Nick Goss

Playoff race update: Bruins likely to play Leafs or Lightning in Round 1

There's still work to be done for the B's despite already clinching a playoff spot.

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Ty Anderson joins Zolak and Bertrand to discuss whether the Bruins can sustain a high level of play throughout a series against a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning

The Boston Bruins are still in the mix for both the Presidents' Trophy and the Atlantic Division title, but to finish first in one or both of these races, they'll need to overcome a tough remaining schedule.

The B's have the fifth-toughest schedule through the end of the regular season, based on the combined win percentage of their last seven opponents.

This stretch includes matchups versus the Predators, Hurricanes (twice), Panthers and Capitals. The only one of Boston's last seven opponents without a chance to make the playoffs is the Ottawa Senators, who play at TD Garden in the regular season finale April 16.

While it's important to be playing at a high level entering the playoffs, the Bruins' top priorities over the next two weeks need to be 1) ensuring the roster is as healthy as possible, and 2) figuring out the optimal postseason lineup.

Seeding should be the last thing on the Bruins' minds. It's mostly irrelevant. The path to the Stanley Cup Final through the Eastern Conference is going to be brutal either way. Injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Hampus Lindholm and Linus Ullmark were a significant factor in the Bruins' loss to the Panthers in the first round last season. Avoiding that scenario this year is of the utmost importance.

Players want to play every game, but the team needs to do what's right and sit veterans who could use a break before the playoffs.

The Bruins' shootout win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday gave them 101 points through 75 games. The B's have now reached the 100-point mark in six straight seasons (minimum 70 games played). They'll probably need around 110 points to win the division.

Here's an updated look at the Presidents' Trophy race, Atlantic division race, wild card race and Boston's most likely first-round opponents entering Monday.

It's not often we have seven teams within five points of each other in the Presidents' Trophy race this late in the regular season.

The NHL has a lot of trophies, and this is the one no team wants to win. Sure, clinching home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs is nice, but the last 10 Presidents' Trophy winners all failed to win the Stanley Cup. Only two winners of this award -- 2008 Detroit Red Wings and 2013 Chicago Blackhawks-- have hoisted the Stanley Cup since the salary cap was introduced in the 2005-06 season. The only other Presidents' Trophy winner to reach the Cup Final in the cap era was the 2011 Vancouver Canucks, who lost to the Bruins in seven games.

Ironically, three of the seven teams in this race have won the Stanley Cup in the same season during which they also won the Presidents' Trophy -- the 1994 Rangers, 1999 Stars and 2001 Avalanche.

The Rangers are in a strong position to claim this trophy for the first time since 2014-15. They lead the Stars by one point with a game in hand and also have the fifth-easiest remaining schedule. Just one of the Rangers' last eight opponents (Flyers) is currently in a playoff spot.

The Bruins and Panthers have already clinched playoff berths, but the race for the division title is far from decided.

Regulation wins is the first tiebreaker if the Bruins and Panthers finish with the same amount of points atop the division. The Panthers have a 38-33 edge in regulation wins, and with fewer than 10 games left for both teams, it's very unlikely that the B's will pull even or take the advantage in this tiebreaker.

Saturday's matchup between the Bruins and Panthers at TD Garden will be pivotal in this division race, especially for Boston given the tiebreaker scenario explained above. Regardless, the Bruins should at the very least (barring some crazy meltdown over the next two weeks) finish no worse than second in the division and secure home ice advantage for the first round.

The race for third place is intensifying thanks to the Lightning's surge -- a three-game win streak and a 8-1-1 record over the last 10 games. The Lightning trail the Leafs by only three points and have a 33-30 edge over the Leafs in the regulation wins tiebreaker. These teams still have two head-to-head meetings left -- April 3 in Toronto and April 17 in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning have a comfortable lead in the first wild card spot. As noted above, the Lighting have a real shot at leapfrogging the Leafs for third place in the Atlantic. Just three of the Lightning's last 10 games are against teams currently in a playoff spot.

The Capitals have overtaken the Flyers for third place in the Metropolitan Division, thus dropping Philly into the second wild card playoff spot. The Flyers enter Monday with a four-game losing streak, and their next two games -- April 1 vs. Islanders and April 5 at Sabres -- are against teams that still have a chance to secure a wild card berth.

The Red Wings also have lost four straight games, and they still have several tough opponents left on their schedule, including the Rangers, Leafs, Lightning and Capitals. Despite winning just three of their last 10 games, the Red Wings remain in a pretty good position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

The Islanders have not made up any ground in recent weeks despite the Flyers and Red Wings faltering because they've also struggled. New York has a 2-7-1 record in its last 10 games. Four of the Islanders' last nine games are against teams currently in a playoff spot, so the schedule does give them a slight path to a wild card spot. Two games against the rival Rangers -- April 9 at home and April 13 on the road -- could prove decisive.

Most likely first-round opponents

A Bruins-Leafs playoff series would be physical and highly entertaining. These teams do not like each other one bit.

The Bruins' most likely first-round opponents will come from third place in the Atlantic Division or the first wild card. The only way they will play the second wild card team is if they finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. It's still possible for Boston to do that, but the odds are against it.

The latest update to the standings projection model made by The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn has the Bruins finishing one point behind the Panthers in second place in the division, setting up a first-round matchup against the Maple Leafs. This model projects the Leafs to finish five points ahead of the Lightning for third place in the Atlantic.

Whether it's the No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup in the Atlantic or the A1 vs. WC1 matchup, it's very likely the Bruins will play the Leafs or Lightning.

The Leafs present a more favorable matchup. As we've noted before, the Bruins are a better defensive team and have stronger goaltending than the Leafs. Boston's top players, including David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, have dominated Toronto in previous playoff series. The B's also have a seven-game win streak against Toronto, including a pair of 4-1 wins last month.

The Lightning are a tougher matchup. Many of their players from the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup teams are still there, and starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has a long history of being a great playoff performer. Tampa Bay's forward group has a ton of high-end talent, including the league's leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning power play scores at a league-best 29.2 percent.

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