NHL Playoff Picture: Maple Leafs can clinch in big game vs. Islanders

No really, the Isles and Leafs have an important game tonight. (USATSI)
No, really, the Islanders and Maple Leafs have an important game Thursday night. (Getty Images)

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A crazy thing will happen Thursday night; the Islanders and Maple Leafs will play a key game in the playoff race. That's saying something given the teams have a combined 12-year playoff drought going.

The Leafs in particular have been the butt of playoff jokes over the years, but they can make that all stop if things go their way against the Isles. If the Leafs win and Winnipeg loses, they are officially playoff bound. Pick up one point against the Islanders and the Leafs can still get in if Winnipeg loses in regulation to Carolina.

That's how close the Leafs are. It's going to happen, there's not much concern about that, but the sooner the better.

But don't forget about the Islanders here; they are playing for the same objective. While the Isles can't clinch a spot yet, they can go a long way toward getting there. They have a cushion on the teams in ninth and below so getting two points to keep that cushion is the goal.

That's how it sets up in terms of the standings, but what about on the ice? Both teams have been turning in good results lately but the last time the Leafs took the ice they were being hammered by the Capitals. Joffrey Lupul had just returned and certainly didn't look like himself. Nazem Kadri has almost disappeared as well. But the goaltending has been good, especially when James Reimer has started.

Believe it or not, you can say the same about the Islanders. These two franchises have struggled with goaltending issues as much as any other team in the league during these droughts and while the Isles don't have the long-term fix that the Leafs appear to have in Reimer, Evgeni Nabokov has given them what they needed.

Nabokov was struggling when the season began and the Isles were near the bottom of the barrel in defensive categories. He has rebounded in net and not surprisingly the team has done the same in front of him. Going back through the last 11 games Nabokov has given up three goals or more just once, a 4-3 shootout win for the Isles back on March 28.

So the stakes are pretty high for a regular-season game. The Leafs can finally punch a playoff ticket instead of an opponent's head and the Isles can take a big swing in either direction. A loss and things could get a little hairy again.

More clinching/elimination scenarios

The Vancouver Canucks can clinch a berth if they beat the Dallas Stars.
The Carolina Hurricanes can be eliminated with a loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
The Tampa Bay Lightning can be eliminated with a regulation loss and at least one point for the Jets.

Key games

7 ET: Florida at NY Rangers: Florida is irrelevant in this conversation; it's all about the Rangers. They are tied with the Jets in points but do have a game in hand. This is their first of two remaining against the Panthers, games they cannot and should not lose.

7:30 ET: Washington at Ottawa: The Capitals have an eight-game winning streak and have taken a four-point lead in the Southeast but still have Winnipeg left. Their work isn't done. Neither is the Senators' work. Lose in regulation and it's possible the Sens are just two points ahead of ninth.

8 ET: Phoenix at St. Louis: The Coyotes are fighting to say in the race for the eighth seed in the West. They are six points back but do have two games in hand on Columbus. The Blues are jockeying for position with 4-7 available to them most likely but they aren't completely safe yet.

8 ET: Carolina at Winnipeg: As mentioned, the Jets really need to win to keep pace in the Southeast and in the battle for the eighth seed. They enter the night tied in points with the Rangers.

8:30 ET: Vancouver at Dallas: The stakes for the Canucks were already laid out but the Stars need this to keep up with the Blue Jackets. The Stars are four points behind them in the West but have two games in hand. They have to make those games in hand count.

10:30 ET: Minnesota at San Jose: The Sharks are pretty safe where they are but they would like to wrestle the four seed away from the Kings for home-ice advantage. The Wild are in but not safely in. Get zero points here and they could feel some heat.

10:30 ET: Columbus at Los Angeles: Like the Sharks, the Kings are going to punch a ticket at some point, it's just a matter of seeding. Columbus, though, is the big one here. The Jackets have won five games in a row and are holding onto eighth. They need the points since they have played more than others. After this only three games left for Columbus.

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