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Phoenix Coyotes' Derek Morris (53) checks San Jose Sharks' Torrey Mitchell (17) into the boards during the second period in an NHL hockey game, Thursday, March 29, 2012, in Glendale, Ariz. Phoenix and San Jose are currently in the midst of the dog fight for the final Western Conference playoff spots. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
Phoenix Coyotes' Derek Morris (53) checks San Jose Sharks' Torrey Mitchell (17) into the boards during the second period in an NHL hockey game, Thursday, March 29, 2012, in Glendale, Ariz. Phoenix and San Jose are currently in the midst of the dog fight for the final Western Conference playoff spots. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

The Look Ahead

Western conference playoff race going down to the wire Add to ...

It is the sort of playoff race the NHL mandarins dreamed about when they realigned the league in 1998-99.

Five teams are chasing three playoff spots in the Western Conference this week with third place included in the sweepstakes. The inclusion of third place is a problem with some hockey types because the NHL’s playoff seeding system grants the top three seeds to the division winners. While this allows for extra excitement in the playoff race, it also means often the third seed is not the third-best team in the conference.

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This is an especially sore point in the Eastern Conference, where the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals are fighting for the Southeast Division lead and the eighth playoff spot. No matter who wins, it means one of the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, the second- and third-best teams in the conference by points, will not make the second round of the playoffs because they have to play each other in the first round.

The gap is a little closer in the West, where the Los Angeles Kings, who sit third with 91 points thanks to their Pacific Division lead, are seven points behind the fourth-ranked Nashville Predators. But it still means someone among the Predators, the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks is guaranteed to be knocked out in the first round because of the fourth-versus-fifth matchup.

But putting that aside, a great final week to the regular season lies ahead, with the final playoff order quite likely coming down to the final game on the final night – the Kings at the San Jose Sharks, which starts at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. That will finish a home-and-home series that starts Thursday in Los Angeles.

The other big game in the Western Conference race comes Tuesday when the Sharks and Dallas Stars complete a home-and-home set in Dallas. The Sharks pushed the Stars out of eighth place with a 3-0 win in San Jose on Saturday.

At this point, the Sharks, Kings and Phoenix Coyotes appear to have the better grip on the three remaining playoff spots. All three are playing well with winning records in their past 10 games, while the Stars and Colorado Avalanche fell back.

The Stars went 1-3-0 on a road trip that concluded with the loss in San Jose and they are 3-6-0 in their past nine games. The only advantage they have left is 35 wins in regulation and overtime, which will give them the tiebreaker if they are tied with anyone come Saturday night.

But, admitted Stars captain Brenden Morrow, “It’s probably three wins or nothing for us now.”

For much of the season, the Sharks stumbled because of their goaltending, penalty killing and secondary scoring. However, all three areas clicked into gear at the right time.

Much-reviled Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi is hot. His save percentage in five of his past six games, including the shutout over the Stars, is .925 or better. This, in turn, boosted the penalty-killing unit, which was in the bottom three for most of the season. It blanked the Stars on all three of their opportunities, although it must be noted they have the worst power play in the league. And second-line centre Joe Pavelski has seven goals in his past nine games.

MOST IMPORTANT COMEBACK

Forget Alexander Radulov. By the end of the playoffs, the most important returnee that NHL fans could be talking about is Washington Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom.

He was back in the lineup Saturday night for a shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens after missing 40 games with a concussion. While Alexander Ovechkin got most of the blame for the Caps’ season-long woes, his dip in scoring was directly attributable to the loss of Backstrom on Jan. 3.

“It’s exciting,” Caps defenceman Mike Green told The Washington Post. “He’s so [important]to this team playing well, and with him being out, we definitely lost an element of our game that has hurt us.”

One element was the power play. The Caps’ power play dipped to a mediocre 14.7-per-cent success rate in the 40 games Backstrom missed.

However, there is one more problem for the Capitals, who are more likely to hold on to eighth place ahead of the Buffalo Sabres rather than catch the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division lead and third place in the conference. Veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun is out again with a groin injury.

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