By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Can the Boston Bruins win six ice hockey games in a row?
It’s something they haven’t done since March of 2014. But if they can pull it off, they’ll find themselves with a guaranteed spot in the playoffs for the first time since that same spring.
Yes, playoff hockey in Boston is that close to returning, as the Bruins can clinch a spot with a regulation win on Tuesday night at the TD Garden. (The math: Bruins will get to 94 points with a regulation win. Tampa, currently at 88 points, will be stuck there with just three games left to play, which means their maximum point total would be 94. The Bruins have a healthy lead in regulation and overtime wins — or ROW — which is the first tiebreaker. Ergo, Bruins clinch with a regulation win. If Tampa picks up a point, they increase their maximum point total to 95, which means the Bruins can still be caught.)
But getting that win won’t be easy, as the Bruins have shown over the past two final weeks of the season. We need not get into that right now.
But heading into Tuesday’s slate of action, here are the Eastern Conference playoff standings as they matter to the Boston Bruins.
1. Montreal Canadiens, 101 points, 79 games played, 43 ROW
2. Toronto Maple Leafs, 93 points, 78 games played, 38 ROW
3. Ottawa Senators, 92 points, 78 games played, 36 ROW
4. Boston Bruins, 92 points, 79 games played, 41 ROW
1. New York Rangers, 100 points, 79 games played, 44ROW
2. Boston Bruins, 92 points, 79 games played, 41 ROW
3. Tampa Bay Lightning, 88 points, 78 games played, 35 ROW
4. New York Islanders, 86 points, 78 games played, 35 ROW
And here are the games that will potentially alter that picture on Tuesday night.
Tampa Bay at Boston, 7 p.m. ET
The big one, of course, as the Bruins can just simply handle their own business and worry a whole lot less about everyone else.
Of course, a win on Tuesday night won’t mean the Bruins can coast into the postseason. They’ll still want very much to finish in the top three of the Atlantic, because a date with Ottawa or Toronto (while still difficult) is a lot more desirable than a date with Washington in the first round.
But still, given the recent late-season history of the Bruins, a win in this one would go a long way in restoring some confidence inside the TD Garden.
The Bruins are 3-1-0 against Tampa this season, winning once via shootout and going 1-1-0 in games played in Boston.
Meanwhile, speculation continues to swirl about Steven Stamkos’ potential return. If he does, he’d provide a major boost to Lightning (UPDATE: Lightning head coach Jon Cooper announced that Stamkos will not play on Tuesday). But that situation remains very much up in the air. And even without Stamkos, the Lightning are on a roll, having gone 5-0-1 since March 23. It was, coincidentally, a win over the Bruins that started that win streak.
Washington at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. ET
The Maple Leafs may be sitting pretty in the No. 2 spot in the Atlantic right now (arguably the most desirable spot to be in the whole Eastern Conference), but the past two weeks have shown that no team should ever get too comfortable with its place in the standings. Things have a way of changing very quickly.
The Capitals have the advantage of having some extra rest, having not played since Sunday’s win in Columbus. Tuesday’s game will cap off a five-game road trip for the Caps, who have gone 3-1-0 thus far. The Capitals don’t quite have that No. 1 overall seed wrapped up, as Pittsburgh remains just five points behind in the standings, so there’s certainly still something to play for.
The Leafs are fresh off a 4-2 victory in Buffalo on Monday night, one in which they opened up a 3-0 lead before the first commercial break of the first period. The Leafs have won four straight and they’re 11-1-1 since March 7. They’re quite hot at the moment.
Detroit at Ottawa, 7:30 p.m. ET
The Red Wings helped the Bruins on Monday night by preventing the Senators from picking up two points in a thrilling shootout win at the Joe. The two teams get right back to it less than 24 hours later, with the stage moving to the southeast corner of Ontario.
The Senators remain somewhat in freefall mode. Not long ago, they held a firm grasp on the No. 2 spot in the Atlantic. Yet since March 14, they’ve gone 2-5-4, stumbling to the finish line and running the risk of falling all the way out of the postseason picture.
They’re likely to still make the playoffs, but if they lose on Tuesday without picking up a point? Things are going to get rather interesting.
And it could happen. Even though the Red Wings are 32-35-12 on the year, they have put together five runs of two or more straight wins since January.