Cam Ward, Henrik Lundqvist

Race for the playoffs: Rangers and Hurricanes play for their playoff lives

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 playoff race

z-1. Washington – 107 pts (1 GR)
x-2. Philadelphia 104 pts (1 GR)
y-3. Boston – 101 pts (2 GR)
x-4. Pittsburgh – 104 pts (1 GR)
x-5. Tampa Bay – 101 pts (1 GR)
x-6. Montreal – 94 pts (1 GR)
x-7. Buffalo – 94 pts (1 GR)
8. Carolina – 91 pts (1 GR)
9. NY Rangers – 91 pts (1 GR)

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot
GR – games remaining

New Jersey @ NY Rangers – 12:30 p.m. ET

It’s not the position the Rangers wanted to be in. Last week it seemed almost elementary that they’d make the playoffs but today they must get at least one point to put any pressure on Carolina to do the same tonight. If the Rangers lose in regulation, that’s it – season over. Carolina owns the tiebreakers on the Rangers, which right now means that they’ve got more regulation/overtime wins than New York (35 to 34).

Should the Rangers win in regulation and Carolina wins in the shootout, the edge still goes to Carolina by virtue of better head-to-head record. While the two teams split their four games, Carolina won both of theirs in regulation while the Rangers won once in overtime (good) and once in the shootout (not good).

Should the Rangers get either a point for losing in overtime or the shootout or a win of any kind, they can force Carolina to either match them or equal them later tonight. With both teams sitting on 91 points today turns into a high-stakes game of “can you top this?” for the Rangers. Again, New York can’t afford a regulation loss today and a loss in overtime or shootout means they’ll be rooting doubly hard for Tampa Bay tonight.

Tampa Bay @ Carolina – 7 p.m. ET

Tampa Bay is locked in as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and they’ll get to face either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs. Their fate is simple as they can’t move. Carolina won’t have to do any scoreboard watching at all as they’ll know what they have to do before they even hit the ice for warmups tonight. This game could turn out to be a meaningless playoff warm up for both teams if the Rangers lose in regulation as it would be set in stone that Carolina makes the playoffs as the eighth seed and has a first round date with Washington. If this game does turn out to be just a 60 or 65 minute practice for these two, you might see some drastically different lineups and starters in goal.

NY Islanders @ Philadelphia – 7 p.m. ET

The task is simple on paper for the Flyers: Win the game, win the division. A win by Philadelphia regardless of how they do it gives the Flyers the Atlantic Division title and the second seed in the playoffs. An overtime/shootout loss would put the pressure on Pittsburgh to beat Atlanta tomorrow while a regulation loss means Pittsburgh could get a point through any means to win the Atlantic. The fact that this comes down to the final game of the season for the Flyers is stunning considering how they’ve led the division virtually all season long. The Flyers have lost 14 of their last 20 games dating back to February 26 while the Penguins have stayed steady all along. Finishing fourth means facing Tampa Bay in the first round. Finishing second (or even third should Boston win out) means getting either Buffalo or Montreal.

Montreal @ Toronto – 7 p.m. ET
Buffalo @ Columbus – 7 p.m. ET

Two games will help figure out where Montreal and Buffalo sit in the standings. Should Montreal and Buffalo finish tied in points, Montreal will start the playoffs as the sixth seed. Buffalo still has a shot at sixth and a first round rematch with Boston if they earn more points than Montreal today. With the Sabres facing a hapless Blue Jackets team and the Habs taking on their bitter rivals from Toronto, nothing at all is set in stone here especially with Toronto breaking out a pair of prospects tonight in Joe Colborne and Hobey Baker Award finalist Matt Frattin.

Ottawa @ Boston – 1 p.m. ET

We’ll keep it simple here, a Boston win keeps them alive for a shot at the second seed. That’s the upside. The flipside of that is their first round opponent is going to be Buffalo or Montreal one way or another. The higher the seed, the better it is for home ice purposes in match-ups later on, of course. The secret highlight of this game is seeing former Merrimack College star Stephane Da Costa return to Boston for the first time since leaving college to go pro.

