It’s a busy night on the NHL schedule, one of just 17 left in the regular season. With tight playoff races in both conferences and first place in three of the four divisions still up for grabs, there’s going to be compelling action just about every night the rest of the way.
For some of you, that’s great — you can pretty much get comfortable on the couch now and settle in for the next few weeks. But if work, family, or other commitments mean you need to be a little more selective in your hockey viewing, now is the time to plan ahead. And because I’m here to help, I went through every night of the remaining schedule to figure out which games will be must-see TV and which ones you can go ahead and skip. Get out your calendars and a highlighter or two, because here we go.
Thursday, March 26 — 11 games
The can’t-miss matchup: Coyotes at Sabres — It says something about this tank-fest of a season that this is the night’s most intriguing matchup, and that something probably isn’t good, but here we are. The Sabres and Coyotes are going down to the wire for 30th place, and they play twice in the next five nights. Will either team try? Will they both start their backup goalies? Will any Sabre who scores a goal be immediately beaten over the head with a shovel by Tim Murray? I honestly can’t wait.
Other good options: Ducks at Bruins and Rangers at Senators (the two teams fighting for the East’s final wild-card spot both host Presidents’ Trophy candidates); Predators at Lightning (a game that would have passed for a Stanley Cup preview six weeks ago, and might still be); Sharks at Wings (what may be a showdown between the two best available coaches this offseason); Kings at Islanders (L.A.’s tough road trip continues); Canadiens at Jets (yet another Presidents’ Trophy candidate trying to squash a wild-card hopeful).
No thanks: Panthers at Maple Leafs — Is Rob Tallas suiting up again? No? Pass.
Entertainment quotient: 8/10 — Lots going on tonight. We’re off to a good start.
Friday, March 27 — Three games
The can’t-miss matchup: Flames at Wild — Two teams scrambling for the West’s final playoff spots meet, and fans of the teams chasing them know what that means: guaranteed three-point game night!
Other good options: Blue Jackets at Blackhawks (I know, I know, but at least one is a playoff team).
No thanks: Stars at Oilers — Two non-playoff teams makes this one meaningless, although the potential for a 9-8 final is vaguely intriguing.
Entertainment quotient: 2/10 — Welp. They can’t all be winners.
Saturday, March 28 — 13 games
The can’t-miss matchup: Kings at Wild — The defending champs are on shaky ground to get back into the playoffs, and they’ll face one of the wild-card teams they’re chasing during a brutal five-game road trip.
Other good options: Rangers at Bruins (an Original Six matchup between teams headed in opposite directions); Lightning at Red Wings (a possible first-round preview of a series we’d all agree to call the Steve Yzerman Cup); Ducks at Islanders (two very good teams that usually play entertaining games); Predators at Capitals (in which Washington fans spend the whole game wishing they could someday draft a rookie as good as Filip Forsberg).
No thanks: Devils at Hurricanes — Two teams that are bad, but not bad enough to be in contention for 30th. By the way, fair warning: Both teams are going to show up a lot in this section.
Entertainment quotient: 8/10 — Lots of games, some of them excellent, most of them decent. What else were you going to do on a Saturday night?
Sunday, March 29 — Eight games
The can’t-miss matchup: Panthers at Senators — I know, I’m as surprised as you are. But these teams are chasing the East’s final wild-card spot, and there’s only room for one. This is probably as close to a must-win as you can get in March, especially for the Panthers.
Other good options: Red Wings at Islanders (two solid Eastern playoff teams); Blackhawks at Jets (a sneaky important Central matchup); Capitals at Rangers (looking more and more like a first-round preview); Flames at Predators (facing off for the “teams I was most inexcusably wrong about” championship).
No thanks: Ducks at Devils — It’s the awesome team with shaky goaltending versus the shaky team with awesome goaltending. Spoiler alert: The Ducks win a one-goal game.
Entertainment quotient: 7/10 — With eight games, there isn’t a busier Sunday this season.
Monday, March 30 — Six games
The can’t-miss matchup: Kings at Blackhawks — One year after these teams played one of the greatest playoff series of all time in last year’s Western Conference final, they face each other with the Kings’ playoff hopes on the line.
Other good options: Lightning at Canadiens (they met in the playoffs last season and could be headed for an eventual rematch); Canucks at Blues (two good teams, and also a big stop on the Ryan Miller Regret Tour); Sabres at Coyotes (I’m really not kidding, I’m legitimately fascinated by how these games will play out).
No thanks: Oilers at Avalanche — I bet the disappointing team with all of those high draft picks that’s being run by former players with Cup rings ends up winning.
Entertainment quotient: 6/10 — A solid night of entertainment.
