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The playoff races that matter down the stretch of the NHL season

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A few things feel pretty certain when considering postseason storylines heading down the stretch of the NHL season. Relentless with their night-to-night success, the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers will earn the right to tangle with the lowest seeds in their respective conferences. It's also almost a certainty that the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues will dual in the Central Division side of the bracket.

Beyond that, however, postseason contenders still have it all to play for over the next two-and-a-half weeks. While we know of more than 90 percent of the teams that will make the tournament, the final slotting can change dramatically.

So here are the most important races down the NHL's stretch run.

Do Lightning or Bruins grab the third seed in the Atlantic?

It's hard to imagine any race having a more profound impact on the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs. Tampa Bay and Boston — two teams that have combined to reach the last three Stanley Cup Finals — are separated by one point with nine games each remaining on the schedule. The team that finishes with the better record will almost certainly travel to Toronto to begin the playoffs while the other will settle into a wild-card position and cross over to in all likelihood meet the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 1.

Who emerges as the opponent for the Maple Leafs will grab most of the headlines. Toronto has a serious history with the Bruins and fans have been clamoring for a first-round series between the Maple Leafs and Lightning for many seasons now. But the more interesting byproduct of this race is how it impacts the Carolina Hurricanes and the Metropolitan Division in general. How unfortunate would it be for Carolina to win a competitive division and draw the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions and one of the greatest teams in the salary cap era in Round 1?

With the NHL's bogeyman threatening to cross over from one division to the next, how it finishes between Tampa Bay and Boston could very well determine the fate of the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Remaining opponents
Lightning: Panthers, Maple Leafs, Predators, Jets, Islanders, Blue Jackets (2), Ducks, Red Wings
Bruins: Panthers, Maple Leafs, Rangers, Blues, Penguins (2), Sabres, Senators, Canadiens

The fate of the Lightning and Bruins remains the most intriguing race heading into the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The fate of the Lightning and Bruins remains the most intriguing race heading into the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Can Capitals earn their way back into the Metropolitan's top three?

After a hot start, the public has been down on the Washington Capitals for some time. The only thing keeping them from falling outside of the postseason bracket, some thought, was that there wasn't a single halfway-decent team ready to take their spot. Quietly though, the Capitals have managed to recover from their mid-season malaise over the last few weeks and are threatening to soar well past 100 points and reemerge in the top three of the division.

Three points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins with two games in hand, Washington has a chance to considerably improve its chances in the first round. Catching its forever rivals would mean drawing the New York Rangers in the first round instead of crossing over to meet the Panthers on the path through the superior Atlantic Division.

Remaining opponents
Capitals: Avalanche, Maple Leafs (2), Rangers, Golden Knights, Islanders (2), Coyotes, Canadiens
Penguins: Bruins (2), Oilers, Islanders, Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Flyers

Can Predators hold on to play the Flames?

It's possible that there's less that separates the division leaders in the Western Conference than maybe we assume, but holding on to the top wild-card slot seems important for the Nashville Predators. Securing it means drawing the Calgary Flames in Round 1. Coughing it up likely results in a first-round matchup with the Colorado Avalanche.

Seemingly locked into this exact position all season, the Predators are now just a point up — with the tiebreaker — on the Dallas Stars for the preferred wild-card position in the West with nine games remaining. Vegas and Vancouver are four and seven points back, respectively, but offer no real threat to the Predators, as an emergence from either will likely come at the expense of the Los Angeles Kings as the third seed in the Pacific Division.

Remaining opponents
Predators: Avalanche, Flames (2), Wild, Lightning, Blues, Oilers, Blackhawks, Coyotes
Stars: Flames, Wild, Oilers, Golden Knights, Canucks, Ducks, Sharks, Kraken, Coyotes

Will the Kings hold on?

I wrote about this race fairly in depth earlier this week, so we'll keep it brief here. The Vegas Golden Knights' path into the postseason is most likely not through the wild card, but by swooping in and grabbing the No. 3 seed in the Pacific Division from the Kings. While it had been trending that way, L.A.'s win and Vegas's overtime loss Tuesday night versus Vancouver saw control slip from the Golden Knights' grasp, as they fell three points back with one game in hand.

The Golden Knights lost ground to the L.A Kings Tuesday night. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Golden Knights lost ground to the L.A Kings Tuesday night. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Health is a huge factor here when comparing these two teams and the prospects of qualifying for the postseason. While the Golden Knights welcomed their captain, Mark Stone, back Tuesday for the first time since Jack Eichel became available, the Kings have lost their workhorse defender, Drew Doughty, for the season.

But here's one saving grace, potentially, for the Kings: they have a demonstrably easier schedule, taking on just one postseason-bound team in their final seven games. That's while Vegas deals with more playoff teams than not down the stretch.

Remaining opponents
Kings: Avalanche, Canucks, Blue Jackets, Ducks (2), Blackhawks, Kraken
Golden Knights: Flames, Blues, Capitals, Oilers, Stars, Sharks, Blackhawks, Devils

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