By MJ Kasprzak

The Pittsburgh Penguins were gaining on the New York Rangers before Sidney Crosby returned

On the first full day of spring, the haze of the crystal ball should begin to clear. Several teams vying for a spot in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs have big games in the next four days—a few having more than one.

 

But what is the fun if you cannot look dumb? Two months ago at that link, I wrote, “Phoenix will not leapfrog four teams with more means to make the playoffs.” They did that and more, taking hold of the top spot in the Pacific Division. And still had time to plummet back back out of the playoff picture.

 

Who knows what will happen? But mark the following games on your calendars for Tuesday through Thursday—after they conclude, the way the cards fall will be pretty clear:

 

March 20, Phoenix Coyotes @ Dallas Stars: Phoenix is trying to hold onto a playoff spot and the Stars the division lead. The two teams trailing them by a single point (L.A. Kings and San Jose Sharks, respectively) are better on paper and have more success to build on. They are both also trending more positively than whichever team loses this match-up.

 

March 20, San Jose Sharks @ Los Angeles Kings: San Jose plays the night before at home vs. the Anaheim Ducks. If they can take the short flight and beat the hot Kings, they are back to being the Sharks we know. Depending on what happens earlier that night with Dallas and Phoenix, either could officially take over the Pacific Division lead or fall out of the top-10.

 

March 21, Detroit Red Wings @ New York Rangers: The Red Wings are in a tough battle with the Nashville Predators to get an extra game with the best home ice advantage in the league in their almost inevitable first-round matchup. New York is trying to hold off the hottest team in the NHL for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

 

March 22, Nashville Predators @ Pittsburgh Penguins. Both teams should collect wins in their contests before this date. Nashville has almost no chance to catch the St. Louis Blues, but will have difficulty holding off the Detroit Red Wings for the last seed offering home ice advantage once that team gets healthy. Pittsburgh could catch or fall further behind the New York Rangers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

 

March 22, Vancouver Canucks @ Dallas Stars: Dallas could find themselves dropped from the third seed to the 10th depending on this game and their March 20 contest. Vancouver must play this game the night after what promises to be an emotional contest against their nemesis Chicago Blackhawks. If they win both, they will probably be able to take over the top seed, and at the least will see their short-term struggles come to an end.

 

March 22, Colorado Avalanche @ Phoenix Coyotes: Colorado is only in the top-eight of the standing because the NHL is the only system that punishes teams twice through scheduling—forcing them to play an extra game a week and through their official spot in the standings. If they lose to a team they are battling with, they will have fewer games to make up the ground. But a win here allows Phoenix to either get on a roll or rebound, depending on the result of their March 20 contest.

 

March 22, St. Louis Blues at Los Angeles Kings: L.A. plays tough opposition down the stretch, and none are better than the St. Louis Blues. They defend better than the Kings used to before the Jeff Carter trade. If L.A. can score like they have been since that move against this team, they not only should make the playoffs but be a contender for the Cup when they get there. If the Blues lose, questions will resurface about their road prowess (just seventh in the Western Conference) as they try to hold off the Vancouver Canucks for the top seed. If they win—the night after a game in Anaheim—they are definitely the best team in the Western Conference.