Leafs, Canadiens fighting for playoff lives
With three games each left in the regular season, it's do or die time for the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Montreal, with 88 points, holds down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but the ninth-place Leafs are only a single point behind the Habs.
Also in the hunt for one of the final three playoff berths in the East (the top five spots have already been claimed) are the New York Rangers (sixth place with 91 points), the Tampa Bay Lightning (seventh, 90 points), the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes (10th, 86 points) and the New York Islanders (11th, 84 points).
Tuesday could be a crucial day in determining the playoff picture as all six teams chasing a post-season berth are in action.
All eyes will be on Montreal (home to the Boston Bruins) and Toronto (hosting the Philadelphia Flyers) to see who, if anyone, blinks first in the ultimate high-stakes game of chicken.
Also on Tuesday, the Rangers and Islanders clash in Long Island while the Hurricanes pay a visit to the Lightning in Tampa Bay.
Following a day off Wednesday, Montreal travels to New York on Thursday to take on the Rangers. On the same night, the Leafs visit the Islanders.
It could be that Saturday's showdown between the Leafs and Canadiens in Toronto (CBC, 7 p.m. ET), the regular-season finale for both clubs, could decide a playoff berth.
Boston at Montreal
Coming off a 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, the Canadiens control their own playoff destiny in the final week of the season.
If they win their final three games, they'll clinch a playoff berth and with a little help, Montreal, winners of eight of their last 10 games, can finish as high as sixth in the East.
"I'm definitely a little guilty of scoreboard watching lately myself," Canadiens forward Christopher Higgins told the team's official website. "This final stretch has been so tight that no one really knows what the heck is going on from night to night it seems."
Montreal holds a 4-3 edge in the season series with Boston, outscoring the Bruins 22-21.
In the last meeting between the clubs on March 22 in Boston, Montreal scored four times in the third period to record a 6-3 victory and sweep the home-and-home series.
Philadelphia at Toronto
Toronto needs to keep pace with Montreal, so it can ill afford a loss to the Flyers, the league's worst team and losers of eight of their last 10 contests.
Playing the lowly Flyers could prove to be just the perfect tonic for a Leafs team that stumbled to a 7-2 loss against the Rangers in New York Sunday.
"We didn't play well. You have to give them credit," Leafs forward Darcy Tucker said of the Rangers. "They worked hard and did what they had to do to win the game. We can't dwell on it.
"We have a lot of character in our dressing room. We found ways throughout the year to do it, and we just have to find a way to win."
Toronto has won seven straight on home ice, its longest home winning streak since an eight-game run in 2002-03.
Rangers at Islanders
The Islanders' playoff hopes are hanging by a thread.
Four points out of a playoff spot with a game in hand on eighth-place Montreal, the Islanders host the Rangers Tuesday night in the battle of New York.
A regulation-time loss to the Rangers, coupled with a Canadiens' victory over Boston on Tuesday, would eliminate the Islanders from playoff contention.
The Rangers have won three straight in the season series with the Islanders, including two in a row in Long Island.
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been in net for the last three victories, posting a 0.95 goals-against average in those games.
Carolina at Tampa Bay
The last two Stanley Cup champions meet in Tampa Bay Tuesday night in a critical game for both clubs.
With a victory and a Toronto loss, the Lightning would clinch their fourth straight playoff appearance.
A win could move the Hurricanes into a tie for eighth place, but they would be eliminated from the playoff race if they lose and Montreal defeats Boston.
Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak Sunday with a 4-3 overtime win over Florida, but are still on the verge of failing to qualify for the post-season.
"It was a gut-check kind of game, and we responded to it. We got behind, but the important thing is the end result," said forward Ray Whitney, who scored the winner. "It turned out to be a good day for us. We were up to the challenge this time."
With files from the Associated Press