For nine of the ten Eastern Conference teams that have either solidified a playoff berth or are in contention have just three games remaining on their schedule. The Boston Bruins are the only team that still has four games left to play -- and they're still the only team in the conference that has clinched its division.
Chalk it up to good fortune or a weak division, but here's the really important stat: with four games left -- including Monday night's all-important battle for position with the New York Rangers -- the Bruins can't fall lower than third, but could still earn first place in the East.
Their competition in those four games? The Rangers, struggling to maintain their hold on the eighth and final playoff spot; the New York Islanders, long removed from contention; the Ottawa Senators, still trying to learn the names of their teammates as call-ups or new signees show up by the week (read as: not close to the playoffs, and never were); and the New Jersey Devils (see above).
The talk for the past few weeks among Bruins fans has been finding a way to push the hated Canadiens further down the standings so that the Bruins don't have to play them in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But with the Habs holding the season series over both the Rangers and Sabres below them, it's Boston's turn to focus on moving up to avoid Les Bleus.
That is, if they want to avoid them at all.
The Bruins will have home-ice advantage in at least the first round of the quest for Lord Stanley's hardware, and while home ice hasn't meant much to the Bruins this year, it's meant quite a bit the past two times out against Montreal, in which they physically whupped their hated rivals in an 8-6 game that saw 186 penalty minutes and emotionally broke the Habs in a 7-0 beatdown just a couple of weeks ago.
The Rangers and Sabres have both had the Bruins' number this year, playing physical games in front of strong goaltenders and wearing the Black and Gold down in the process. Montreal has one point on Buffalo and two on New York, with each team having three games left in the season, but the Sabres have quietly been playing some of the best hockey in the NHL since the all-star break, and the Rangers have been solid without being spectacular all year long.
A lot can change in the next eight days, but as it stands right now, the Eastern Conference playoffs shake out as follows:
- No. 8 New York vs. No 1. Philadelphia
- No. 5 Tampa Bay vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh
- No. 7 Buffalo vs. No. 2 Washington
- No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Montreal
The Habs can't catch Tampa Bay, which is battling with Washington for the Southeast division crown and Pittsburgh for the fourth seed and first-round home ice; Pittsburgh, likewise, is battling Philadelphia for the Atlantic division - and, presumably, first overall.
But Boston has the easiest schedule of those battling at all, and should they take advantage of it as they're expected to, they might find themselves looking down on the entire conference. If not, hey, they can't drop any further than they already are.