By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins are remarkably hot right now. Even when they don’t play, they still win.
With Boston still chasing Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic Division and the whole Eastern Conference, the Bruins were given a gift Monday night when the Arizona Coyotes defeated the Lightning 4-1 in Tampa. The Coyotes may be in last place in the Pacific Division, but they were still aware of the implications for Tampa. The organization went ahead and offered up a “you’re welcome” to the Bruins after the game.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who are trailing Boston in the standings, also lost on Monday to the Sabres.
After Monday night’s actions, here’s how the top of the standings looks in the Atlantic Division:
1. Tampa Bay, 106 points, 76 games played, 45 ROW
2. Boston, 104 points, 74 games played, 44 ROW
3. Toronto, 97 points, 76 games played, 38 ROW
As a result, the Bruins are in prime position to leapfrog the Lightning and take over that spot. That would be rather significant.
As it currently stands, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference would be set to take on the New Jersey Devils, who are 39-28-8 on the season. Other teams who could possibly end up in that second wild-card spot are the Philadelphia Flyers (38-25-13) and Florida Panthers (39-28-7). Against those three teams this year, the Bruins are 5-1-0.
If the Bruins end up finishing in second place in the division, then they’ll face the Maple Leafs in the first round and then, presumably, the Lightning in the second round if they advance. The Bruins have fared well against Tampa, going 2-0-0 thus far against the Lightning, but they have gone 1-2-1 against Toronto this season.
While logic might dictate that in order to win a Stanley Cup, a team is going to have to beat some other good teams along the way. But the list of Stanley Cup winners who have benefited from some easier paths to the Finals is long. And there’s no denying the talent of the Lightning, who at certain points of the season looked impossible to catch in the standings. The Bruins would certainly benefit from facing a New Jersey or Philadelphia while avoiding one of Toronto and Tampa Bay.
And the beauty of the current picture is that the Bruins are in complete control of where they finish. With two games in hand on Tampa, the Bruins have an extra crack at earning the points needed to pass Tampa in the standings. And the Bruins’ remaining schedule includes not one but two head-to-head matchups with the Lightning — first on Thursday in Boston, then next Tuesday in Tampa.
The Bruins also figure to play a central role in the playoff fate of the Panthers, as those two teams will face off three times in a span of nine days from March 31-April 8. With the existence of the loser point, there are too many variables with eight games left in the season, but the bottom line is that if the Bruins can take care of their own business and win their games, they’ll end up as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and they’ll even have a chance to pass Nashville (107 points in 75 games played) for the Presidents’ Trophy.
That the Bruins are even in this position at all is remarkable. For various stretches of the month of March, the team played without Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy, David Backes, Rick Nash, Torey Krug and Jake DeBrusk. Tuukka Rask battled a minor injury, too. Facing a brutal stretch of schedule that had them playing 13 games in 25 days, the Bruins have thus far spent March building a 9-2-2 record, collecting 20 of a possible 26 points.
Their schedule doesn’t let up, though. They won’t get more than a day off in between games between now and the end of the season, fitting eight games in a span of 13 days. In that sense, those games in hand do become a bit of a burden as the banged-up Bruins continue their grind of a regular season. Head coach Bruce Cassidy and the rest of the Bruins brain trust have to decide whether to keep their foot firmly on the gas pedal and try to secure their own playoff standing or to rest some key contributors to help ensure their freshness for the postseason, regardless of opponent.
It won’t be the easiest of decisions, but if things continue to go the way they have been, it feels as though everything might just fall into place for the Bruins. It’s been that kind of year.