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.