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The epic contest to avoid the Leafs and other playoff races

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Boston and Tampa remain undecided on who gets the Leafs and who gets a wildcard team. Last place is also up for grabs, and the Panthers are not out of it yet.

Boston Bruins v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Boston vs Tampa Bay

Last night’s final matchup between the top two Atlantic teams decided nothing for the Maple Leafs. Tampa beat the Bruins in convincing fashion, shutting them out 4-0 and owning the ice for the first two periods. Score effects alone can’t account for the third period, however, where the Corsi split 17 to Boston and 2 to Tampa.

The score and venue adjusted Corsi percentage on the game is 48% Tampa, 52% Boston. The Expected Goals is flipped the other way for all-situations, but the margin there is small: 2.85 for Tampa and 2.49 for Boston. At five-on-five, the Expected Goals go to Boston by a hair. For all that Tampa fans and the team themselves might consider this a “statement game” after their loss to Boston last week, it was a very even game between two essentially equal teams.

Equal doesn’t mean the same, however. Boston won their last meeting 4-2 and the previous one 3-0. Both of those games were a triumph of the Bruins’ disciplined defensive system that maximizes their ability to just take the puck back whenever they don’t have it. They don’t achieve their massive Corsi For percentage by endless sessions of offensive pressure — although they can pull that off from time to time — they get it by disrupting the possession of their opponents all over the ice.

Tampa won this latest game the way they win all their games, with a forward push that’s full of high-end talent, beginning with Nikita Kucherov, who is one of the most gifted players in the NHL. The solid and offensively focused blueline on the Bolts is dramatically different to the Bruins’ crew, but they are effective enough. Tampa, who for their season, aren’t driving the net and generating dangerous chances at five-on-five, did that well enough last night. They do not produce offence like the Leafs do, neither do the Bruins. But Tampa has even more shooting skill (and luck) than the Leafs do.

No special teams were very special in that game, and all four goals, and most of the expected goals, were at even strength.

Boston and Tampa are dead even in points now with 110. Boston is ahead on the basis of one game in hand in the standings, but Tampa is ahead by one in ROW, which is the first tie-breaker once the season is over and games played are all even.

Boston plays Florida on Thursday, comes home to play Ottawa on Saturday (and we know Erik Karlsson won’t play), and they finish the season on Sunday at home against Florida.

Tampa plays Buffalo on Friday at home and then finishes the season on the road, taking a short hop to Raleigh to play the Hurricanes on Saturday.

All of those teams, save Carolina, are fighting for something. This race is too close to call.

Wild Card in the East

The Florida Panthers won their game last night against the Nashville Predators on a goalie interference call with under one second remaining. They live to fight another day, but their chances of making the playoffs have dimmed considerably in the last week.

As of now, New Jersey, who play the Leafs on Thursday, are in the first wild card spot with 95 points. That’s one back of Columbus, who are in third in the Metropolitan Division. Philadelphia is in the second wild card spot with 94 points after coming very close to getting something against the Islanders last night. Florida has 90 points.

Everyone involved here plays twice more, except Florida, who play three, ending on Sunday. Their game against Boston could decide who finishes first and second in the Atlantic and who the top team will face in the first round.

Columbus play Pittsburgh and Nashville. That seems tough, but Nashville hasn’t been hard to beat the last few games.

New Jersey play the Leafs and Washington. The Capitals might be resting players. The Leafs may not, and we do know it’s Frederik Andersen in net for this game.

The Flyers play Carolina and the Rangers, which should make this easy for them, but they just lost to the worst defensive team in the NHL, so who knows.

Florida plays Boston, then Buffalo, and then Boston again. If they get the wild card spot, they likely will be the team that ensures Tampa wins the division, and they’ll be meeting their cross-state rivals in the first round. If I’m NBC, that’s what I want. But it’s going to be a very hard trick to pull off.

Wild Card in the West

The Western Conference is also down to only one contender for a playoff spot. The picture is very similar to the east. LA sits in the third spot in the Pacific with 96 points; Anaheim has the first wild card with 95 points, and Colorado has the second with 93 points. St. Louis, with 92 points, has a much better chance than Florida of taking a playoff spot, however.

LA plays Minnesota and Dallas, and the Stars seem to have run out of goalies, so that might be an easy win for them.

Anaheim plays Minnesota, Dallas and Arizona. The Coyotes have been winning lately in a bid to ruin their lottery chances. But the extra game gives the Ducks the edge, and could move them into third place in the Pacific.

Colorado plays San Jose and St. Louis, and that Blues-Avs game on the Saturday might be the one that decides it all.

St. Louis play Chicago twice in a home and home prior to their meeting with the Avs. Speaking of teams with no goalies, I don’t think Chicago are playing accountants every night, but they might be starting Jeff Glass in their remaining games.

On paper, you have to favour St. Louis to take that playoff spot, but the Avs aren’t out yet.

Born to be Bad

By beating the Buffalo Sabres the other night, the Maple Leafs may well have assured that the Sabres will finish last. Buffalo holds last place right now with 62 points. Ottawa is the only team that can take that from them, and they have 65 points.

They play each other tonight, and then Buffalo plays Tampa and Florida on the road. That makes the segue to vacation for the Sabres really convenient this year.

Ottawa plays Pittsburgh and Boston on the road after their meeting with the Sabres.

With Karlsson out of the lineup, and both teams’ abilities to lose, they may both lose them all, barring the winner tonight. If Ottawa foolishly wins that game in regulation, it’s all over, and Buffalo is last. There are possibilities that the teams could be tied in points if Ottawa wins in overtime or a shootout, but they rely on Buffalo to with their two final games, and that seems really improbable.

If Buffalo beats Ottawa — and if I’m the Senators, I’d put Jean-Gabriel Pageau in net to prevent that — they still can easily come last just by losing the next two.

In the rest of the bad teams racing to the bottom, Montréal has impressed by tanking with Carey Price in goal. That’s amazing. Claude Julien for Jack Adams. They have sunk to third last and are tied in points with the Coyotes with only two more games each to lose. Vancouver is doing okay, with 70 points, but they had a chance a week or so ago to hold onto third last and pick no worse that fourth. Now they are at fifth worst and could pick eighth.

Right now the three worst teams in the Atlantic are the three worst teams in the NHL. Get ready for the Rasmus Dahlin show, Leafs fans, it’s coming to the ACC next year.

Edited to add: Ottawa foolishly won their game quite easily in regulation and now need to stave off Montréal and Arizona who are only two points back. Buffalo is the first team to ever come 31st in the NHL.