Tuesday, March 31 — Seven games
The can’t-miss matchup: Panthers at Bruins — This is the first of two remaining games that Florida has with Boston, and if Florida is going to have any chance of getting back in the race, it pretty much needs to win both. Roberto Luongo does great in big games in Boston, right?
Other good options: Senators at Red Wings (as Ottawa plays with one eye on the out-of-town scoreboard); Rangers at Jets (some interconference fun); Canucks at Predators (two Western playoff teams still fighting for seeding).
No thanks: Devils at Blue Jackets — Bad teams + great goalies = nope.
Entertainment quotient: 5/10 — Not great, but still not bad. And you’ll want to take what you can get, because tomorrow is awful.
Wednesday, April 1 — Four games
The can’t-miss matchup: Flyers at Penguins — Pretty slim pickings tonight, but at least these teams hate each other.
Other good options: Oilers at Ducks (if we’re stretching the definition of “good”); Avalanche at Sharks (if we’re really stretching the definition of “good”).
No thanks: Maple Leafs at Sabres — No. Just, no.
Entertainment quotient: 1/10 — Hi, it’s the NHL, and we made sure there were lots of good games tonight. April Fool’s!
Thursday, April 2 — Nine games
The can’t-miss matchup: Rangers at Wild — OK, this might be a weird pick, but man, this could be a fun matchup. These are basically the two hottest teams since the new year, with excellent goaltending and plenty of big-name stars. I’m not going to say the words “potential Stanley Cup preview,” because that would be crazy. But I’m also not going to not say them.
Other good options: Canucks at Blackhawks (we’re not that far removed from when this was the best rivalry in the league); Flames at Blues (a real tough test for a ridiculously likable Calgary team); Bruins at Red Wings (Detroit gets a chance to crush the playoff hopes of the team that eliminated them last year); Lightning at Senators (hey, remember when the Senators had Ben Bishop and basically gave him away? [Gets pelted with hamburgers.]).
No thanks: Hurricanes at Panthers — Do you miss the magic of the Southeast Division? Yeah, neither does anybody else.
Entertainment quotient: 7/10 — Did you enjoy your Wednesday night off? We’re into the stretch run.
Friday, April 3 — Five games
The can’t-miss matchup: Coyotes at Sharks — Only because I’m penciling this in as the game that officially eliminates the Sharks, and we can all enjoy the irony of the Sharks’ fake rebuild being wiped out by an actual rebuild. Also, the other games are pretty bad. Mostly that, actually.
Other good options: Avalanche at Ducks (in a battle of division leaders … from last year); Blues at Stars (St. Louis will probably need to bank all the points it can get to win the Central); Canadiens at Devils (although the Habs play the night before at home, so Carey Price probably sits out).
No thanks: Blackhawks at Sabres — I’ll just leave this here.
Entertainment quotient: 4/10 — One thing you learn from doing this feature year after year: The NHL really isn’t a Friday night sort of league.
Saturday, April 4 — 13 games
The can’t-miss matchup: Canucks at Jets — Two Canadian teams face each other in a game that should have playoff implications for both. Yes, I realize that’s not actually all that exciting, but this full slate of games is oddly uninspiring.
Other good options: Red Wings at Wild (a battle of former division rivals); Flames at Oilers (this rivalry usually serves up something worth watching); Capitals at Senators (for the wild-card implications); Avalanche at Kings (the champs continue to fight for their playoff lives).
No thanks: Flyers at Hurricanes — This is almost by default; it’s the night’s only game in which both teams will definitely be out of the playoff race.
Entertainment quotient: 7/10 — A weird night. Plenty of games, and yet nothing that really stands out as must-see. Get fresh batteries in the remote and you should be OK.
Sunday, April 5 — Five games
The can’t-miss matchup: Blues at Blackhawks — These are the two best teams in the Central, and this could be a showdown for first place. Even if it’s not, count on an old-fashioned Norris battle between two teams that expect to get to the conference final and know they have to go through each other to do it.
Other good options: Penguins at Flyers (again, probably not meaningful, but worth keeping an eye on for the bad blood); Canadiens at Panthers (assuming Florida is still hanging in the race, which is kind of a big if at this point); Capitals at Red Wings (two sneaky good Eastern playoff teams).
No thanks: Senators at Maple Leafs — This one will have a Battle of Ontario playoff feel, in the sense that we already know who’s going to win.
Entertainment quotient: 5/10 — The last Sunday of the regular season is … well, it’s OK. That’s about it.
Monday, April 6 — Five games
The can’t-miss matchup: Kings at Canucks — If the Kings are struggling, this could be a must-win, and a chance for the Canucks to go a long way toward finishing them once and for all. If L.A. is surging, this could be a first-round preview.
