Race for the playoffs: Three make-or-break games on tap tonight

With the season winding down and the playoff picture sorting itself out, we’ll be taking a look at the night’s games and how they’ll potentially affect the playoff races. This is ProHockeyTalk’s “Race for the Playoffs.”

Eastern Conference

5. Tampa Bay – 93 pts
6. Montreal – 89 pts
7. NY Rangers – 87 pts
8. Buffalo – 85 pts
9. Carolina – 82 pts
10. Toronto – 80 pts
11. Atlanta – 76 pts

NY Rangers @ Buffalo – 7 p.m. ET
The Rangers hold just a two point lead on Buffalo. Just think of how much more interesting this would’ve been had Buffalo knocked off Toronto last night. The race at the lower half of the East is filled with intrigue and Montreal’s recent slide has gotten both the Rangers and Sabres back in the mix to potentially have a shot at getting into sixth place and a likely date with Boston in the first round of the playoffs.

The potential goalie battle in this game has us all tingly with Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers and Ryan Miller for Buffalo. Miller had a rough go against Toronto last night giving up four goals in the loss. The Rangers can either keep pace with or equal the Habs, depending on what happens in their game against Carolina tonight, but if you’re thinking there’ll be a host of goals in this game, think again.

Montreal @ Carolina – 7 p.m. ET
These two teams have a slight bit of history and it’s none too friendly and there’s nothing more the Canadiens would like than to put a hurting on the Hurricanes playoff hopes. Carolina is three points back of Buffalo and if everything breaks right for them tonight, they could be just one point out after it’s all said and done this evening. Montreal may be poised to roll though after snapping their 199 minute goalless drought last night, a streak that was part of a three-game losing skid. While both teams have had their doses of inconsistency this season, Carolina’s have been a bit more hot and cold. Getting a win over the Caps in the shootout last night could be a sign of righting the ship at the right time as they’ve now won five of their last seven games.

NY Islanders @ New Jersey – 7 p.m. ET
While Zach Parise may get a shot to play for the first time since November, it’s pretty much pride on the line between these two. They’ve been the two hottest teams the second half of the year and while the Devils teased for a bit like they might get close to the playoffs, it’s not going to happen now. The Islanders would love to be the team that casts the fatal blow to the Devils final hopes at the postseason.

Western Conference

5. Los Angeles – 94 pts
6. Nashville – 92 pts
7. Anaheim – 91 pts
8. Chicago – 90 pts
9. Dallas – 87 pts
10. Calgary – 87 pts

Anaheim @ Calgary – 9:30 p.m. ET
This is it for Calgary, a loss to Anaheim and they’re dead in the water for the playoffs. Calgary will have just four games remaining after this one and getting to 95 points won’t guarantee a shot at the postseason. The Flames will essentially have to win their final five games starting with tonight’s game against the Ducks to have any slightly stress-free hopes of the playoffs. With everyone else ahead of them having games in hand to play, things don’t look good for Calgary.

Making things worse for the Flames is they’ll have to play an Anaheim team that’s playing much better of late thanks to Corey Perry’s great play. Anaheim has the chance to move up to sixth in the West with a win and moving ahead of Nashville in the West means that the rumbling talk of Corey Perry for league MVP will rumble on. For us, we’ll just be excited to see yet another game with the ever-awesome Teemu Selanne.

St. Louis @ Detroit – 7:30 p.m. ET
All right there’s not much to this game playoff-wise at all since Vancouver clinched the top spot in the Western Conference, but Detroit still needs to wrap up the Central Division and with Nashville still lurking behind them, only wins can help put them away.

Ducks name Kesler alternate captain

Ryan Kesler
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For the second time in his career, Ryan Kesler is wearing an “A.”

On Thursday, the Anaheim Ducks announced that Kesler would serve as one of the club’s alternate captains this season, taking over for Francois Beauchemin, who signed in Colorado this summer.

With the move, Kesler joins Anaheim’s existing leadership group of captain Ryan Getzlaf, and alternate Corey Perry.

“It’s an honor,” Kesler said, per the Ducks. “It’s special. I’m going to wear it with pride and lead by example.”

As mentioned earlier, Kesler has some experience as an alternate — he wore an “A” in Vancouver from 2008-13, but had it removed prior to the start of the ’13-14 campaign.

It’s not surprising Anaheim went in this direction. GM Bob Murray made a huge investment in Kesler this summer by inking the 31-year-old to a six-year, $41.25M extension.

Diaz could leave Rangers for Europe

Raphael Diaz, Mike Sislo
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Could Raphael Diaz be on his way back to Switzerland?

We’ll know in a month.

Diaz, who lost out on the Rangers’ final blueline spot in training camp, has reported to the club’s AHL affiliate in Hartford but doesn’t seem pleased with his current situation, per the Post:

The 29-year-old Diaz, who cleared waivers last Saturday after the Blueshirts opted to keep rookie Dylan McIlrath as the club’s seventh on the blue line, is interested in the European option if he is not in the NHL.

The Blueshirts have told Diaz they will revisit the situation at the end of October, but have not promised to release him or assign him to a European team at that point.

If Diaz, a Swiss native who represented Switzerland in the 2014 Olympics, does play in Europe during the season, he would have to go through waivers in order to return to the NHL.

Diaz’s agent, Ritch Winter, told the Post that Diaz signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Rangers “to play with the Rangers.”

And it’s understandable if Diaz — a journeyman offensive defenseman — isn’t happy with this situation.

While some believe McIlrath earned his roster spot on merit, some think it’s because of his contract status. McIlrath, who’s only 23 and a former first-round pick, would’ve needed to clear waivers to go back to Hartford, and it’s believed he would’ve been claimed by another club.