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Bruins can claim top East spot after Lightning loss

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Yes, the final game and day of the 2018-19 NHL regular season will matter. To be specific, Sunday, April 8 will determine the winner of the Atlantic Division, and thus the top seed in the East, as the Boston Bruins host the Florida Panthers.

Saturday’s games opened the door for this last-minute scenario. The Tampa Bay Lightning grabbed a standings point, but they fell to the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime, so they’ll finish the season with a 54-23-5 record, 113 standings points, and 48 regulation/overtime wins.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

The Bruins took care of business by beating the Senators 5-2. They head into their final game against Florida with a 50-19-12 record, 112 standings points, and 47 ROW.

It’s a fairly straightforward situation, then. If the Bruins win in any way, they grab the Atlantic and East. If not the Lightning get it instead.

Consider some of the other factors:

  • The Atlantic Division winner will take on Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils, who slipped to the second wild-card spot in the East after losing to Washington.
  • Meanwhile, the runner-up faces the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic’s two vs. three-seed matchup. The Maple Leafs finished the season with an identical record to that of Metro winner Washington (49-26-7), so that’s a steep climb from New Jersey, at least from a standings perspective.

It will be intriguing to see how hard the Panthers chase this one. The Flyers flattened their playoff hopes by defeating the Rangers during Saturday afternoon, but Florida beat Buffalo 4-3. They’ve finished off 2018-19 with a hard drive toward a playoff spot, yet you wonder if they’ll sit a lot of players with nothing on the line.

(The Hurricanes didn’t do too bad of a job as the spoilers against the Bolts tonight, mind you.)

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Bruins also must weigh the risk and reward here.

While an easier first-round draw and more home-ice advantage stand as an inviting combination, the B’s are also a banged-up bunch. There could be some tired legs closing out a back-to-back set, so this is one more big regular-season challenge for Boston.

Will the Bruins get that win, or will the Lightning grab the Atlantic from their couches?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning blast Bruins, Atlantic race heats up

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The Boston Bruins have been skyrocketing up the ranks while the Tampa Bay Lightning have been sagging with the finish line in view, to the point that Boston seemed likely to win the Atlantic Division.

Tonight injected some serious doubt into that situation.

Tampa Bay took charge of the game virtually from the time the puck dropped, ultimately cruising to a 4-0 win against Boston. The Bolts generated an impressive 33 shots on goal through the first two periods. While Tuukka Rask was able to hold off their bids in the opening frame, the Lightning made quick work of this one by rattling off a 3-0 deficit in the second period.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Now, just like that, a healthy Bruins lead for the division title is now rail-thin:

Bruins: 49-18-12, 110 points with three games remaining, 46 ROW
Lightning: 53-23-4, 110 points with two games left, 47 ROW

This outcome could be significant for the Florida Panthers, who face the Bruins twice. Here’s the final three games for Boston:

Thu, Apr 5 @ Florida
Sat, Apr 7 vs Ottawa
Sun, Apr 8 vs Florida

The Lightning, meanwhile, face two teams eyeing vacations, the draft lottery, and other off-season considerations. They host the Sabres in Tampa Bay on Friday and then take on the Hurricanes on Saturday.

You’d have to give the Bruins the edge down the stretch thanks to the advantage of having a game in hand. Still, they might face a tougher run if Florida has something to play for, especially if the Cats improbably give themselves a chance to earn a playoff spot during that make-up game on Sunday.

Even if the Lightning finish second in the Atlantic and draw a tough opponent in the Toronto Maple Leafs, this could be the sort of game that gets them back on track. They came into tonight’s game having lost four of their last five games and dropping six of their last 10, with Andrei Vasilevskiy admitting some fatigue.

(Vasilevskiy made some big early saves to earn his eighth shutout of the season, moving into a tie with Pekka Rinne for the NHL lead.)

The Lightning could have kept sinking, especially with Steven Stamkos out of the lineup nursing what’s allegedly a minor injury. Instead, the Lightning flexed their muscles in a way that’s heartening, and also gives them a very real chance at winning the Atlantic.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins must make playoff push without Brandon Carlo

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Even when it seems like the Boston Bruins are getting healthy at the right time, they still have to shake off some serious injury woes.

The Bruins announced that defenseman Brandon Carlo is expected to miss three-to-four months recovering from a left ankle fracture, ruling him out for the playoffs. Carlo, 21, is expected to undergo surgery later this week.

Carlo suffered that pretty grisly-looking injury during this week’s 5-1 win against the Florida Panthers, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline.

