SPORTS

NHL playoff race: 5 things to know for tonight

04/09/2015 11:53 EDT | Updated 06/09/2015 05:59 EDT
Calgary can deliver the death blow to the Stanley Cup champs; Winnipeg has a chance to clinch; Ottawa faces another high-stakes game; and Montreal and Vancouver look to improve their playoff positioning.

Here's what you need to know for tonight's key NHL games:

Kings close to giving up throne

The Los Angeles Kings are famous for coasting through the regular season, then turning it on just in time for the playoffs. They rolled to the Stanley Cup as the Western Conference's No. 8 seed under the old post-season format in 2012, then won it again last year from a middling slot.

This time, though, the Kings may have left it too late. They come into tonight's game at Calgary — their penultimate contest of the regular season — on the brink of elimination, trailing the Flames by two points for the Pacific Division's final playoff spot and three points back of Winnipeg for the West's last wild card. Those are the only two teams L.A. can catch.

A regulation loss tonight would make the Kings the first reigning NHL champ to miss the post-season since Carolina in 2006-07, and would ensure playoff berths for both Calgary and Winnipeg.

Flames, Jets almost there

While many of L.A.'s supporters deal with the severe drought in California, hockey fans in Calgary and Winnipeg have been living through a dry spell of a different kind. The Flames haven't made the post-season since a first-round loss to Chicago in 2009, and the Stanley Cup playoffs last came to Manitoba in 1996 — right before the original Jets franchise moved to Arizona.

Both the Jets and Flames just need a win of any kind (regulation, OT or shootout) tonight to earn a playoff spot. If Calgary beats L.A. in regulation, the Jets don't need to do anything at Colorado, but a victory there puts them in the post-season without any help.

A return to the playoffs would be sweet for Calgary (interesting fact: if you throw out their run to the final in 2004, the Flames haven't won a series since they won the Cup in 1989) but probably even more so for Winnipeg. The city has embraced the reincarnated Jets with open arms (and wallets) since the franchise moved over from Atlanta for the 2011-12 season, and it's about time fans got the chance to revive the "sea of white" they made famous at the old Winnipeg Arena.

And if the Jets clinch a playoff spot tonight, expect some more late-night street hockey at Portage and Main.

Sens working overtime for playoff spot

Mounting a late-season comeback, Ottawa has been playing de facto playoff hockey for weeks. It's another virtual must-win tonight as the Senators take on the powerful New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Ottawa caught a break last night when Boston got blanked in Washington, leaving the Bruins and the Senators tied in terms of points in the race for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with two games left to play for both teams. Boston, which visits Florida tonight, gets the nod for now because it has two more non-shootout wins.

The Senators can also still catch top wild card Pittsburgh, which is only one point ahead and idle tonight, and even Detroit, which is two up for the final playoff spot allocated to the Atlantic Division as it visits Montreal.

The high stakes should keep the energy level up for Ottawa, which has gone past regulation in five straight games and won four of them. And this may be a good time to catch the Rangers, as they have virtually nothing to play for after clinching the NHL's top overall record earlier this week.

Rolling Stone

Ottawa's inspired run has been fuelled of late by 22-year-old forward Mark Stone, who has five goals in the last four games, including a pair (and the OT winner) in Tuesday's thrilling 4-3 comeback win over Pittsburgh.

Even though he played 19 games last season and four the year before, Stone is still considered a rookie by the NHL, and he's moved within one point of Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau in the freshman scoring race. In fact, Stone has been so hot over the last few months that he's among the league's top overall scorers since Jan. 1, as Sportsnet's Chris Johnston noted on Twitter:

Habs, Canucks look to improve lot

The Sens may have an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard as Boston visits Florida and Detroit is in Montreal.

With the top seed in the East already belonging to the Rangers, Montreal will try to hang on to first place in the Atlantic division. Tampa Bay is only two points back as it hosts New Jersey.

Out west, Vancouver has already secured a playoff spot but wants to hang onto second place in the Pacific (and home-ice advantage in its first-round matchup) as it hosts the awful Arizona Coyotes.

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