Sharks swarm in the third period, take down Predators in Game 1

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For two periods, the San Jose Sharks couldn’t solve Pekka Rinne.

Maybe it was because of that black cat that found its way on to the ice prior to the start of Friday’s game, or the video review that didn’t go in San Jose’s favor in the opening period.

But that all changed in the final period. It started with Tomas Hertl on the power play finding room just under the glove of Rinne to get San Jose on the board. Joel Ward followed that up with a gorgeous deke, tucking the puck in behind Rinne just as he started to go behind the net, as San Jose was able to take advantage of a defensive breakdown.

Logan Couture added the eventual winner. Within the span of 13 minutes, the Sharks had completely taken over, cashing in on two Nashville penalties and a defensive lapse.

When the onslaught was over, the Sharks skated off with a 5-2 win in Game 1 of this second-round series with the Predators, who only wrapped up a seven-game series win over Anaheim on Wednesday.

Ryan Johansen made it interesting, cutting into San Jose’s lead with under two minutes remaining, but any further comeback attempt was quickly halted by a pair of empty net goals from the Sharks.

The game ended with a dust-up along the boards, before cooler heads did prevail.

Another North Dakota junior goes pro as Blackhawks sign Luke Johnson

Quinnipiac forward Tommy Schutt, left, moves the puck as North Dakota forward Luke Johnson, middle, checks Quinnipiac forward Travis St. Denis during the first period of an NCAA college hockey tournament game Friday, March 27, 2015, in Fargo, N.D. North Dakota won 4-1. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)
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Another day, another University of North Dakota player deciding to enter the professional hockey ranks.

This time, it was 21-year-old forward Luke Johnson who turned pro following his junior year, as he signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that selected him in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Draft.

In 43 games with the NCAA champs this season, Johnson scored 11 goals and 21 points, just shy of his college career high of 24 points set the previous year.

Johnson will forgo his senior year at North Dakota, making him the fourth member of that program’s junior class to turn pro since the end of the season. Keaton Thompson signed with the Anaheim Ducks, Troy Stecher inked with the Vancouver Canucks and Paul LaDue signed with the L.A. Kings.

Senior forward Drake Caggiula, now a free agent, has reportedly narrowed down his list of NHL suitors to six teams.

Brock Boeser, Vancouver’s 2015 first-round pick and coming off an impressive freshman year, will return to North Dakota for his sophomore year, as per Canucks general manager Jim Benning earlier this month.

Video: Black cat hits the ice before Sharks-Predators Game 1

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Perhaps it’s an ominous sign of bad luck to come, but for which team?

Prior to puck drop between the host San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators in Game 1 on Friday, a black cat hit the ice at SAP Center, taking a nervous stroll along the boards.

Not sure exactly where it came from, although it’s possible someone was feeling extra superstitious before the start of this series.

Official update on the really important story of the evening:

Speed, skill help Stars score late victory to take series lead over Blues

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The Dallas Stars scored a late winner, held on in the final minute and eventually struck first in their best-of-seven second-round series with the St. Louis Blues.

Once again, it was the speed and skill of the Stars that proved to be the difference in the end. Radek Faksa scored with less than five minutes remaining in the third period, breaking the deadlock and giving Dallas a 2-1 victory and 1-0 series lead over their Central Division foes on Friday.

As he entered the zone on the rush, Faksa dished off to a flying Ales Hemsky, who was denied by Brian Elliott in alone. But Faksa followed up, jamming in the rebound to give the Stars the lead, as both St. Louis defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo were caught by the speed of the Dallas forwards on the rush.

The Stars held on from there, as the Blues made a late push to tie the game.

Kari Lehtonen stopped 31 of 32 shots for Dallas, while Elliott was busy throughout the night, stopping 40 of 42 shots.

Elliott was furious after the Stars opened the scoring in the second period, as Antoine Roussel tallied on a rebound after yet another nice Dallas passing play in the offensive zone.

Stars forward Patrick Eaves left the game early in the third period and didn’t play another shift after being hit in the lower part of his leg with the puck from a point shot.