NHL Playoff Push: Maple Leafs, Bruins enter must-win mode

Montreal swept the Senators in a home-and-home, the Flames stayed hot and Sidney Crosby brought out the hats.

Any time you get a game between division rivals, it’s a must-win in the eyes of both parties.

So when that matchup comes in the final dozen games of the season between two teams on a tear and aiming for the post-season, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call this one of the most important games of the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

Add in the, um, let’s call it playoff baggage, between these two clubs and the heat gets turned up several degrees.

The Leafs have a chance to put three points between themselves and the Islanders (who don’t play on Monday) in the wild card race and get within one point of Boston for third in the Atlantic, while the Bruins would surely love to pad their place in the top three while keeping clear of that heated wild card battle.

This will be the fourth and final regular season meeting between Toronto and Boston, and the Maple Leafs have a shot to sweep the series against their playoff foes of 2013. (The Leafs won the previous three games by scores of 4-1, 4-1, and 6-5.)

“We wanted to be here,” Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick said on Sunday. Carrick is set to return to the lineup after a month-long absence due to a injury. “You wanted to come down the heavy part of the schedule, the dying days of the season [and] be fighting for a playoff spot. … I think we’ve got to be encouraged that we can put a streak together and earn it.”

While the Maple Leafs have had plenty of scoring from their rookies, it’s Bruins veteran Brad Marchand who many will be keeping an eye on ahead of this contest. Marchand has 37 goals and 42-assists this season for a career-high 79 points—48 of which have come in the 2017 calendar year.

“No one’s driving his team harder,” Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said on Sunday. “Marchy’s a great guy and he’s a real good player, plays hard. He’s competitive. He’s all-in every day and he does a good job for his team.”

Babcock, of course, coached the pest-turned-superstar during the World Cup of Hockey and paired up Marchand with Sidney Crosby and Bruins teammate Patrice Bergeron to create a dynamic first line.

“I shouldn’t have,” Babcock said Sunday, jokingly. “I should have played him on the fifth line. Sucked a little life out of him.”

Clearly, we're in must-win territory right now. Here's a look at the overall post-season picture right now after a busy weekend of hockey.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

If the season ended today...

(M1) vs. (WC2)

(A1) vs. (WC1)

(M2) vs. (M3)

(A2) vs. (A3)

Here's what the Eastern Conference standings look like today:

Who’s in?

There are now two fewer spots up for grabs in the post-season after the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets officially clinched playoff berths in the tough Metropolitan Division.

The Capitals were the first to punch their ticket, thanks to a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa is now two points behind the Maple Leafs for the second wild card spot, and their hopes of having captain Steven Stamkos return in time for a late playoff push have been all but dashed.

Next up to claim a playoff berth was Columbus. The Blue Jackets, who have been one of biggest surprises of the season, defeated the New Jersey Devils 4-1 to return to the post-season and reach the 100-point mark for the first time in franchise history.

Now that we’re all tied up atop the Metro, next up is the race for No. 1 in the East—and the right to play on home ice. The Pittsburgh Penguins are hot on their tails, with 99 points after high-scoring victories over both the Devils and Panthers.

What else did I miss?

The playoff picture hasn’t changed much since the most recent edition of our Playoff Push on Friday—the Habs are still atop the Atlantic and the Maple Leafs are still gripping that final wild card spot—but there was still plenty of important NHL action in the East.

The Rangers defeated the Wild on Saturday to further secure their hold on the first wild card spot.

The Maple Leafs lost to the Chicago Blackhawks Saturday, but gained an all-important single point in the overtime loss. The Islanders did the same against the Blue Jackets the same night, and are just one point behind Toronto going into Monday’s action.

One of the most anticipated events of this past NHL weekend was a home-and-home series between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. These notable post-season foes were separated by just one point in the battle for top spot in the Atlantic, but Montreal came out of the weekend ahead after winning both games. Saturday’s game went to overtime, giving Ottawa a point, but Sunday’s win was a decisive 4-1 outcome. Wouldn’t it be great to see these clubs face off in the post-season? While the numbers indicate a first-round series probably isn’t in the cards, a Round 2 meeting could be.

Fun fact:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

If the season ended today...

(C1) vs. (WC2)

(P1) vs. (WC1)

(C2) vs. (C3)

(P2) vs. (P3)

Here's what the Western Conference standings look like today:

Who’s in?

Surprise, surprise: The Blackhawks are back in the playoffs. Chicago won back-to-back games Saturday (vs. Toronto) and Sunday (vs. Colorado) over the weekend to clinch their ninth consecutive playoff berth and the 62nd in franchise history. They’re also just one point away from reaching the 100-point plateau for the fourth straight season.

What’d I miss?

The Nashville Predators fell to the second wild card spot after losing to the Carolina Hurricanes. After opening the month of March with four straight wins, the club had won three in a row going into their game against the Hurricanes. Though they’ve got some flexibility in the wild card race, they’ll need to pick up the pace again if they want to punch their post-season tickets.

Now sitting in that No. 3 spot in the Central? The St. Louis Blues, who climbed out of the wild card race and into the top three with a 3-0 win over Arizona on Saturday.

The Edmonton Oilers easily handled the Vancouver Canucks, but still sit in the first wild card spot due to the Flames’ recent string of victories.

After having their 10-game win streak snapped on March 15, the Flames quickly rebounded with two consecutive wins—one of which came against the hungry Kings, who are in do-or-die mode in the Pacific. Brian Elliott has continued his red-hot play at the best possible time.

What’s going on in Minnesota? The Western heavyweights were once at the top of the tough Central division, but have fallen seven points behind Chicago after five straight losses. They’re pretty safe in second place in the division, but this is still something to keep an eye on as we head into playoff hockey.

Anaheim and San Jose faced off, with the Ducks claiming victory. The Sharks still have a healthy four-point lead atop the Pacific.

Fun fact:

Monday's game to watch: Kings vs. Oilers

The Kings lost to the Flames on Sunday, and will no doubt be tired on the second leg of their back-to-back, giving the advantage to Edmonton here. The Oilers continue to be in a tight battle with Calgary and Anaheim with just one point separating each team. The Kings, meanwhile, remain outside the picture and in must-win territory here. With 75 points, there’s 10 points separating them and the Oilers for that first wild card spot and six points between the Kings and Nashville for the second spot.