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Why clinching Atlantic Division may not be best for Bruins and their NHL playoff hopes

BOSTON -- The Bruins missed out on a chance to claim the Atlantic Division on Monday night when they were shut out by the Washington Capitals. Boston can make up for it Tuesday night with a win over the Ottawa Senators at TD Garden in their final game of the regular season.

But the question is, do the Bruins really want the Atlantic crown and the first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning that comes with it? We'll get a good idea on an answer when the B's take the ice against Ottawa on Tuesday.

With one game left for Boston, the Bruins currently sit atop the Atlantic Division with 109 points, a single point ahead of the Florida Panthers. The Panthers will also play their final game of the regular season Tuesday night when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Bruins will clinch the Atlantic and set up a first-round meeting with the Lightning (the top wild card team with 96 points entering Tuesday night's action) if any one of the following three scenarios play out Tuesday night:

-A Bruins win in any fashion
-A Panthers loss in regulation
-Both teams lose in overtime or a shootout

And here's what would need to happen for the Bruins to finish second in the division, which would set up a first-round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs (third in the Atlantic with 102 points):

-A Bruins loss and a Panthers win
-A Bruins loss in regulation and a Panthers loss in overtime or a shootout

Florida has a 41-36 edge over Boston in regulation wins, so the Panthers own the tie-breaker over the Bruins should the two teams finish with the same amount of points. 

Now, who would the Bruins prefer to play when the postseason arrives in Boston on Saturday? Both the Lightning and the Leafs possess talented offenses that can score in bunches, with Toronto atop the Eastern Conference with 297 goals entering Tuesday. Tampa Bay is right behind them with 285 goals. Boston is fourth in the East at 266 goals scored this season.

But the Bruins absolutely own one of those teams, and would likely prefer to see them when the puck drops for the playoffs this weekend.

That would be the Leafs, whom the Bruins have beat in the first round three times in recent years; in 2013, 2018, and 2019 -- all in heartbreaking seven-game series. Boston won all four matchups this year during the regular season, outscoring the Leafs 14-7. The Bruins won each of the last two matchups 4-1, with Jeremy Swayman making 60 saves across the two victories.

The Bruins have had much less success against Tampa Bay, both during the season and in recent playoff matchups. The Lightning won three of the four regular-season meetings, including the most recent matchup, 3-1, in Tampa a few weeks ago. Linus Ullmark was 1-1-1 with a 2.28 GAA in his three games against the Lightning, while Swayman suffered a 5-4 overtime loss in the first meeting of the season back in November despite making 47 saves in net. 

The 2011 Bruins beat the Lightning in a dramatic seven-game Eastern Conference Final en route to their Stanley Cup championship, but Boston hasn't won a playoff series over Tampa Bay since. The Lightning sent the Bruins home in the second round of both the 2018 and 2020 NHL playoffs.

So the B's would probably like to avoid a first-round meeting with the Lightning. But playing good teams goes with the territory in the playoffs, and the potentially top-seeded Bruins should welcome any challenge.

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