (42-27-5, 89 pts) 8:00 PM ET

If you went three months back in time and told me that the Coyotes would regularly be involved in the most intriguing games of any given night in March, I either would have directed you to the nearest AA meeting or wondered if something drastic happened with their tortured fan base. Thankfully, the answer to that imaginary multiple choice is “none of the above.” Can the Coyotes really out-last the Sharks and win the Pacific, though?

New York Rangers (32-32-9, 73 pts) at New Jersey Devils (43-25-4, 90 pts) 7:00 PM ET

The Rangers will need to get their voodoo dolls out for Montreal, Boston and Philadelphia, but they’re also going to have to win some games to sneak into the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Rangers, the Devils have every reason to win this one as they continue their neck-and-neck race with the Penguins for the Atlantic Division.

Dallas Stars (32-27-14, 78 pts) at San Jose Sharks (44-19-10, 98 pts) 10:30 PM ET

The Stars are in full-on wishful thinking mode. They will need a staggering winning streak and probably a minor miracle or two to make the playoffs. Don’t expect bitter rival San Jose to do them any favors, either, since they have those pesky Coyotes to deal with. You may find this game on NHL Network tonight, by the way.

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    Rangers punch playoff ticket to wrap up night of clinched spots

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    The New York Rangers weren’t ecstatic that Chris Tierney‘s 4-4 goal sent their game to overtime against the San Jose Sharks, but either way, getting beyond regulation punched their ticket to the playoffs on Tuesday night.

    For the seventh season in a row, the Rangers are in the NHL’s postseason. They fell to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime, so they haven’t locked down the first wild-card spot in the East … yet. It seems like a matter of time, however.

    The Rangers have now made the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 tries, a far cry from the barren stretch where the Rangers failed to make the playoffs from 1997-98 through 2003-04 (with the lockout season punctuating the end of that incompetent era).

    New York has pivoted from the John Tortorella days to the Vigneault era, and this season has been especially interesting as they reacted to a 2016 first-round loss to the Penguins by instituting a more attacking style. The Metropolitan Division’s greatness has overshadowed, to some extent, how dramatic the improvement has been.

    This result seems like a tidy way to discuss Tuesday’s other events.

    The drama ends up being low for the Rangers going forward, and while there might be a shortage of life-or-death playoff struggles, the battles for seeding look to be fierce.

    Oilers end NHL’s longest playoff drought; Sharks, Ducks also clinch

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    There’s something beautiful about the symmetry on Tuesday … unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings fans, maybe.

    On the same night that the longest active NHL playoff streak ended at 25 for Detroit, the longest playoff drought concluded when the Edmonton Oilers clinched a postseason spot by beating the Los Angeles Kings 2-1.

    The Oilers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2005-06, when Chris Pronger lifted them to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

    In doing so, other dominoes fell. Both the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks also punched their tickets to the postseason.

    The Sharks, of course, hope to exceed last season’s surprising run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

    Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks continue their run of strong postseasons, even as their Cup win fades to the background ever so slightly. All three teams are currently vying for the Pacific Division title.

    The Western Conference’s eight teams are dangerously close to being locked into place, as the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues are all close to looking down their spots as well.

    Want the East perspective? Check out this summary of Tuesday’s events from the perspective of the other conference.

    Craig Anderson took his blunder hard – probably too hard – in Sens loss

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    Members of the Ottawa Senators were quick to come to Craig Anderson‘s blunder (see above) in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and it’s easy to see why.

    It’s not just about his personal struggles, either. When Anderson’s managed to play, he’s been flat-out phenomenal, generating a .927 save percentage that ranks near a Vezina-type level (if he managed to play more than 35 games).

    Goaltending has been a huge reason why Ottawa has at least a shot of winning the Atlantic or at least grabbing a round of home-ice advantage, so unlike certain instances where teams shield a goalie’s failures, the defenses are absolutely justified.

    Anderson, on the other hand, was very hard on himself.

    You have to admire Anderson for taking the blame, even if in very much “hockey player” fashion, he’s not exactly demanding the same sort of credit for his great work this season.

    Just about every relevant team in the East playoff races won tonight

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    After Eastern Conference teams deserved a “C” on Monday, they generally passed Tuesday’s tests with flying colors. Sometimes they carved out three-point games when relevant teams faced off, too.

    It’s almost bewildering trying to figure out where to start … so how about the top of the East?

    Metro’s rich get richer

    The Minnesota Wild deserve credit for fighting back from a considerable deficit, including overcoming an Alex Ovechkin hat trick (all on the power play). Ultimately, T.J. Oshie‘s overtime-winner gave Washington the 5-4 (OT) win.

    Elsewhere in the Metro’s top ranks, Sergei Bobrovsky grabbed his 41st win of the season (3-1 win against the Sabres) to put Columbus three points behind the Capitals and two ahead of the idle Penguins.

    Metro top three (all with 75 games played)

    1. Capitals – 108 points
    2. Blue Jackets – 105 points
    3. Penguins – 103 points

    Canadiens gain ground

    The Montreal Canadiens handled the Dallas Stars 4-1 in The Epic Battle of the Benns. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers beat the second-place Senators 3-2 via a shootout

    Both the Maple Leafs and Bruins won their games, leaving Toronto one point ahead of Boston for third in the Atlantic.

    Atlantic top five

    1. Canadiens – 95 points in 76 games played
    2. Senators – 91 points in 75 GP
    3. Maple Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

    Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP
    Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP

    Finally, let’s look at the final spot in the East

    OK, so there’s some overlap here. Why don’t we check on the most wild-card-relevant teams?

    Third Atlantic spot: Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

    Final spot: Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP

    Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
    Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
    Hurricanes – 82 points in 75 GP
    Flyers – 80 points in 76 GP
    Panthers – 77 points in 76 GP

    Again, the Bruins won, as did the Flyers. The Lightning were idle. The Panthers fell to the Maple Leafs. Buffalo lost while Detroit and New Jersey are out of the running.

    You know who deserves special mention outside of the top eight? The Carolina Hurricanes deserve such a distinction, as they are enjoying one of their hottest runs in franchise history after beating Detroit 4-1.

    The overall message: just about any truly relevant team at least grabbed a standings point, with most winning games outright on Tuesday.

    It doesn’t exactly thin the herd, but it keeps the door open for a fun race to the finish.