By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — As recently as Tuesday, the Boston Bruins had a pretty simple path to earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Now, they’re going to need some help.

To start, it’s important to remember why the No. 1 seed actually matters. The current NHL playoff system is rather wacky, separating teams by division while including wild-card teams at the bottom of the conference. That means that even though the Atlantic Division may host the three best teams in the conference, two of those teams will be facing off in the first round of the playoffs.

Specifically as it relates to the Bruins (110 points), they run the risk of facing the Maple Leafs (103 points) if they finish second in the Atlantic Division. If the Bruins can pass the Lightning (110 points) and finish in first place, then they will instead get to take on the lowest-qualifying playoff team in the conference. The difference in quality of opponent is significant.

Now, there may be some philosophical debates going on in the offices of Causeway Street. Is it better to rest and get as healthy as possible before the playoffs open next week? Or is it worth treating the final two games of the season like playoff games, in hopes of securing an “easier” path in the first round of the postseason. (Of course, no path in the NHL postseason is ever “easy.” But there are degrees.)

Those questions have yet to be answered. But in the event the Bruins do want to do what it takes to earn the No. 1 seed, here’s what needs to happen.

First, for clarity, the standings. Regulation and overtime wins (ROW) are the first tiebreaker, followed by points gained in head-to-head meetings:

ATLANTIC DIVISION
1. Tampa Bay, 110 points, 80 games played, 47 ROW
2. Boston, 110 points, 80 games played, 46 ROW
3. Toronto, 103 points, 81 games played, 41 ROW

For the purposes of this exercise, you can forget about the Leafs. They’ll open the playoffs on the road as the three-seed in the Atlantic.

The Lightning currently own the ROW tiebreaker with Boston. If the Lightning win their final two games in regulation or overtime, then they will secure the top spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s nothing the Bruins could do in that scenario to catch Tampa.

The Lightning will play Friday night at home against Buffalo, and Saturday night on the road in Carolina. So here’s the conditional:

IF the Lightning win both remaining games in regulation or overtime …
then the Bruins will finish in second place, no matter what they do themselves.

Now, if the Bruins manage to tie the Lightning in both points and ROW, then Boston owns the next tiebreaker, by virtue of earning six points to Tampa’s two points in their four head-to-head meetings.

Such a tie could happen in a variety of ways. First, the Bruins would have to win at least one of their remaining games (both of which are at home — Saturday night vs. Ottawa, Sunday night vs. Florida) in regulation or overtime. A lot could happen outside of that. The Lightning could lose both of their games, or win one in regulation/OT while losing the other. The Lightning could also win one game in regulation/OT and win another in a shootout; if that happened while the Bruins won their remaining two games in regulation or OT, then the Bruins would leapfrog the Lightning in the standings.

Clearly, even with just two games left for the two teams, there are many variables. But here’s this:

IF the Lightning and Bruins finish tied in points and ROW …
then the Bruins will earn the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference.

The conditionals can get needlessly complicated. So here’s a hypothetical set of results, along with what would happen to the standings.

Hypothetical: Tampa Bay beats Buffalo and Carolina, with both wins coming in regulation or OT.
Result: Lightning earn No. 1 seed.

Hypothetical: Tampa Bay wins once in regulation or OT and once in a shootout, while the Bruins win both of their remaining games in regulation or OT.
Result: The Bruins would get the No. 1 seed, by virtue of being tied in points and ROW, while owning the next tiebreaker.

Hypothetical: Tampa Bay earns three points, while Bruins earn at least three points
Result: Bruins earn No. 1 seed, provided their victory comes in regulation or OT. If it does not, then the Lightning will get the No. 1 seed. Of course, if the Bruins earned four points while the Lightning earned three points, then the Bruins would get the No. 1 seed regardless of regulation/OT/shootout, because they would finish with 114 points to Tampa’s 113 points.

Hypothetical: Tampa Bay wins one game in regulation/OT, and loses one game in regulation. The Bruins earn three points while winning at least one game in regulation/OT.
Result: Bruins earn No. 1 seed.

Hypothetical: Tampa Bay wins two shootouts, while the Bruins win at least one game in regulation/OT.
Result: Bruins earn No. 1 seed.

Hypothetical: Tampa Bay earns one point over final two games, while Bruins earn at least two points in any fashion.
Result: Bruins earn No. 1 seed.

Hypothetical: Tampa Bay earns zero points over final two games, while Bruins earn at least one point.
Result: Bruins earn No. 1 seed.

If that got convoluted, consider it this way:

ATLANTIC DIVISION
1. Tampa Bay, 110 points, 80 games played, 47 ROW
2. Boston, 110 points, 80 games played, 46 ROW
3. Toronto, 103 points, 81 games played, 41 ROW

Tampa Bay, at best, can finish with 114 points and 49 ROW.
Boston, at best, can finish with 114 points and 48 ROW.
Points are of course the first determinant in the standings, followed by ROW.
If Tampa Bay and Boston finish tied in points and ROW, then Boston owns the tiebreaker.

(If that’s still complex, then perhaps you should write a letter to the NHL and ask them to make their playoff structure much simpler. This is a bit much. You don’t see many posts laying out the millions of scenarios in NBA playoff seeding, now do you?)

Clearly, many paths remain for the Bruins to secure that top spot in the East and the “easier” first-round opponent that accompanies it. Potentially factoring into the equation could be the playoff status of the Florida Panthers. They defeated the Bruins on Thursday to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, but when they fly to Boston for Sunday’s finale, they very likely could already be eliminated from the playoffs. Such matters could affect the level of play on the ice in a number of ways.

The picture will gain clarity after Friday night’s game between the Lightning and Sabres. The Lightning should have little trouble with the dreadful Sabres, potentially putting the Lightning ahead of the Bruins by two points and by two ROWs. If that happens, then the Bruins will know that at the very least, they’ll need to either:

a) win their final two games in regulation or overtime
or
b) earn at least three points in their final two games, while getting help from a Hurricanes win over the Lightning on Saturday.

Again with that scenario, it will crystallize on Saturday evening, once the Lightning and Hurricanes conclude play in Raleigh. The Lightning could win both games in regulation or OT, thus rendering Sunday’s Bruins result useless.

For the Bruins, as it looks now, it appears to be a case of a missed opportunity. The Lightning at times this year looked impossible to catch in the standings, but the Bruins surged in March — almost entirely against playoff teams or teams in the playoff picture — to surpass them by the end of March. But they only picked up one point on their three-game road trip this past week, thus putting them in this position.

And if they don’t get some help from Buffalo (doubtful) or Carolina (possible), they’ll find themselves matched up in the first round with Toronto instead of Philadelphia or (long shot) Florida. Considering they’re 1-2-1 against Toronto this year and are 2-0-1 against Philly, that could be a big difference.

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

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