NHL Playoff Push: Panthers, Avalanche in search of key wins Monday

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The Florida Panthers are in must-win mode and will be for the final two weeks of the season.

They’re the only NHL team with nine games remaining and they still control their own playoff destiny. The Panthers sit three points back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. Most importantly, they have two games in hand over the Devils.

But games-in-hand only matter if you win them, and with the Devils idle tonight, beating the New York Islanders is priority No. 1 for Florida, who scored four straight in the third period on Saturday to avoid an unenviable loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

Florida has a tough schedule to end the season — they play Boston three times, for instance — so getting points against some of the league’s lesser teams becomes even more paramount.

Other than that, the East is mostly quiet on Monday.

The Washington Capitals take on the New York Rangers on NBCSN, and a win could put some distance between themselves and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who sit three points back of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, meanwhile, have a date with the Coyotes and two points would potentially go a long way toward fending off the Boston Bruins, who are currently two points out of the top spot in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

A win on Monday against the Vegas Golden Knights would not only put some separation between the first wild-card Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings, it would also move them to within one point of third place in the Central Division.

Colorado squeezed out a 2-1 win over Vegas on Saturday and will look to sweep the home-and-home on Monday. The Avs are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games but have a brutal schedule to end out the season, with meetings against each of the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Kings on the horizon. There’s no room for a night off at this point.

Meanwhile, the Kings have a bit of a Titanic matchup against the Calgary Flames.

Los Angeles doesn’t hold the luxury of owning any games in hand and is going to have to handle their own business while hoping a couple other teams — primarily the Blues and the Ducks — don’t handle theirs.

That business begins with the struggling Flames, who have dropped their past five decisions.  It’s a game the Kings and ill-afford to let get away.

In other games that matter in the West, the San Jose Sharks can tighten their grip on second place in the Pacific Division with a win against the Chicago Blackhawks. San Jose is sitting pretty with a four-point cushion over the Ducks with a game in hand.

If the Playoffs Started Today

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Anaheim Ducks

Monday’s games that matter: 

Panthers at Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Capitals at Rangers, 7:30 p.m. ET
Coyotes at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Sharks at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Avalanche at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
Flames at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck