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NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Scenarios Heading In To Final Weekend Of Season

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Figuring out playoff scenarios over the past two weeks has created innumerable headaches around North America — and particularly the Atlantic seaboard. But fortunately, a finish line is in sight.

The final horn will sound on the 2016-17 regular season on Sunday night in Edmonton. And around 9 p.m. ET, we’re guaranteed to have clarity on the playoff picture. At long last.

But before we move on, here’s a look at the Atlantic and wild-card standings after Thursday’s busy night of games.

ATLANTIC
1. Montreal Canadiens, 101 points, 80 games played, 43 ROW
2. Ottawa Senators, 96 points, 80 games played, 37 ROW
3. Boston Bruins, 95 points, 81 games played, 42 ROW
———
4. Toronto Maple Leafs, 93 points, 80 games played, 38 ROW

WILD CARD
1. New York Rangers, 100 points, 80 games played, 44 ROW
2. Toronto Maple Leafs, 93 points, 80 games played, 38 ROW
——–
3. New York Islanders,  90 points, 80 games played, 37 ROW

Clearly, the extra point that was up for grabs Thursday night in Boston was a big one, and the Senators were able to wrest it away from the Bruins to put themselves in the driver’s seat for home ice in the first round.

In that spirit, let’s lay things out for each team heading into the final weekend, starting with the teams that most control their fate.

First, this might help.

MAXIMUM POSSIBLE POINTS:
Ottawa: 100
Boston: 97
Toronto: 97
NY Islanders: 94

And, with the first tiebreaker being ROW (regulation and overtime wins), here’s how that currently shakes out:

ROW (as of 4-7-17)
Boston: 42
Toronto: 38
Ottawa: 37
NY Islanders: 37

OTTAWA SENATORS
The Senators can clinch the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic by picking up two points in their final two games. It’s that simple.

However, if they only pick up one point, they can be caught by the Bruins (who do own the tiebreaker) and/or the Maple Leafs (who will likely have the tiebreaker, barring an Ottawa regulation/OT win and a pair of shootout wins from Toronto.)

If Ottawa picks up zero points, they could end up anywhere from the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic to the second wild card. But they have clinched a postseason spot.

Ottawa plays at home vs. the Rangers on Saturday and at the Islanders on Sunday. The Rangers’ spot in the first wild card is locked; the Islanders may or may not be still alive in the playoff hunt.

The most likely scenario for the Senators: No. 2 or 3 seed in the Atlantic.

BOSTON BRUINS
The Bruins can clinch the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic by picking up two points in their final game of the season. Again, it is that simple.

It doesn’t matter how the Bruins get those two points — regulation, overtime, or shootout — because Toronto cannot make up the five-game gap in ROW. So, really, the Bruins have the simplest road heading into the weekend: Beat Washington, and they get to avoid Washington in the first (and second) round of the playoffs. The Capitals have the No. 1 overall seed in the East wrapped up, so they will have nothing to play for this weekend (at Boston, vs. Florida).

If the Bruins pick up just one point in Saturday’s season finale, they’ll still be in decent position. Doing so would require the Maple Leafs to pick up the maximum four points in their final games to leapfrog the Bruins in the standings.

If the Bruins lose in regulation and pick up zero points, they still could end up in the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic if the Maple Leafs gain no more than two points in their final two games.

The Bruins also have an outside chance of getting the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic. If the Bruins win and finish with 97 points, then they would secure the No. 2 seed if the Senators pick up one or zero points over their final two games. If the Bruins pick up one point vs. Washington, they could secure the No. 2 seed if the Senators pick up zero points in their final two games and the Maple Leafs pick up no more than three points in their final two games.

The most likely scenario for the Bruins: No. 3 seed in Atlantic.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Leafs picked a bad time to lose consecutive hockey games. As a result, they haven’t even clinched a playoff berth.

The Leafs lost 4-1 on Thursday night to the Lightning, thus keeping the Islanders (and, by a very slim margin) the Lightning alive in the playoff hunt.

The Leafs can clinch a playoff spot by picking up two points over their final two games. That’s all they’ll need to reach 95 points, a total that can’t be reached by the Islanders or Lightning.

If the Leafs gain just one point over their final two games, they run the risk of potentially losing a tiebreaker with the Islanders, who could go 2-0-0 and win the ROW tiebreakers. If the Islanders and Maple Leafs tie in both points and ROW, it will be the Maple Leafs earning the berth because of a wacky rule that eliminates the first head-to-head meeting if teams don’t have an even number of home games against each other.

But of course, these are the low expectations. The Leafs aren’t resigned to being a wild card. They can still climb all the way up to No. 2 in the Atlantic if they win out, if Ottawa and loses out and if Boston gains just one point on Saturday. The Leafs currently have the ROW tiebreaker advantage over Ottawa.

Toronto plays two home games: Saturday vs. Pittsburgh, and Sunday vs. Columbus. The Penguins and Blue Jackets are locked in to playing each other in the first round, and Pittsburgh has secured home ice. So neither team has anything to gain this weekend in their matchups with Toronto.

The most likely scenario for the Maple Leafs: Second wild card.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Doubtful. Quite doubtful. But if the Islanders win their final two games (at New Jersey on Saturday, home vs. Ottawa on Sunday), they can get to 94 points. If that happens and if the Leafs lose their final two games, then the Islanders are in.

If the Islanders win their final two games and the Maple Leafs pick up just one point in their final two games, then the Islanders could gain the ROW advantage with two regulation/OT wins. If they don’t pass Toronto in ROW, then a tie does the Islanders no good. (That is, again, thanks to a wacky tie-breaking rule that wipes a game from history.)

The most likely scenario for the Islanders: Out of the playoffs.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Even more doubtful. Very, very doubtful.

For the Lightning to make the playoffs, they need to win both of their games (at Montreal, vs. Buffalo), they need the Leafs to gain zero (or one) points in their final two games, and they need the Islanders to gain no more than three points in their final three games.

Could it happen? Sure, why not? But these are the slimmest of slim playoff hopes.

And that’s that.

The playoffs begin next week. We’ll know soon enough exactly who will be there.

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

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