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This column will dramatically shift more toward NHL and NBA Playoff coverage over the next several weeks.

I’ll turn my attention to hockey with this week’s column as the NHL is in its final week of the regular season before the puck drops on the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs that begin on Wednesday, April 11. The NHL has arguably the most exciting and also the most unpredictable postseasons of any of the four major sports.

The playoff races for the final spots are still very tight, especially in the Western Conference, and there is still a major battle for 1st place in the Atlantic Division between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning ongoing as we enter the final week of the season. Let’s look ahead to some of the marquee games upcoming this week in the NHL as the regular season winds down.

Tuesday, April 3

Boston at Tampa Bay

These teams are separated by just two points for 1st place in the Atlantic but it’s the Bruins who are playing the better hockey right now and own superior current form. Tampa Bay has lost repeatedly in measuring stick games against better opponents. They’ve already lost twice to Boston in the last couple weeks and they dropped a 4-1 decision at home to the Western Conference-leading Nashville Predators.

To make matters worse, Steven Stamkos is day-to-day with a lower body injury for the Lightning. I’ll be interested in backing the Boston Bruins at any reasonable price offered in this game.

Wednesday, April 4

Minnesota at Anaheim

The Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks are two of the five Western Conference teams that are battling it out for one of the final three playoff spots in the conference. They will face off against one another on Wednesday night. Minnesota has been a spotty road team all season while Anaheim is starting to turn up their game as the stakes get raised.

The Ducks registered a pair of B2B home wins against Los Angeles and Colorado over the weekend. John Gibson got injured in the latter game and his status for this week’s remaining games is up in the air, but the Ducks have a veteran goalie to back up Gibson in Ryan Miller who came on in relief of Gibson to shut the door and help Anaheim come from behind to beat Colorado.

Thursday, April 5

Pittsburgh at Columbus

If the regular season ended today, these teams would face off in a first round playoff series. Pittsburgh is two points ahead of Columbus at the time of this article being written but this game will have serious implications in positioning and will go a long way toward determining who earns home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. From a psychological standpoint, Columbus overtaking Pittsburgh for 2nd place in the division and grabbing home ice away from the Penguins in the playoffs could be a massive benefit to them considering the Penguins’ terrific home record of 29-11.

One problem area for Pittsburgh lately has been their defense, which has allowed 3-plus goals in 9 of their last 10 games, and goaltender Matt Murray has not been sharp or playing his best during that span. For as much potency and firepower offensively as Pittsburgh has, the recent dip in defensive play and their goaltending could become a potential problem for them come playoff time.

Saturday, April 7

St. Louis at Colorado

This will be the final regular season game for both the Blues and Avalanche and it very well could be a playoff elimination game for both teams. As of right now, St. Louis is one point behind Colorado for the final wildcard playoff spot in the West. There is a chance this could be a “winner take all” game for that spot. Colorado will be forced to overcome quite a bit on the injury front this week if they are to hang on to their current playoff position.

The Avalanche have lost their No. 1 goaltender Semyon Varlamov as well as arguably their best defenseman in Erik Johnson, likely for the rest of the season. Colorado will be going with their backup netminder Jonathan Bernier the rest of the regular season and hoping he can play well enough to help get them into the playoffs this week while hoping their 9th ranked offense in the NHL – averaging 3.1 goals per game led by Nathan MacKinnon and his brilliant 94 point season – can carry the Avalanche into the postseason.

St. Louis was on a roll winning six straight games recently but dropped a pair of road games at Vegas and Arizona over the weekend, which now drops the Blues to below .500 at 19-20 on the highway this season. I’m not sure I can trust St. Louis in this kind of spot on the road if this game is the difference between the Blues making or missing the playoffs. Colorado has played their best hockey all season long at home with a 27-13 record at the Pepsi Center in Denver and should be priced reasonably in this game considering the absence of their No. 1 goalie, and that could make Colorado a bit of a bargain price on the ML in this game on Saturday night.

Next week, I’ll provide a complete and in-depth betting preview of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, which in my opinion is always one of the most exciting events in sports.

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