By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins cannot technically clinch the Atlantic Division and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night in Tampa against the Lightning. But they can come pretty darn close.

Explaining the NHL’s playoff system often requires the assistance of Congress and some NASA engineers. But in simplest terms, here are the first two determinants for seeding in the postseason.

1. Point Total
2. Regulation and Overtime Wins (ROW)

Yes, unlike most every sport in existence, the first tiebreaker is not head-to-head record. It is instead ROW.

The Lightning (108 points) currently trail the Bruins (110 points) by just two points. They are tied in ROW with 46 apiece.

If the Lightning can win on Tuesday in regulation on their home ice, then it’ll set up a captivating final five days of the regular season. After Tuesday, the Bruins will have three games remaining, while the Lightning will have just two. So regardless of Tuesday’s results, the Bruins will be in position to earn that top spot, given that extra opportunity.

And if the Bruins win on Tuesday? You can pretty much pencil them in as Atlantic Division champions. If they do win Tuesday, then the Bruins will be leading the Lightning by four points. And if the Bruins win that game in regulation or overtime, they’ll have the edge in ROW by one game as well. A shootout win, of course, would keep the ROW tied at 46.

So, the long story short is this: If the Bruins beat the Lightning on Tuesday, then the only way the Lightning can pass the Bruins in the standings is by winning their final two games while Boston loses its final three games in regulation, and by passing Boston in the ROW department.

Maybe that was still confusing. Here’s this: If the Bruins beat the Lightning in regulation or overtime on Tuesday, here’s what would need to happen after that for Tampa to win the division.

Thursday, April 5
Florida beats Boston in regulation

Friday, April 6
Tampa beats Buffalo

Saturday, April 7
Tampa beats Carolina
Ottawa beats Boston in regulation

Sunday, April 8
Florida beats Boston in regulation

And in the above scenario, one of Tampa’s two wins would have to come in regulation or overtime. Also, if the Bruins and Lightning end up tied both in standings points and in ROW, then the Bruins win the next tiebreaker, having already gone 3-0-0 against Tampa thus far this season.

All of that is assuming that the Lightning can win Tuesday’s game in regulation. If the game goes to OT and the Bruins earn a point, then Boston will hold a one-point lead in the standings. The Lightning would essentially need nearly all of those above scenarios to play out in order to leapfrog the Bruins by the end of the week. On the flip side, if the Bruins win in OT or the shootout against Tampa, then Boston’s lead will be three points. Again, it would take a lot for Tampa to climb that mountain over the final days of the season.

Could all of that happen? Sure. Technically. But clearly, if the Bruins can defeat the Lightning on Tuesday night, they’ll be just about as close to clinching as a team can be. And even if they lose, they’ll have the fairly soft landing of Ottawa (27-40-11) and Florida (defeated 5-1 by Boston this past weekend) as a safety net, if needed.

That top seed is not just about aesthetics, either. It could really help. As it looks right now, the top seed in the East will get New Jersey for the first round. That could change to Philadelphia or, in a long shot, Florida. While no playoff draw is “easy,” a first-round meeting with the worse of the two wild cards team is a lot friendlier than a first-round date with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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


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