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The NHL playoff picture is much clearer than it was a week ago.
The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars have four- and three-point gaps to the Vegas Golden Knights, respectively, in the Western Conference wild-card race.
Nashville and Dallas enter the final week of the regular season with a clear goal: earn more points than Vegas, and they’ll be in the playoff pack.
The Los Angeles Kings must follow the same strategy to keep Vegas at bay in the race for third place in the Pacific Division.
Los Angeles is the only team in the top three of the NHL’s four divisions that hasn’t clinched a playoff berth.
The field for the Eastern Conference playoffs has been set for some time, but the order of the teams is still in question.
The Washington Capitals are one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps have a game in hand over the Penguins.
Washington may be able to close the gap next week, which would allow it to avoid a first-round clash with the Florida Panthers, who are expected to win the Presidents’ Trophy.
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Florida No. 1 vs. Washington Wild-Card No. 2
No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 3 Tampa Bay
No. 1 Carolina vs. No. 1 Boston Wild-Card
No. 2 New York Rangers vs. No. 3 Pittsburgh
No. 1 Colorado vs. No. 2 Dallas Wild-Card
Minnesota No. 2 vs. St. Louis No. 3
No. 1 Calgary vs. Wild-Card No. 1 Nashville
No. 2 Edmonton vs. No. 3 Los Angeles
The NHL playoff bracket pits the team with the most points in the conference against the second wild-card team in the first round.
The division winner with the second most points plays against the top wildcard team.
Wildcard teams are placed in the division brackets based on which teams occupy the division winner spots. It doesn’t matter if wildcard teams are in the same division as their first-round opponents.
Once the draw is finalized, the teams go into best-of-seven series in each round. The winners of the first round of each division will face off in the second round.
Home advantage belongs to the team with the higher seed in the first two rounds. The team with the highest regular season point total wins home ice in the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals.
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The biggest game of the week is the trip from Vegas to Dallas on Tuesday.
Dallas can put five points between itself and the Golden Knights with two games to go if it gets a home win.
The Stars are 25-10-3 at home and have held their last four opponents in Texas to a three-goal limit.
Dallas’ defense will be key to eliminating any threat a desperate Golden Knights attack throws at it Tuesday night.
If Dallas defends their home ice, they should be heading to the playoffs with wins over the Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks.
Vegas needs a win over Dallas on Tuesday and help from Arizona and Anaheim to jump into the second wild card position. The Golden Knights end the regular season on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.
St. Louis may be playing for second place in the Central Division on Friday, so Vegas won’t face a weakened opponent who has already clinched a playoff spot.
Nashville needs to beat one of the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday and Thursday to avoid any pressure on the final day of the regular season. The Predators could also use help from the Stars to create distance between themselves and Vegas.
A Dallas win over Vegas and a Nashville home win over Calgary on Tuesday essentially locks the Western Conference playoff field.
Nashville is 25-14-1 inside Bridgestone Arena and 2-0 against the Flames this season. It’s a bad sign for the Golden Knights if they want help after a potential loss to Dallas.
Vegas’ only path to the wildcard spot with a loss to Dallas involves losing Nashville.
The Vancouver Canucks are technically still alive six points behind Dallas, but they should be eliminated over the next two days.
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The Washington Capitals must make up a point difference on the Pittsburgh Penguins with one game in hand.
Washington’s first two games of the week are against the New York Islanders, who are not in playoff contention.
Washington holds a 2-0 advantage in the season series over the Islanders, and it could use all four points from those two games to secure third place in the Metropolitan Division.
Pittsburgh’s week begins with a home game against the Edmonton Oilers, who are still battling to hold on to second place in the Pacific Division. Edmonton needs to pick up wins to stay ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and clinch home advantage in the first round.
The Penguins will most likely earn two points on Friday with a home win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. A win over Columbus might not be enough to clinch third place for the Metropolitan. They either need to beat the Oilers or earn a point with an overtime loss to feel decent about keeping their spot.
Washington is playing the easiest opponent to start the week, and that might be the edge it needs to take third place. The Capitals end the regular season on Friday with a trip to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers, who could be their first-round opponent.
New York might be willing to give some of its best players a break with the Metropolitan’s second place locked up. Washington will play for more on Friday, and that could lead him to a win, even if New York’s starters are on the ice.
Third place in the Metropolitan Division is so valuable because whichever team loses there will likely face the Florida Panthers in the first round as the No. 2 team.
The Boston Bruins lead Pittsburgh by two points and Washington by three points. Two wins in their last three games should set the Bruins up for a first-round matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes.