By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Whoa baby, hockey fans. It’s the penultimate weekend of the season. And far too many teams are still alive in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt for anybody to feel comfortable.
Of the five teams jostling for playoff positioning and/or qualification in the East, four of them won on Thursday night, pushing this fight even further into the season. Adding to the intrigue, Ottawa (currently in the second spot in the Atlantic) lost, which leaves them vulnerable to be caught, to the point where they may be at risk to slide down to the wild card.
Here’s your standings:
(Updated on April 1.)
2. Ottawa Senators, 91 points, 76 games played, 36 ROW
3. Toronto Maple Leafs, 89 points, 76 games played, 36 ROW
4. Boston Bruins, 88 points, 77 games played, 39 ROW
1. New York Rangers, 98 points, 78 games played, 43 ROW
2. Boston Bruins, 88 points, 77 games played, 39 ROW
3. Tampa Bay Lightning, 85 points, 76 games played, 34 ROW
4. Carolina Hurricanes, 84 points, 76 games played, 33 ROW
5. New York Islanders, 84 points, 77 games played, 34 ROW
Given how tight the race is, the Islanders are hanging by a thread, on the verge of falling out.
However, their game on Friday night is the first of 10 games this weekend that are sure to shuffle the standings quite a bit this weekend.
Here we go.
New Jersey at New York Islanders, 7:30 p.m. ET
The Islanders are skidding, perhaps out of control, after getting waxed by the Flyers on Thursday night for their third straight loss. This isn’t exactly the time you really want to put together losing streaks.
Yet there is good news, as the dreadful Devils roll into Brooklyn on a four-game losing streak. They’re 2-12-4 in their last 18 games, and they’re far and away the worst team in the conference. This should be a layup for the Islanders to get back into the picture.
(April 1 update: The Islanders won. They’re back in the picture. However, they lost John Tavares to injury. So, perhaps not.)
Florida at Boston, 1 p.m.
The Bruins look like a different team since last Thursday’s flop vs. Tampa Bay. They’re 3-0, they’re playing team defense, they’re getting depth scoring, and they’re winning on home ice, which has been an issue this year. That’s the good news.
The bad news? Well, it’s not bad news, per se. But the good times are always liable to turn into the bad times if the Bruins lose their focus.
The Bruins are 4-0-0 against Florida this season.
Ottawa at Winnipeg, 7 p.m. ET
It is interesting how the Senators can’t really afford to lose much. They could slip to third in the Atlantic with the only loss being home-ice advantage in the first round. But if they slip further and drop to the second wild card? That would be problematic for them.
The Senators are 2-4-4 in their last eight.
The Senators lost their only previous meeting with the Jets this year.
We’re officially keeping an eye on the Senators.
Toronto at Detroit, 7 p.m. ET
The Leafs are hot right now, going 9-2-1 since March 7 to maintain their spot in the Atlantic Division playoff structure. That’s pretty significant.
Still, they have no breathing room, with the Bruins having the chance to actually leapfrog them in the standings on Saturday before this game begins. On the flip side, if the Bruins lose, the Leafs know they can actually gain some separation with a win while also perhaps moving into a tie with Ottawa.
The Leafs have handled the Red Wings with ease this year, winning all three meetings by a combined score of 12-6.
Montreal at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. ET
If any of these teams has a great chance of knocking off one of the contenders, it’s Claude Julien’s Montreal Canadiens. They’re 12-3-1 since late February, and they’re riding a three-game winning streak into Tampa on Saturday night.
But the Lightning are pretty hot themselves, winners of four straight. This ought to be the game of the weekend right here.
Dallas at Carolina, 7 p.m. ET
The Hurricanes may still technically be a bit of a longshot to leapfrog both the Lightning and Bruins, but they just won’t lose. They’re 7-0-2 9-0-4 since March 9, riding a 13-game point streak.
Dallas did beat Carolina 5-2 in February, but the Stars are fading pretty fast in the month of March.
Boston at Chicago, 12:30 p.m. ET
A good old-fashioned morning start time in Chicago will mean a lot more for the Bruins than the Blackhawks. Chicago has a seven-point cushion atop the Central Division and has not been playing inspired hockey of late. They lost 7-0 to Florida last weekend, so if ever there was a good time to have a trip scheduled to Chicago, this may be it.
Still, the Blackhawks righted the ship with a blowout win in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. They’re still the Blackhawks. It’s never easy to beat the Blackhawks.
(April 1 update: Chicago beat the Blue Jackets on Friday night, 3-1. That’s a good win.)
New York Islanders at Buffalo, 3 p.m. ET
Again, we don’t know how “in” this race the Islanders are. But as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat Buffalo when it matters, you don’t belong in the conversation.
Carolina at Pittsburgh, 5 p.m. ET
A tall task for the Hurricanes, as the Penguins are still within a whisper of climbing to the second spot in the Metro. That may or may not be a big deal for them, but they’re still playing good hockey at this time of year. If the Hurricanes want to stay in this playoff race, they’re going to have to prove they’re worth in a game like this one.
Dallas at Tampa Bay, 6 p.m. ET
The weekend ends for the Eastern Conference playoff picture with a Stars trip to Tampa. It’ll be the second day of back-to-backs for both teams, as the Lightning look to avenge an overtime loss to Dallas in mid-February and, more importantly, stay afloat in the playoff race.
That’s a whole lot of hockey, folks. Come Sunday evening, that playoff picture is sure to look a whole lot different than it does right now.