(Reuters) - The National Hockey League enters the penultimate weekend of the regular season with races for wildcard berths and jockeying for playoff positions still on tap.
In the East the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins have locked up division titles while the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens have also secured postseason spots with the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers on the brink of punching playoff tickets.
But the real action continues to take place a little farther down the standings where the surging Detroit Red Wings lead the wildcard race with the Columbus Blue Jackets clinging to the final playoff position one point in front of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Winners of three straight, the Red Wings had their playoff push receive a big boost on Friday with word that All-Star forward Pavel Datsyuk was ready to return to the lineup against the Buffalo Sabres.
Datsyuk has not played since February 27 due to inflammation in his right knee.
“I saw him out there battling after practice,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said on the team website. “If it appears he’s ready and feels confident, then I‘m sure he is.”
Red Wings enter Friday’s contest against the Sabres on 86 points, one ahead of the Blue Jackets (85), who are just one ahead of the Leafs (84).
The Blue Jackets, however, have two games in hand on Toronto with time running out on the Maple Leafs, who have only four to play.
“I know it is a cliché but we have our backs against the wall,” said the Leafs’ James van Riemsdyk, who notched his 30th goal of the campaign in Thursday’s win over the Bruins. “We have no choice, we just have to keep on clawing and scratching and find away to stay alive.”
Over in the Western Conference, six of the eight playoff spots are spoken for with the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings all on their way to the postseason.
But little else has been decided with two division titles, the Western Conference crown and the Presidents’ Trophy, which goes to the team with the best regular season record, still all up for grabs.
The Blues with 111 points are poised to claim the Central Division title with the Avalanche on 104 but the battle for the Presidents’ Trophy is likely to go down to the wire with the Eastern Conference’s Bruins also on 111.
The Minnesota Wild (90) are close to clinching the first of two Western wildcards, sitting five clear of Dallas Stars (85) and the Phoenix Coyotes (85), who are positioned for a fight to the finish for the final playoff berth.
The top three teams from each division earn automatic berths while the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, regardless of division, advance as wild cards.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, Editing by Gene Cherry