The management of the NHL is a bunch of heartless morons, which has been proven yet again by their newly-announced decision to skip the 2018 Olympics. Despite their recurring incompetence, though, what saves them is the brilliance of the sport of hockey. It's never better than in the playoffs, and this last week of the regular season promises an early preview of playoff intensity and general hockey excellence. There are all sorts of great games on tap this week as teams jockey to lock down playoff spots, sort out playoff positioning, and get themselves ready for their best possible postseason. There are three games, though, that stand out from the rest because of both how interesting and how important they could be:
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Columbus at Pittsburgh, Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET: These two teams are all but locked into playing each other in the first round of the playoffs. What they don't know, though, is where the series will be played. Through 78 games played each, the Penguins have 107 points and the Blue Jackets have 106. Given their serious deficit in playoff experience, the luxury of playing up to four games at home if the series goes the full length would be a major advantage for Columbus. Both teams are solid on the road but dramatically better at home - as is usually the case on the NHL because of the advantage of the last line change among other factors.
This game alone won't determine which team finishes second in the division and hosts the series opener, but if Pittsburgh wins it they will have a big advantage in the race. If Columbus wins, though, then things are wide open down the stretch. It's a huge game.
Games like this that are playoff previews are always important even when the standings aren't at play as well. Teams get a first-hand scouting look at their opponent that is far superior to reviewing video. It's also a chance for teams to set tones heading into the playoffs and perhaps to get into the heads of their opponents before the games truly matter.
Columbus also enters this game on a bit of a skid, having dropped three in a row. There would be no better way to reverse that trend and gain confidence entering the playoffs than to beat the Penguins in Pittsburgh. They will be fired up.
And if all of that isn't enough drama for this game, the Blue Jackets will also very likely be without stud rookie Zach Werenski, who was injured in a brutal hit by Alex Ovechkin last time out. The nature of the injury is not known yet, so we will have to see how the team is able to adjust to the absence of the valuable player at such a crucial time.
Tampa Bay at Boston, Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET: Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Ottawa are in a tense four-way battle for three playoff spots. The Lightning are currently trailing with 88 points, while Toronto and Ottawa have 91 and Boston has 92. The Bruins have played one more game than the other three, though.
Every game is a must-win for the Lightning at this point, but this one is particularly important. If Tampa Bay wins this one then they will be within striking distance of the Bruins given the game in hand - if the win that extra game they could be tied with Boston. On the other hand, if the Bruins win then they will have a six-point edge on the Lightning and will be very secure in a playoff spot. The Lightning are not out of the playoffs with a loss here, but it would be a serious blow. The Bruins have won five straight, so they have no shortage of momentum. However, can they carry it here?
As a special treat for this game, too, there is the chance that this could be the game that Steven Stamkos, the best pure goal scorer in the league for my money, finally returns to action after a seemingly endless injury.
Calgary at L.A., Thursday, 10:30 pm ET: The Flames are in the playoffs already, but they still have positioning to worry about. There are several concerns, but the biggest is to stay ahead of Nashville so that the Flames are no worse than the first wild-card team - the second wild-card team faces Chicago in the first round, and no one wants that.
Both teams have three games remaining, and Calgary has just a one-point lead in the standings, so every game matters. This game is very important to Calgary for another reason, though. This is the third time since March 19 that these teams have played. In the first, which Calgary dominated, the Flames' star rookie Matthew Tkachuk elbowed superstar defenseman Drew Doughty in the face and was suspended for two games. That created serious tension for the second game. The first period of that game was as violent and feisty as any played all year. Calgary did not handle the situation well. They were flustered and lost the game 4-1. They need to have a stronger mental game than that heading into the playoffs, and beating up on a Kings team that they are clearly superior to at this point would be a good confidence builder heading into the playoffs.
On the other hand, of the Flames underwhelm against the Kings again then it could be a real mental blow. Calgary is a dangerous team heading into the playoffs, but not if they aren't mentally engaged. We will learn a lot about them here.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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