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What to watch in the NHL's final weekend before the playoffs

Published Apr. 8, 2017

In the first game of the NHL season, Auston Matthews set a lofty standard with a remarkable four-goal debut for the Maple Leafs. Six months later, the season enters its final weekend with Matthews among the league's leading scorers and the Maple Leafs on the verge of a playoff spot.

The season has been marked by the emergence of young stars like Matthews and the continued dominance of standard-bearers like the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, who for his myriad exploits is on track to lead the league in goals for just the second time in his career.

But even with just a short slate of regular-season games remaining, there's plenty to be resolved before the playoffs begin Wednesday. Here are a few story lines to watch as the regular season wraps up Saturday and Sunday:

Playoff positioning

Entering Saturday's games, only one of the 16 postseason berths is still unclaimed: the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, up for grabs among the Lightning, Maple Leafs and Islanders. But many of the first-round matchups remain undetermined.

In the East, only two matchups are set, between the Canadiens and Rangers, and the defending champion Penguins and the Blue Jackets.

While all eight playoff teams have been decided in the Western Conference, little else appears settled beyond the Blackhawks earning the No. 1 seed. The teams are still jockeying for seeding, and any number of intriguing postseason matchups are possible.

Farewell, Joe Louis Arena

The Red Wings will close the doors at Joe Louis Arena, one of the country's few remaining historically significant sports shrines. Since opening in 1979, the building colloquially known as "the Joe" has hosted four Stanley Cup finals, three of which were won by the Red Wings. Among the lone holdouts in an era when the sale of venue naming rights has become a sports industry standard, Joe Louis Arena will make way for Little Caesars Arena, a new state-of-the-art facility two miles away, near Ford Field and Comerica Park in Detroit.

The landmark's farewell weekend commences with games against the Canadiens on Saturday and the Devils on Sunday. A one-hour ceremony after Sunday's game will feature testimonials from current and former Red Wings players. After that, the arena will continue hosting guided tours before closing in August.

McDavid's race to 100

Since collecting six points in his first two games of the season, the Oilers' Connor McDavid has been at the top of the scoring race much of the season. His first 100-point season remains within range entering the final weekend. With a weekend home-and-home series against the Canucks, McDavid need three points to reach 100. Should he do it, McDavid, 20, would be the youngest player to get 100 points in a season since Sidney Crosby did it at 19 in 2006-07.

In the past 10 seasons, only 13 players have accumulated 100 points. In that time, only Crosby, the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin have done it more than once.

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Maple Leafs rookies eye history

Auston Matthews' historic NHL debut was a sign of things to come this season for Toronto. Closing in on their first playoff appearance since 2013, the Maple Leafs have relied in large part on a collection of rookies who have taken one of hockey's most rabid fan bases by storm.

Buoyed by his memorable debut, Matthews is tied for third in the league in goals with 39. William Nylander had 22 goals, and Connor Brown and Mitch Marner had 19 each.

With one more goal each for Brown and Marner, Toronto will have four rookies with at least 20 goals. The Leafs would be the first team with such a productive rookie class since the 1992-93 Winnipeg Jets. That team featured a productive quartet led by Teemu Selanne, who set a rookie record with 76 goals.