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Huge Night Ahead For Bruins, Atlantic Division Playoff Seeding

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Bruins clinched a playoff berth the other night, which is all well and good. They really needed that. But their work is far from over.

Currently slotted in the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division, they're in a rather good place right now. But as we've seen numerous times over the past two weeks, no team can ever get too comfortable in any one position. One night can change everything.

And Thursday night has that potential.

With the Metropolitan Division playoff matchups already set (the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the conference will play each other in the first round -- three cheers for Gary Bettman's National Hockey League!), here's a look at the Atlantic and wild card standings:

1. Montreal Canadiens, 101 points, 80 games played, 43 ROW
2. Ottawa Senators, 94 points, 79 games played, 37 ROW
3. Boston Bruins, 94 points, 80 games played, 42 ROW
4. Toronto Maple Leafs, 93 points, 79 games played, 38 ROW

1. New York Rangers, 100 points, 80 games played, 44 ROW
2. Toronto Maple Leafs, 93 points, 79 games played, 38 ROW
3. New York Islanders, 88 points, 79 games played, 38 ROW
4. Tampa Bay Lightning, 88 points, 79 games played, 35 ROW

The Islanders and Lightning are hanging on by a thread. They need to win out to have a chance, and they'd also need Toronto to either lose the rest of the way or only gain one point. Tampa would need three wins in regulation or overtime -- winning any of the final three in a shootout would do no good.

So for the sake of simplicity, let's leave the Isles and Lightning out of this. If they pull off a miracle, we can reconvene next week. But for now, let's assume that the Eastern Conference playoff field is set. If the season were to end right now, these would be the four series:

Washington (1) vs. Toronto (2nd WC)
Pittsburgh (M2) vs. Columbus (M3)

Montreal (A1) vs. New York Rangers (1st WC)
Ottawa (A2) vs. Boston (A3)

If the Bruins had their druthers, they'd probably take that, though they'd probably prefer home ice. Yes, the Bruins are 0-3-0 vs. Ottawa this year, but they're also 0-4-0 vs. Toronto and 0-3-0 vs. Washington. There's no ideal matchup, in that regard.

But still, the Bruins' first-round opponent remains very much up in the air, especially considering the games scheduled for this evening:

Ottawa at Boston, 7 p.m. ET
Tampa Bay at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. ET

Because just two or three games remain on the schedule for every team, we're officially in silly season when it comes to "ifs" in the NHL. With that being established, here are a few "ifs" for Thursday night.

IF the Bruins and Maple Leafs both win in regulation ....
... then the Bruins will jump into second place and the Leafs will move up into third place. Ottawa will slide back to the wild card.

IF the Bruins win in overtime or shootout and the Maple Leafs win in any fashion ...
... then the Bruins will still climb into second place, while the Leafs and Senators will be tied with 95 points apiece. Ottawa currently has the ROW tiebreaker over Toronto by one (subject to change on Thursday). It would be a tense weekend for all involved.

IF the Bruins lose and the Maple Leafs win ...
... then the Bruins will slide back into the wild card, while the Senators (96 points) will sit in second in the division and the Leafs (95 points) will be in third. The Bruins would need to win their finale vs. Washington and then hope for either Toronto or Ottawa to finish the season with no more than 96 points. (The Bruins own the ROW tiebreaker, hence their early clinching of a playoff berth.)

If the Maple Leafs and/or Senators lose in regulation ...
... then the Lightning are still alive at 90 points. The Islanders can also stay alive with a win of any kind vs. Carolina combined with a Toronto or Ottawa loss.

If the Bruins and Maple Leafs both lose in regulation ...
... then they stay where they are in the standings, give Ottawa a red carpet to earning the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic, and potentially keep the Islanders and Lightning alive in the playoff field.

Well that was fun.

Let's say, for the sake of imagination, we get the scenario where the Bruins lose and the Maple Leafs win. That would completely alter those playoff matchups for the time being. Washington would play Boston. Ottawa would play Toronto.

Nobody wants to play the Capitals, who are 6-2-0 against the trio of Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. So making the playoffs in the Atlantic Division remains of the utmost importance for all three teams. But only two can do it.

For the Bruins, here's how they can finish the year in the Atlantic playoffs instead of the wild card:

They win Thursday in regulation and win Saturday in any fashion to get to 98 points. Toronto could not catch. Ottawa could only tie, but the Bruins have the tiebreaker. The Bruins would be the No. 2 seed, or the No. 3 seed if Toronto goes 3-0-0 and finishes with 99 points.

They pick up three points over the final two games to finish with 97 points. They'd need the Senators to pick up no more than three points in their final three games, and/or the Maple Leafs to gain no more than four points in their final three games.

They could pick up zero points in their final two games and still finish third. But that would require the Maple Leafs to gain just one point in their final three games. Considering the Leafs have the Penguins and Blue Jackets this weekend -- two teams who know their first-round opponent -- it might not be a safe bet to imagine the Leafs ending the season on such a sour note.

Really, we could throw out 100 different scenarios, but most of it would be an imprudent waste of time. After Thursday night's slate of games, however, the playoff picture will come into focus much clearer for all teams involved. For the Bruins, a head-to-head win over Ottawa -- especially one in regulation -- would go a long way toward making life easier.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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