The Eastern Conference wild-card race has been a tight one, and it’s possible the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes might not know their first-round opponent until the final game of the regular season.
The race is down to three teams — sorry Buffalo Sabres, but you need a lot of help to make it to the conversation, despite being mathematically alive after Thursday’s games. The Florida Panthers and New York Islanders would be in the playoffs if the season ended Friday, which would leave the Pittsburgh Penguins out of postseason play for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
Boston would play New York, which would be good for Bruins fans since the Black and Gold are 3-0-0 over the Islanders this season. The Bruins also are 3-0-0 against the Penguins this season, but they are 2-2-0 against the Panthers.
FiveThirtyEight gives Florida and New York the best chances to make the playoffs with 74% and 80% chances, respectively. Pittsburgh has a 44% chance of making the playoffs after Thursday’s games.
The Panthers have a tough schedule in their final three games with matchups against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Hurricanes ahead after their game against the Washington Capitals.
Florida is riding a five-game win streak heading into those games, and the Penguins have not found consistency in the final weeks of the regular season, making their games against the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets toss-ups.
The Islanders should roll through the Philadelphia Flyers, Capitals and Montreal Canadiens in their final three games, which would mean the primary thing to watch out for is seed positions.
Jim Montgomery likely wouldn’t reveal who his preferred first-round opponent would be. The Bruins are focused on shaping up into form and getting back at full strength in time for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Boston fans should keep a keen eye on the rest of the NHL in the final week of the regular season to know who the team will have to prepare for.