By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Wednesday night was a quiet one with regard to the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Thursday night is not.
The Leafs are in action. The Bruins are playing. So are the Islanders. And Hurricanes. The Lightning, too.
Every team involved in this wild chase will be on the ice Thursday night, which figures to be a momentous night in the race. It’s really getting time for the Islanders and Hurricanes, in particular, to get a move on if they really want to make a push.
Here are the standings as of this morning. (ROW — or regulation and overtime wins — is the first tiebreaker used at the end of the season.)
3. Toronto Maple Leafs, 87 points, 75 games played, 35 ROW
4. Boston Bruins, 86 points, 76 games played, 38 ROW
EASTERN CONFERENCE WILD CARD
1. New York Rangers, 97 points, 77 games played, 43 ROW
2. Boston Bruins, 86 points, 76 games played, 38 ROW
3. Tampa Bay Lightning, 83 points, 75 games played, 33 ROW
4. New York Islanders, 82 points, 75 games played, 33 ROW
5. Carolina Hurricanes, 82 points, 75 games played, 32 ROW
As you can see the Bruins still have a distinct advantage in the ROW department, something that should hold until season’s end. That is an ace-in-the-hole type of advantage which they didn’t possess in the past two years. Still, they’re going to have to win some games if they want to get in. The race is just too crowded.
With that, here are the games that matter on Thursday night.
Dallas at Boston, 7:30 p.m. ET
Regardless of the other teams, the Bruins are going to need to win every game they have left against bad teams. Yes, they could still technically qualify for the postseason even if they drop games to teams well outside the playoff picture. But will there be much enthusiasm if they go in on such a sour note?
The Stars (31-34-11) are coming off a 4-1 loss at Montreal on Tuesday night. They had won two straight prior to that loss, but they’re 10-14-1 in their last 25 games.
The Bruins beat the Stars 6-3 in Dallas in late February.
New York Islanders at Philadelphia, 7 p.m. ET
The Islanders are in desperate need to right the ship after dropping two straight in regulation and losing six of their last nine. In the month of March, they’ve picked up 14 of a possible 28 points, which won’t get it done.
The Islanders are 1-0-2 against Philly thus far on the year, most recently beating the Flyers in Philly on Feb. 9.
Yet, panic may be setting in on Long Island. As Jeff Cappellini describes it: “And while there are still seven games to play and anything can happen, the Isles don’t exactly have the look of a team coming together at the right time.”
Indeed. A loss on Thursday would be a potentially devastating blow to the Islanders season. But sometimes all it takes is one win to turn it around. The Islanders have to hope it comes this evening.
Columbus at Carolina, 7 p.m. ET
Coming fresh off a 4-1 win over the Red Wings and having picked up at least one point in 12 straight games, the Hurricanes will not go away.
They’re 8-0-4 in that span, and as a result, they’re just four points out of the second wild-card spot. They may still be a long shot, but if they keep winning they will be guaranteed to remain in the mix until the end of the season.
They’re 1-2-0 against Columbus this year, and the Blue Jackets are 10-3-1 in the month of March as they are essentially playing for home ice in their eventual first-round meeting with Pittsburgh.
Detroit at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. ET
The Red Wings’ failure to make the playoffs for the first time in 25 years made the headlines the other night. How the team responds now that they’re officially eliminated will play a role in whether the Lightning do or do not make the postseason.
But beating the Lightning has not really been all that possible for the Red Wings this season, as Detroit is 0-3-1 vs. Tampa this year. The Lightning have outscored the Red Wings 15-9 in those contests.
The Lightning also have a potential emotional lift on the horizon, as captain Steven Stamkos has been elevated to “day-to-day” status. He’s likely not playing in this one, but he could return over the weekend and provide a major lift to a team chasing the Bruins in the playoff hunt. It would be asking a lot of Stamkos for him to lead the Lightning into the playoffs after missing so much time, but, well, it’s Steven Stamkos. He can probably do it.
Toronto at Nashville, 8 p.m. ET
The Predators just keep figuring their way into this Eastern Conference playoff race, don’t they? They’re coming off games against the Islanders and Bruins, and after this game against Toronto, they’ll take on the Islanders one more time before the season ends.
The game is very quietly a critical one for Toronto. If the Bruins beat the Stars and the Leafs lose in regulation, then it’ll be the Bruins leapfrogging Toronto for the third and final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. Instantly, the pressure will be shifted to Toronto, where pressure tends to boil a touch warmer than it does in other NHL cities.
If the Bruins win and if the Leafs pick up one point, Toronto will hold on to their spot in the Atlantic by virtue of having played one fewer game.
Needless to say, it’s a big one for Toronto.
It’s important for Nashville only in so much as the Predators’ playoff seeding. They’re currently in the second wild card spot. They’re going to either finish in one of the two wild-card spots or the third spot in the Central Division. That part is uncertain. But they’re definitely making the playoffs, as there’s no other team in playoff contention in the West that’s currently outside of the structure. So the urgency is a bit lessened on the Nashville side of things.
That’s a lot of hockey. While nothing will be settled after Thursday night, one way or another things will be shifting in the standings.