The playoff chase in the NHL's Eastern Conference has gone from compelling to downright wacky.
Five teams, fighting for four spots, are now separated by just three points after Tuesday's thrilling night of action. The race tightened significantly because of Ottawa's stirring rally from a three-goal deficit against Pittsburgh. The Senators won 4-3 in overtime, pulling even with Boston for the second wild card and within one point of the slumping Penguins.
"We've got to wipe this one away," Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby said. "We've got two games left to earn the right to play in the playoffs. It's up to us now, but we've got to forget this one pretty quick."
Pittsburgh hasn't missed the playoffs since Crosby's rookie season. When he scored 10 seconds into the game Tuesday, you could almost feel the sense of relief among fans of the Penguins, Red Wings and Bruins — three glamour franchises that suddenly have to sweat out a wild finish to the regular season because of Ottawa's late surge.
Pittsburgh led 3-0 after the first period Tuesday, but the Senators came back in dramatic fashion. Since Feb. 10, Ottawa is 21-4-4.
The New York Rangers, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Washington have clinched playoff spots in the East. Of the remaining five contenders, the Islanders lead the pack with 98 points, followed by Detroit (97), Pittsburgh (96), Boston (95) and Ottawa (95). The Bruins have three games remaining while everyone else has two.
If the Penguins had held on to win in regulation, Pittsburgh, Detroit and the Islanders would all be in the playoffs. Instead, none of them clinched anything.
"We've had a heck of a season at this point but we have to find a way and solidify," Islanders star John Tavares said.
New York is still in a comfortable spot, but the Islanders went through a thoroughly maddening evening. Needing only to make it to overtime to clinch their second playoff berth in the last eight seasons, they rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the third period and scored the tying goal with 28 seconds left. Then Philadelphia's Brayden Schenn flipped a routine shot from near the blue line that somehow slipped past goalie Jaroslav Halak and into the net with 2.1 seconds remaining, giving the Flyers a 5-4 win.
Detroit had its own problems with Carolina before rallying in the third for a 3-2 victory, but once the Penguins failed to beat Ottawa in regulation, the Red Wings couldn't clinch Tuesday and neither could Pittsburgh. An overtime win by the Penguins would have been enough to put the Islanders in the playoffs, but that didn't happen, either. Mark Stone's OT goal won it for the Senators.
"I'm just thankful to be able to contribute at those times of the game," Stone said. "Everybody that's contributing on my goals are the guys that are making the plays. I'm just the one that's finishing it off."
The Penguins have lost four in a row and 10 of 13. They haven't missed the playoffs since 2006, but Detroit is trying to preserve a much longer streak. The last time the Red Wings didn't make the postseason was in 1990.
"It's a fun time of year," Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard said. "You have to be mentally tough. It shows what you're made of. There are going to be nights when there are bounces you're not going to like."
Over in the West, the defending champions are on the ropes. The Los Angeles Kings lost 4-2 to Edmonton on Tuesday, while Minnesota clinched a postseason berth with a 2-1 win over Chicago. There are three teams fighting for the final two playoff spots: Winnipeg (96 points), Calgary (95) and Los Angeles (93). They all have two games remaining.