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Blackhawks, Penguins, Avalanche set to join playoff party

(Reuters) - The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche can all join the National Hockey League playoff party this weekend as the regular season enters the home stretch.

With just a little more than two weeks left on the schedule, only the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks have secured post-season invitations but by week's end the playoff picture should start to come into sharper focus.

The Blackhawks can clinch a spot if they get at least one point against the Ottawa Senators in the Canadian capital or if the Dallas Stars lose to the Nashville Predators while the Penguins can confirm their place if they get at least a point against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Friday's games.

The Avalanche are idle on Friday but could still find themselves in the post-season if the Stars lose to the Predators.

While three teams in the Western conference (Blues, Sharks and Ducks) have clinched, the playoff puzzle is far less complete in the East with only the Bruins guaranteed a spot.

The top three teams in each division earn automatic berths in the playoffs (six teams per conference) with the next two teams in each conference earning wild-card spots.

The regular season ends on April 13.

The Bruins scored third-period goals 13 seconds apart to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0 on Thursday in a rematch of last year's Stanley Cup finalists. They need just one point to lock up the Atlantic Division crown.

With nine games to play, the red-hot Bruins, who are 16-1-3 in their past 20, lead the Penguins by nine points in the Eastern Conference race.

The Blackhawks have been shut out in two of their last three games and have struggled to generate offence with the loss of All-Star forward Patrick Kane to a lower-body injury,

"Every game is different. You miss (Kane), you're trying some things and we're seeing what it can look like," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "But, a good defensive team, Boston is as stingy as there is anyway, so we'll see."

The real drama in the East can be found lower down the standings with the Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs in a dead heat for the two wildcard spots with all four teams on 80 points.

The playoff situation is less chaotic in the West with eight teams ready to start selling post-season tickets.

The Blues lead the race for the number one seed, sitting on 107 points but the Sharks (103) and Ducks (101) are both still eyeing top position.

The Ducks officially clinched a playoff spot on Tuesday thanks to a loss by the Stars but are focused on reeling in the Sharks, who hold a two-point lead at the top of the Pacific Division standings.

"Coming down the stretch, we play a couple teams that are already out of the playoffs. We have to take advantage of those games," said the Ducks' Mathieu Perreault.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Miami,; editing by Gene Cherry)

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