With zero goals and six assists in 76 games this season, the Bruins won’t be missing Carlo’s offense. Instead, he’s the sort of player the team would lean on in key defensive situations during what they’re hoping will be a long postseason push.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Carlo averages 2:46 penalty kill time on ice per game, second on the Bruins behind Zdeno Chara‘s fairly ridiculous 3:41 average. Overall, Carlo averaged 19:14 TOI per night.

The good news is that Charlie McAvoy is back in the mix for the Bruins defense, possibly in time to shake off the rust. Still, it feels like one step forward, two steps back when it comes to this team actually being at full-strength.

At least they’re used to it?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Tampa Bay Lightning

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PROJECTED LINES

Boston Bruins

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Donato

Danton HeinenDavid BackesNoel Acciari

Tim Schaller — Colby Cave — Brian Gionta

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugNick Holden

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

[Bruins – Bolts preview]

Tampa Bay Lightning

Ondrej PalatBrayden PointNikita Kucherov

J.T. MillerTyler JohnsonCory Conacher

Yanni GourdeAnthony CirelliAlex Killorn

Chris KunitzCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor HedmanAnton Stralman

Ryan McDonaghDan Girardi

Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Bruins getting all of their top players back at just the right time

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One of the most incredible parts of the Boston Bruins’ return to the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season is the fact they have been able to do it while dealing with so many significant injuries.

The list of man-games lost is an impressive one.

Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have both missed 18 games.

Brad Marchand — sometimes due to injury and sometimes due to suspension — has missed 14. Charlie McAvoy has missed 19.

Zdeno Chara has missed nine.

David Backes has missed 25.

Torey Krug has missed six.

• Trade deadline acquisition Rick Nash has missed the past eight games.

Brandon Carlo is now sidelined indefinitely after a nasty looking leg injury over the weekend. At times several of those players have been sidelined at the same time.

Through it all the Bruins enter Monday’s huge game in Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with a two-point lead over the Lightning (as well as still having a game in hand) for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and still have a small chance at potentially winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

Now they are starting to get healthy just in time for the playoffs.

The Bruins spent the past couple of weeks playing without Bergeron, Chara and McAvoy, their top-two defenseman and one of the league’s best two-way centers. With Bergeron returning a little more than a week ago, and after Chara returned to the lineup on Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers, coach Bruce Cassidy announced on Tuesday morning that McAvoy will be returning on Tuesday night against the Lightning.

[Related: Bruins, Lightning battle for top spot in Atlantic Division on NBCSN]

Let’s start with the return of the top-two defensemen: How big is it to have those two back in the lineup together? Not only are they the Bruins’ top-two leaders in ice-time this season, they have spent a significant amount of that time (nearly 800 minutes of 5-on-5 play) on the ice together.

During those 800 minutes the Bruins have controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored their opponents by a 38-21 margin.

And it’s not necessarily the veteran (Chara) that has been driving that success.

When McAvoy is on the ice without Chara, the Bruins are still controlling 56 percent of the shot attempts and still outscoring their opponents by a 15-7 margin. In other words, McAvoy, in his first full season as an NHL blue-liner, has not only been a top-pairing player on one of two or three best teams in the league, he has been a difference-maker for that team.

But it’s more than just the two of them.

When the Bruins have all five of Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, Chara, and McAvoy in the lineup (something they have only had in 25 games this season) they own a 17-5-3 record, which would be good enough for a 121-point pace over an 82-game season.

Three of those losses, including two of the regulation losses, came without Tuukka Rask in net.

It is a scary team when their top players are all in the lineup. And right now, all of them are healthy at just the right time. That has to be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

They may soon be getting even more help. Along with the return of McAvoy on Tuesday, Cassidy also announced that Nash started skating again back in Boston as he continues his recovery from what the team has called an upper-body injury. If he is able to return at any point in the playoffs that is another top-six winger being added to the mix.

Before Tuesday Nash had not skated since March 19.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The returns of Chara and McAvoy, as well as the word that Nash is back on the ice is all great news for a Bruins team that has not only overtaken a slumping Lightning team for the top spot in the Division and Conference, but has a chance to continue to build on that lead.

Even with all of that there are still some minor injuries to deal with at the moment.

Carlo remains sidelined indefinitely and it does not sound like his return is imminent. They will also be without Tommy Wingels on Thursday night while Sean Kuraly and Riley Nash are also sidelined. But as long as the Bruins have their big guys all in the lineup (which they now do) they are going to be absolute force to deal with.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.