Blackhawks on the brink
As the regular season reaches a climax, it has become a case of do-or-die for Stanley Cup champions the Chicago Blackhawks, who lead a desperate pack of teams making a late push to crash the NHL post-season party.
With eight play-off spots up for grabs in both the Eastern and Western conferences, the sprint to the finish is sure to be furious as only five teams have safely booked their places with a little more than a handful of games left.
In the wild West, only the Vancouver Canucks can make play-off plans having clinched top spot in the conference on Tuesday with 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators.
Behind them, however, little is certain with just five points separating the fourth place Phoenix Coyotes from the eighth place Blackhawks, who saw their grip on the final play-off spot slip with a 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins.
The Dallas Stars kept the pressure on Chicago, trimming a point off the Blackhawks advantage with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Coyotes and move into a tie for ninth place with the Calgary Flames three points back.
While the play-off picture in the West remains muddled, the East is slowly coming into focus with the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins having all secured post-season berths.
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens were also close to locking up spots with big wins on Tuesday but the Buffalo Sabres were unable to solidify their hold on eighth place, falling 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was very much a missed opportunity for the Sabres, who could have all but ended Toronto's post-season ambitions with a victory.
Now the Sabres face a nail-biting finish to the schedule with the Carolina Hurricanes moving to within three points with a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals and the Maple Leafs still within striking distance five back.
"We got a little help (with Toronto defeating Buffalo) and now we go back at it," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said.
"We go home with some emotion and some excitement now, feeling good about being right back in it."
The Flyers continued to strengthen their hold on top spot in the East with a 5-2 win over the surprising Penguins, who continue to battle for the number one seed despite the absence of captain Sidney Crosby.
Sidelined with concussion symptoms since Jan. 5, Crosby has been spotted practicing in full equipment for several weeks but there has been no target date announced for the Canadian Olympic hero's return.
With Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin back in the lineup after missing three games with an unspecified injury, the Capitals are also eyeing top seed in the East sitting just three back of the Flyers.
"We still have a lot to play for we're not by any means taking a vacation until the play-offs," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. "We want to play hard and win every game."