SPORTS

NHL playoff race: 4 things to know for tonight

04/10/2015 11:19 EDT | Updated 06/11/2015 02:59 EDT
Between a pulse-pounding Thursday night and what promises to be a thrilling season finale on Saturday, the NHL takes a bit of a breather Friday with only two games on the schedule. One is vital to both the Eastern Conference playoff picture and the race for the scoring title, while the other could decide the winner of the "McEichel" sweepstakes.

Here's what you need to know about what's at stake in tonight's games:

Isles have shot at home ice

Heading into their game in Pittsburgh tonight, the Islanders and Penguins are the only two teams with playoff aspirations who have more than one game left in the regular season. The Islanders have already clinched a playoff spot, so their goal now is to earn home-ice advantage in the first round, which they can do by catching Washington (three points up) for second place in the Metropolitan Division.

That would be kind of a big deal. This is the Isles' last season at rickety Nassau Coliseum, where the franchise won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s. The crowd is sure to be emotional and very loud in the playoffs, which could give New York an edge in a Game 7.

Pens in grave danger

The stakes for Pittsburgh are much higher. Thanks to four straight losses (and a 3-8-2 swoon since March 14) the Penguins are in grave (is there any other kind?) danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06 — Sidney Crosby's rookie season.

With 96 points, Pittsburgh occupies the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference — one point behind top wild card Ottawa and one ahead of Boston, which is on the outside looking in. A win of any kind tonight over New York would clinch a playoff spot for the Pens. Should they lose, they still have another out Saturday when they visit lowly Buffalo. Ottawa finishes up at Philly, and Boston is at Tampa Bay.

Art Ross race historically slow 

The Isles-Pens game could also help decide the race for the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer. Crosby and New York's John Tavares are both tied with Dallas' Jamie Ben for first place at 83 points. A tie would likely go to Tavares as he has 36 goals to Benn's 32 and Crosby's 28.

Whoever wins will do so with a historically low point total. Excluding the 2013 lockout-shortened season, the Art Ross winner has cracked triple digits every time since Martin St. Louis's 94-point campaign in 2003-04. And this year's scoring champ could have the lowest non-lockout-year production since Stan Mikita's 87 points in 1967-68. Teams played 74 games that season, compared to 82 these days.

Sabres can clinch best lotto odds

A late-season game between also-rans like Buffalo and Columbus wouldn't usually warrant much attention, but tonight's contest carries considerable weight.

A regulation loss would ensure the Sabres finish dead last in the NHL, which comes with two important perks. First, the team with the worst record gets the best probability (though still only 20 per cent) of winning the No. 1 overall pick via the draft lottery. And because each position after the top slot is determined by the reverse order of the overall standings, the last-place team can do no worse than the No. 2 pick.

That's big this season because the draft is thought to contain two can't-miss prospects: OHL phenom Connor McDavid, who had 120 points in 47 games this season, and Boston University freshman Jack Eichel, who topped all NCAA Division 1 scorers with 70 points in 39 games.

None of this is lost on the Sabres, who have stripped their roster to give themselves the best chance at landing one of these potentially generational talents. Buffalo's plan has a good chance of being realized tonight on the road against a Columbus team that is playing its best hockey of the season, winning 13 of its last 15 games.

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