NHL Playoff Push: Penguins chase key points; tank wars

James O'Brien
NBC Sports

Tuesday was jam-packed with action, particularly for the competitive Metropolitan Division, and none of the proceedings went well for the Pittsburgh Penguins, including a humbling 4-1 loss to the bumbling New York Islanders.

Being able to dust yourself off and persevere can sometimes be the difference between failure and success when chasing division titles, at least a round of home-ice advantage, or even just cozier playoff positioning.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Eastern Conference

To the Penguins’ credit, they’ve done a solid job of fighting through back-to-back sets after that was a justifiably noted weakness earlier in 2017-18.

Specifically, the Penguins have been far more successful in the closeout game of back-to-backs recently, and the most recent example comes against Wednesday’s opponents, the Montreal Canadiens. Last week, Pittsburgh shook off a loss the previous night to the Rangers to beat the Habs, even though Montreal raced out to a lead.

They’ll aim to show similar resilience tonight. There’s incentive, too, as the Penguins don’t have a very firm grasp on the Metro’s second spot any longer:

Yes, they have a game in hand and ROW advantages over Columbus, and even more of an edge against the Flyers. If they lose to Montreal, the margin of error gets even slimmer.

The other key game for the Eastern Conference playoff races comes when the Boston Bruins face the Blues in St. Louis. (Puck drop is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET; you can watch that matchup on NBCSN and stream it via this link.)

The Lightning were able to rally for a comeback win against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, so the B’s see steeper odds to try to win the Atlantic Division crown. If that ends up out of reach, the Bruins still want to tune up for the playoffs, including getting Ryan Donato up to speed after a sensational NHL debut earlier this week.

Western Conference

That Bruins – Blues game is bigger for St. Louis than it is for Boston, as you can see above. While the Blues are out of playoff position today, the Stars’ stumbles and some games in hand advantages gives the fledgling Blues some hope.

The other big Western matchup comes as the Anaheim Ducks take on the Flames in Calgary. With 86 points in 73 games played, the Ducks are in the final wild-card spot, and they could jump back into the Pacific’s top three with a win. On the other hand, they could see much of their room for error evaporate if they lose and the Blues win.

The Ducks’ opponent shouldn’t lack for urgency, either. The Flames are barely clinging to playoff hopes thanks to recent struggles. To some extent, they’ll need other teams to stumble. Beyond that, Calgary needs to nail these head-to-head games against other bubble opponents.

Tank wars

While much of tonight’s focus is on teams trying to improve their playoff hopes, one game features fans who might be rooting against their own squads when the Arizona Coyotes visit the Buffalo Sabres.

As of this moment, the NHL’s bottom three looks like this:

Coyotes: 59 points in 72 games, 22 ROW
Canucks: 59 points in 73 GP, 25 ROW
Sabres: 58 points in 72 GP, 22 ROW

The Coyotes’ upward trend is pushing them ahead of the Canucks and Sabres lately, yet a Buffalo regulation win would push Vancouver to the bottom and Buffalo beyond Arizona.

The air could be thick with cognitive dissonance in Buffalo tonight.

If the playoffs started today

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Wednesday’s games

Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Arizona Coyotes at Buffalo Sabres, 7 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues, 8 p.m. ET (stream link)
Anaheim Ducks at Calgary Flames, 9:30 p.m. ET

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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