Tuesday night preview: The games with the most playoff implications

March, 31, 2009
03/31/09
9:54
AM ET

In the hockey business, March doesn't go out like a lamb. Instead, the month is like those silly, hard-to-open toys on the floor of my house and transforms into something more threatening.

April!

Once April arrives on Wednesday, even a fool like me could tell you there will be just 12 days left on the NHL's regular-season calendar. Then … the PLAYOFFS, BABY!

But I don't want to get ahead of myself or the cool Porsche calendar in my office. (That's what you get when you can't afford the car.) There's still one more day in March. And of the seven games on Tuesday's league docket, six of them have some sort of playoff implication. The Stars-Kings tilt? Not so much.

Here's how I rate the other six games, 1 through 6, in order of life-or-death playoff meaning:

1. Ducks at Oilers: At game time, the Ducks and Oilers find themselves in the Western Conference's not-so-coveted ninth and 10th spots, respectively. On home ice with just 36 wins (a key tiebreaker), the Oilers probably need this one a tad more than the Ducks. On Friday in Anaheim, Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson made 51 saves to steal a victory. In that same game, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle pulled Jean-Sebastien Giguere twice. In Anaheim's next game, Carlyle opted for backup Jonas Hiller against the Avalanche. He responded with a win over lowly Colorado. Whom does the coach turn to in Edmonton? It's a tough call. Carlyle can't afford to make the wrong decision.

2. Predators at Blue Jackets: Remember when the Central Division was the Red Wings and four other clubs? That's no longer the case. Heading into Tuesday's games, all five Central teams held down playoff spots. The injury-riddled Preds roll into Columbus off a come-from-behind win in Detroit. If they can beat the Jackets in regulation time, the teams will have identical records. On the flip side, if the Blue Jackets earn a regulation victory, they'll solidify themselves as the sixth seed and move one step closer to their first playoff appearance.

3. Canucks at Wild: The Wild return home after a grinding stretch that saw them play 14 of their past 17 games on the road. They kept their fading playoff hopes alive with a 3-2 regulation win in Edmonton on Sunday but are in must-win territory against the visiting Canucks, who own a 4-0-1 edge in the season series. Vancouver, meanwhile, could leapfrog Calgary and move into the top spot in the Northwest Division with a win Tuesday night.

4. Blackhawks at Canadiens: This Original Six showdown will have impact in both conferences. The Canadiens need a win (or an overtime loss) to maintain their grasp on the final playoff spot in the East. The Hawks are seeking to wrap up the fourth seed in the West. In the end, the Habs have more at stake in this one.

5. Senators at Panthers: Peter DeBoer's team has left little room for error in its quest for the final playoff spot in the East. The Panthers must win their games while keeping one eye on the scoreboard. After blowing a third-period lead against the Sabres in Buffalo on Wednesday, DeBoer turned to backup goalie Craig Anderson. The stopper responded with back-to-back road wins over the Flyers and Stars. DeBoer plans to ride the hot hand against Ottawa. I agree with the coach's decision.

6. Lightning at Bruins: Boston has reopened a commanding (seven-point) lead over the second-place Capitals in the Eastern Conference race. If the Bruins can dust the lowly Lightning, they will inch a little closer toward clinching the conference. At this point, however, Boston would need to have a major collapse to fall out of the top spot in the East.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.
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