Playoff race update: Most likely first-round opponents for Bruins

Playoff race update: Most likely first-round opponents for Bruins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins are playing some of their best hockey of the 2023-24 NHL season at the perfect time.

They are 5-1-0 with a four-game win streak since head coach Jim Montgomery halted practice, yelled at the team and made them do wind sprints on March 25.

Was it a wakeup call?

“Sometimes there’s a wakeup call, sometimes you need something to kind of snap out of things,” Bruins center Charlie Coyle said after Saturday’s win over the Florida Panthers. “There could be something there, it’s hard to tell. Maybe if he didn’t do that, are we doing the same thing right now? I don’t know.

“But I think it was certainly warranted and we needed that, and I don’t think we’re upset that that happened. If this is the way we’re playing since, that’s the assist to ‘Monty’ doing that, I guess.”

Montgomery downplayed the significance of that practice and pointed to a few other reasons behind Boston’s recent surge.

“I just think that was a wake-up call that our group needed that day,” Montgomery said postgame Saturday. “I think why we’re 5-1-0 is because our team’s growing and maturing and we have great leaders.”

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.

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Thanks to a four-game win streak, the Bruins’ number of potential first-round playoff opponents has increased.

Why is that? Well, the B’s are now a slightly bigger threat than they were last week to overtake the New York Rangers and finish as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The top overall seed plays the No. 2 wild card team. The B’s are currently the No. 2 seed in the East as the Atlantic Division leaders and would play the No. 1 wild card team in this scenario.

The Rangers remain the favorites to claim their second Presidents’ Trophy since 2015. They have a three-point lead over the Bruins, and New York also holds the first tiebreaker over Boston with a 42-35 edge in regulation wins. So if the Bruins are going to leapfrog the Rangers, it has to be on points and not via tiebreaker.

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I did a more in-depth division race update after the Bruins beat the Panthers 3-2 in overtime Saturday to sweep their season series and take a commanding five-point lead over Florida in the race for first place.

The Panthers could still win the division and hold a 39-35 edge in the regulation wins tiebreaker over Boston. The Panthers also have a favorable remaining schedule with all four games at home, three of them against teams outside the playoff picture.

But it’s going to be tough for the Panthers to overtake the Bruins. Erasing a five-point gap in four games when teams can earn a point for losing in overtime/shootout is difficult.

The real division race is for third place, where the Leafs have a four-point lead over the Lightning with a game in hand. Toronto has the inside track to third place after Tampa Bay lost a thrilling 5-4 game to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. The Lightning and Leafs play each other in Tampa Bay on April 17. It’s the final regular season game for both teams.

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The Lightning still have a commanding lead for the No. 1 wild card spot. The race for the second wild card berth is going to be awesome over the final week-and-a-half.

The Capitals were in the second wild card spot last week, but a six-game losing streak has dropped them two points out. The Flyers were in third place in the Metropolitan Division earlier this month but have fallen several places in the standings as a result of a seven-game losing streak. The Red Wings have just won four of their last 10 games.

Does anyone want this final wild card berth?

The Penguins certainly look like they do. Pittsburgh is back in the race on the strength of a four-game win streak. Sidney Crosby is having one of the best seasons of his career at age 36 with 85 points (40 goals, 45 assists) in 77 games. Crosby absolutely deserves strong Hart Trophy consideration if he drags the Penguins into the playoffs.

The issue for the Penguins is their remaining schedule, which is the seventh-toughest in the league and includes matchups against the Bruins, Leafs and Predators (all playoff teams).

The Bruins’ most likely first-round opponent is still the Lightning. The Athletic’s standings model projects the B’s to finish as Atlantic Division champions and the No. 2 seed in the East, thus earning a first-round matchup with the Lightning, who are projected to land in the first wild card spot.

As we’ve outlined several times in recent weeks, that is not a good matchup for the Bruins. The Lightning are highly skilled offensively, they have loads of championship experience and they have tremendous special teams. In fact, the Lightning are one of two teams, along with the Rangers, that ranks top five in both power play and penalty kill percentage.

Boston could beat Tampa Bay, but the Lightning represent a much tougher matchup than any of the teams that could claim the second wild card spot.

Luckily for the Bruins, the chances of them winning the Presidents’ Trophy and playing the second wild card team are higher than they were just last week.

A first-round matchup versus the likes of the Red Wings, Penguins, Capitals or Flyers would be more advantageous for the Bruins. These teams all have significant flaws. The Athletic’s standings model gives the Red Wings a 39 percent chance to claim the second wild card spot, just ahead of the Penguins (38 percent) and Capitals (30 percent).

So, as things stand entering Monday, the Bruins’ most likely first-round opponents are the Lightning and the Red Wings. Unfortunately for the Bruins, the chances of them playing the Leafs in Round 1 are now very slim.

But a lot could still change over the last week-and-a-half.