By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If Thursday night at the Garden was any indication, the NHL regular season is going to end with a whimper.
The Bruins absolutely rolled the emotionally and physically drained Rangers, winning 4-0 without really breaking a sweat. The Penguins dropped an eight-spot on the lowly Sabres, winning 8-4 to slide up into first place in the East. The Islanders, floundering a bit despite their clinched playoff spot, couldn’t win at home against the Devils.
Nobody will ever talk about those three games again.
And while we’re doing some assuming here, it feels safe to say that the remainder of the regular season will be largely uneventful. That likely applies to the entire NHL (there’s really only one playoff spot “up for grabs,” and even then, not really), but it certainly applies to the East.
If you’re trying to forecast whom the Bruins might face in the first round of the playoffs, now might be the time to do it.
After Thursday’s “action” — if you want to call it that — here’s how the standings are looking:
1. Pittsburgh, 75 points, 55 games played
2. Washington, 73 points, 53 games played
3. Boston, 71 points, 53 games played
4. NY Islanders, 68 points, 54 games played
With a 56-game season for all, about the only thing that seems safely in place is that the Islanders will finish as the fourth seed. They could win their final two games — vs. the Devils, at the Bruins — to get to 72 points, but the odds of the Bruins gaining just one standings point in their final three games seems low … considering they’re playing the Rangers on Saturday. The Islanders have been pretty bad since their early-April winning streak ended, going 5-7-2 in their last 14 games. So they’ll finish fourth.
From a Bruins perspective, the question then becomes where they can finish. Here’s the remaining schedules for the three top teams.
Saturday vs. Buffalo
Friday, vs. Flyers
Saturday vs. Flyers
Tuesday vs. Bruins
Saturday vs. Rangers
Monday vs. islanders
Tuesday at Capitals
If we assume that Pittsburgh will beat the Sabres (a safe assumption), we can leave the Penguins with 77 points on the season.
How the Capitals finish is kind of up to the Capitals. They’re 5-1-0 vs. the Flyers this year, so if they go full bore this weekend, they should be able to pick up three or four points. And if they win both … they’ll get to 77 points, and they’ll own the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh, and thus they’ll be the top seed. The Capitals can clinch that top seed with two more regulation wins, so they’d have one more chance against the Bruins if they can’t close the deal this weekend.
The Capitals might be motivated to get that top spot, as they went 6-2-0 against the Islanders this season. Securing that favorable matchup might be in their best interest. (The Capitals went 3-4-0 vs. the Bruins, who would be their first-round opponent if Pittsburgh gets the top spot.
Long story short: The Capitals have three chances to win two games to secure the top seed, and they should want to go for it, as it would get them the Islanders in the first round.
That leaves the Bruins. They could win their final three games, which would get them to 77 points. They won’t, however, own the tiebreaker (regulation wins) over Washington or Pittsburgh, who already have three more regulation wins apiece than the Bruins. If the Caps win one more game in regulation, they’ll secure that tiebreaker with the Bruins, in the event that it matters.
So the top seed, while still technically possible for the Bruins, seems out of the picture.
That means the Bruins will finish either second or third in the East, but probably third.
And that means they’ll face either the Penguins or Capitals … but probably the Penguins.
That’s not particularly great for the Bruins, as the Penguins are roasty toasty hot. The Bruins did go 5-3-0 against the Penguins this season, but Pittsburgh’s gone 12-3-1 in their last 16 games.
They beat Boston 1-0 on a Sunday afternoon in late April, but the Bruins came back with a 3-1 win two nights later.
In their previous couplet, the Penguins beat the Bruins 4-1 (on April 1, coincidentally) in Boston, but the Bruins won in a 7-5 slobber knocker two nights later.
The two teams split their previous back-to-back (the Penguins won 4-1; the Bruins won 2-1), and the Bruins swept the first two-game set way back in late January.
If this does end up being the matchup, Penguins fans might not feel greet about it. The two teams famously met in the 2013 playoffs. After leading the NHL with 3.4 goals per game in the regular season and then averaging 4.3 goals per game through the first two rounds of the playoffs, they managed to score just two goals in the entire series against Tuukka Rask, as the Bruins swept the Penguins to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. A lot has changed since 2013, but Rask is 6-0-0 with a .943 save percentage and a 1.64 GAA since returning from injury in mid-April.
Of course, you can’t predict anything in sports. Kyle Shanahan would step in here to remind us that we all might die before Sunday. That is 100 percent possible, no doubt.
So nothing’s quite locked in right now. But if you are to sit back and reasonably forecast what will happen over the coming five days, it feels safe to pencil in a Capitals-Islanders and Bruins-Penguins playoff scenario in the East.
Now, there’s nothing left to do but wait … and get ready for playoff hockey.
Should be fun.