NHL Eastern Conference: What to Watch For Tonight

New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk (55) gets his stick up on Buffalo Sabres forward Evander Kane (9) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, April 2, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

With the NHL regular season winding down, a number of things still need to be settled in the Eastern Conference before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on April 12. While the top eight teams in the West are already locked into playoff berths, two spots remain in the East with four clubs still in the hunt. There’s 12 games on tap for a busy Thursday night. Here’s a look at some scenarios for the playoff-bound or playoff-hopeful Eastern Conference teams:

Ottawa Senators (79 GP, 94 PTS) at Boston Bruins (80 GP, 94 PTS) – 7 p.m.:

This is a massively important game for both teams and neither want to finish outside of the Atlantic Division and face Washington as the second wildcard team next week. The reeling Senators finally stopped the bleeding on Tuesday by defeating the Red Wings after losing five straight. By earning at least one point, Ottawa would clinch a playoff berth. The Bruins have already clinched a playoff berth for the first time since the 2013-14 season. Both teams will be without important players tonight, with Erik Karlsson out with an injury and Brad Marchand serving the first game of his two-game suspension.

Pittsburgh Penguins (79 GP, 109 PTS) at New Jersey Devils (79 GP, 70 PTS) – 7 p.m.:

The Penguins are already set to play the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round. What’s left to be determined is who will have home ice advantage when the series begins. With a Pittsburgh win and a Columbus regulation loss against the Winnipeg Jets, the Penguins will start the series at home.

New York Islanders (79 GP, 88 PTS) at Carolina Hurricanes (79 GP, 84 PTS) – 7 p.m.:

The Islanders currently have the best odds of sneaking into the playoffs, but they’ll need to be perfect with some outside help for it to happen. New York is five points behind Toronto for the second wild card spot. To get in, the Isles would need to run the table with their remaining games starting while simultaneously hoping the Leafs fail to gain any more points in their final three games. Oh, and New York is without captain John Tavares for the next week or two. Simply put, it’s a pretty lofty goal, Herb.

Winnipeg Jets (80 GP, 83 PTS) at Columbus Blue Jackets (79 GP, 106 PTS) – 7 p.m.:

The Blue Jackets currently trail the Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division and are in need on a victory to keep their home ice for the first round hopes alive. Winnipeg has no chance of making the playoffs on the western side but can still place ahead of Los Angeles for a ninth-place finish. How hard the Jets will play depends on how much they value being the best team to miss the postseason.

Tampa Bay Lightning (79 GP, 88 PTS) at Toronto Maple Leafs (79 GP, 93 PTS) – 7:30 p.m.:

Tampa Bay is coming off a shutout loss to Boston that struck a painful blow (too soon?) to its playoff chances. Like the Islanders, the Bolts would need the Leafs to earn zero points over the final three games of the year. However, the Islanders edge out the Lightning by one in the regulation plus overtime wins tiebreaker. Furthermore, Steven Stamkos remains unavailable with a regular season return looking unlikely at this point. With a win tonight, Toronto would punch its ticket to the playoffs. The Leafs would also be in with a shootout loss and an Islanders loss or shootout win.

The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers remain idle tonight but are set to play each other in the first round.

With the playoff picture set to become a little clearer tonight, hockey fans will be keeping track of a number of games all happening at the same time. Get friendly with the “last” button on your remotes and happy hockey watching, everyone!

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