Blackhawks, Penguins, Avalanche set to join playoff party

Fri Mar 28, 2014 3:45pm EDT
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(Reuters) - The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche can all join the National Hockey League playoff party this weekend as the regular season enters the home stretch.

With just a little more than two weeks left on the schedule, only the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks have secured post-season invitations but by week's end the playoff picture should start to come into sharper focus.

The Blackhawks can clinch a spot if they get at least one point against the Ottawa Senators in the Canadian capital or if the Dallas Stars lose to the Nashville Predators while the Penguins can confirm their place if they get at least a point against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Friday's games.

The Avalanche are idle on Friday but could still find themselves in the post-season if the Stars lose to the Predators.

While three teams in the Western conference (Blues, Sharks and Ducks) have clinched, the playoff puzzle is far less complete in the East with only the Bruins guaranteed a spot.

The top three teams in each division earn automatic berths in the playoffs (six teams per conference) with the next two teams in each conference earning wild-card spots.

The regular season ends on April 13.

The Bruins scored third-period goals 13 seconds apart to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0 on Thursday in a rematch of last year's Stanley Cup finalists. They need just one point to lock up the Atlantic Division crown.

With nine games to play, the red-hot Bruins, who are 16-1-3 in their past 20, lead the Penguins by nine points in the Eastern Conference race.   Continued...