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Resetting the NHL playoff race

Don't count the Lightning out of the postseason, especially if Steven Stamkos returns to action. Photo by Bennett Cohen/Icon Sportswire

With so much focus on roster moves and trades and speculation, Thursday night was fun. It was a return to hockey for hockey’s sake. Not to improve trade stock or count the scouts in the press box. It was teams, with their rosters settled, looking to make the playoff push.

It was P.K. Subban returning to Montreal, getting the welcome he deserved without the result he wanted. It was Thomas Vanek nearly scoring a goal seconds into his first overtime shift ever as a member of the Florida Panthers, but then the Flyers persevering by winning in the shootout.

It was a perfect Sergei Bobrovsky against the Wild, and then a passionate Bruce Boudreau after the game, crushing the calls that led to the showdown loss between two of the best teams in hockey.

It was refreshing.

The night was all a reminder that this next stretch of hockey is nearly as fun as the playoffs. The doldrums of October and November are long gone. The dog days of January are, too.

This is pre-playoff hockey, and it showed on Thursday night.

When the dust settled, there were two New York teams in the Eastern Conference wild-card spots, with the Islanders climbing their way back into the playoffs. A huge save from Steve Mason in the final seconds of regulation robbed the Panthers of an extra point, leaving them and the Maple Leafs just outside a playoff spot. The Kings replaced the Blues in the Western wild card.

And it could all be shuffled around again tomorrow.

So with the race tightened, the rosters settled and the playoffs on the horizon, here’s a reset of what to expect in the stretch run:

Eastern Conference

Don’t give up on this non-playoff-slotted team: