NHL Playoff Push: Must-win games

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For a select few NHL teams, we’re truly in “must-win” territory.

In fact, certain games could determine if we’ll see much drama during the final week of the 2018-19 season. On the bright side, it sure seems like the Avalanche and Blues will finish their seasons with a do-or-die game in Colorado on Saturday.

Now, it’s true that the Stars aren’t technically out of the running yet, although their chances remain slim. It’s also tough to imagine the Kings and Ducks slipping out (the odds look good for three California teams to make it, based on multiple projections). So, yes, there’s at least some room for more plot twists.

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

It’s easiest to picture one playoff spot coming down to the Avs or the Blues, though. Naturally, both teams need to hold up their ends of the bargain to make that a do-or-die scenario instead of an underwhelming formality.

West

While the competition’s been heftier for the Avalanche, they’ve also been afforded more opportunities to face other bubble teams head-to-head.

They received one of those chances on Sunday, managing to grab a point in overtime before succumbing to the Ducks. The Avs face a tough test in closing up a back-to-back set, as they’ll face a (comparatively) rested and driven Kings team in Los Angeles. No doubt, this 48-hour span is a real test for Nathan MacKinnon & Co.

The Avs might not get much help from the Blues’ opponent, as the Capitals clinched the Metro Division and don’t have anything but pride and individual pursuits to play for. St. Louis can’t totally dismiss the latter point, however, as John Carlson is hoping to drive up his free agent value while Alex Ovechkin aims for another Maurice Richard Trophy.

 

Still, the Blues probably drew the Capitals at the perfect time to grab a win, so we’ll see if they can follow through.

Other West games are more about playoff positioning than fighting for a postseason berth altogether.

The Wild would really need to collapse to not end up with the third spot in the Central Division. They might be reeling with Ryan Suter‘s injury, and the Oilers have spoiler potential with Connor McDavid on fire to close out the season, but this is the type of game Minny should win. Or so you’d think.

Winnipeg is almost certain to face Minnesota as the Central’s second seed, but if the Jets want to keep any hope of winning the division alive, they’ll need to beat Ottawa. Dustin Byfuglien‘s getting the night off, among others, so the Jets might err on the side of caution.

East

Monday stands as a bigger day out West, and it’s up to the Florida Panthers to keep any drama alive in the East.

The Cats trail the Devils by seven points for the final wild-card spot in the East, but they’re not totally hopeless with two games in hand on New Jersey (not to mention Columbus and Philly, if those two teams aren’t totally out of reach already).

The Panthers have been a lot more effective at home than on the road this season, so the table is set for a win against Carolina in Florida. That said, the Panthers are suffering from a three-game losing streak while the Hurricanes have won four of their last six contests, so there’s at least a mild threat that another upset might happen.

Losing to Carolina in regulation would almost certainly doom Florida’s playoff hopes, even if it wouldn’t mathematically eliminate the Panthers from contention.

If the playoffs started today

Biggest games

Hurricanes at Panthers, 7:30 p.m. ET
Capitals at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Avalanche at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.