Other good options: Jets at Wild (a battle between the West’s two current wild-card teams); Blue Jackets at Rangers (Rick Nash something something); Hurricanes at Sabres (mainly because by this point, you’re going to be in net for Buffalo).
No thanks: Stars at Sharks — Here are two teams that were supposed to be good but weren’t, playing out the string and hating life.
Entertainment quotient: 5/10 — Not a great slate, although that Kings/Canucks game could be the sort of matchup that East Coast people will pretend to have stayed up to watch.
Tuesday, April 7 — Nine games
The can’t-miss matchup: Penguins at Senators — Sidney Crosby, gunning for the Art Ross, takes on Andrew Hammond, trying to drag the Senators to an unlikely playoff berth.1
Assuming Hammond is even still starting by then, but let’s all agree to believe in underdogs.
Other good options: Coyotes at Flames and Kings at Oilers (two cases of a critical playoff matchup and serious tanking implications all rolled into one game); Wild at Blackhawks (Minnesota could be in range to catch the Hawks, and if not, it’s still a rivalry game and dark-horse playoff matchup).
No thanks: Hurricanes at Red Wings — Carolina is playing out the string, and the Red Wings seem locked into third in the Atlantic. But hey, it’s a rematch of that Stanley Cup final you have absolutely no recollection of.
Entertainment quotient: 6/10 — Nothing incredible, but with five nights left on the schedule, there should be something crucial going on somewhere.
Wednesday, April 8 — Three games
The can’t-miss matchup: Bruins at Capitals — Boston figures to still be hanging in the wild-card race. Washington could be, too, although it’s been playing well enough lately that it could move up in the Metro instead. Either way, this one should matter.
Other good options: Stars at Ducks (two entertaining teams meet, although almost certainly without any playoff implications).
No thanks: Leafs at Blue Jackets — It will be fun when the Columbus cannon fires and nobody on the Leafs bench even flinches, because they’ve all been dead inside since January.
Entertainment quotient: 2/10 — It’s Rivalry Wednesday! (In this case, the rivalry is between you and falling asleep 10 minutes in.)
Thursday, April 9 — 11 games
The can’t-miss matchup: Kings at Flames — Depending on how the Western wild-card race is shaking out, this battle for third in the Pacific could also be a must-win for both teams’ playoff hopes.
Other good options: Blackhawks at Blues (a rematch from four days prior, which is about as close we get these days to an old-fashioned home-and-home); Red Wings at Canadiens (a possible first-round preview between teams that haven’t met in the playoffs since 1978).
No thanks: Hurricanes at Flyers — I just searched YouTube to see if Ron Hextall ever attacked Ron Francis. No such luck.
Entertainment quotient: 8/10 — At this point, we’re stuck making plenty of assumptions about how the next two weeks play out. But that Kings/Flames game could be dynamite.
Friday, April 10 — Two games
The can’t-miss matchup: Islanders at Penguins — This one is looking like a possible first-round matchup, and this game could determine who gets home ice. And of course, these two teams don’t like each other very much.
Other good options: None. Literally none. It’s the penultimate night of the season, but there are only two games.
No thanks: Sabres at Blue Jackets — The only person watching this game will be Connor McDavid, who’ll have it on in the background as he sadly tries to figure out how many parkas he can fit into a suitcase.
Entertainment quotient: 1/10 — This is just awful. But that’s OK, because it’s the league’s way of setting us up for …
Saturday, April 11 — 15 games
The can’t-miss matchup: Flames at Jets — It’s hard to tell which games will really matter two weeks from now, but this one sure looks like it could decide the West’s last playoff spot. If so, it will be the biggest Jets/Flames game since the Dale Hawerchuk days. Also, the MTS Centre will be insane.
Other good options: Sharks at Kings (L.A. could come in needing a win to make the playoffs, setting up a nice payback scenario for San Jose); Rangers at Capitals (a possible first-round preview); Wild at Blues (another possible first-round preview); Bruins at Lightning (a tough final game for the Bruins, if they’re even still in the hunt); Habs at Leafs (no doubt the Toronto crowd will give their beloved Leafs quite the send-off).
No thanks: Devils at Panthers — I’m assuming the Panthers are out by now. If so, there’s really no reason to watch, other than seeing if Jaromir Jagr gets confused over which team he plays for.
Entertainment quotient: 10/10 — Now that’s how you close out a season. With all 30 teams in action over 12 hours, sheer volume pretty much guarantees that we’ll get at least a couple of critical matchups. It should all add up to more than enough to make up for having the next few days off.