The Bruins will get a clearer picture for the playoffs after Thursday night's road tilt against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Arena. The top seed in the Eastern Conference is still in play, while the final two spots in the conference have yet to lock in.
There will also be some fresh lineup-shuffling for Bruce Cassidy and the B's, who will play their third full game since Brandon Carlo suffered a season-ending ankle fracture against Florida last Saturday.
With Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy back as the top defensive pairing, and the Kevan Miller-Matt Grzelcyk duo playing well together, it appears that the Bruins will platoon Adam McQuaid and Nick Holden in the spot next to Torey Krug as they adjust to life without Carlo. McQuaid slides in for Holden on Thursday against the Panthers.
Rick Nash skated in Boston for a third straight day, according to Cassidy. The Bruins' prized trade deadline addition continues to recover from a mysterious upper-body injury, but appears to be nearing a return at some point in the playoffs.
Also remaining out for the Bruins on Thursday are Tommy Wingels (hand), Riley Nash (head), and Sean Kuraly (lower body). Noel Acciari will move up to the third line to center Tim Schaller and David Backes. On the fourth line, that leaves Danton Heinen to play left wing alongside center Colby Cave, who remains up from Providence, and right wing Brian Gionta.
Here's what else to know about ahead of Bruins-Panthers on Thursday night...
The Playoff Picture
Here's a glance at the NHL standings entering Thursday's action:
First place is still within the Bruins' grasp, but they have a little work to do. They'll need to stay tied with the Lightning by the end of the season, and don't need to have the advantage in regulation/overtime wins (ROW) in the standings. They get the top seed if they win their final three contests, because even if Tampa won out and tied them in ROW, the B's would win the tiebreaker because they won the season series.
So, assuming the Bruins take care of business and get to face the second Wild Card in the Eastern Conference instead of the Toronto Maple Leafs, their opponent is still very much undecided. Here's where it stands with the teams battling for the final three spots in the East:
Columbus Blue Jackets: 80 GP, 45-29-6, 96 pts
New Jersey Devils: 80 GP, 43-28-9, 95 pts
Philadelphia Flyers: 80 GP, 40-26-14, 94 pts
The Jackets have a slight edge with 39 ROW's, over the Devils' and Flyers' 38 each. So it's likely that the B's would get either Jersey or Philly in the first round if they can hold off Tampa. New Jersey and Toronto get each other on Thursday, while the Flyers play the Hurricanes and the Blue Jackets get the Penguins at home.
Across The Bench...
-- Roberto Luongo will start in goal for the Panthers. He stopped all nine Bruins shots in a relief appearance last Saturday. But the last time he started against the B's was on Dec. 5, 2016, when he allowed four goals, including an overtime winner for David Pastrnak. In the start before that against Boston, Brad Marchand roofed a penalty shot attempt over him.
-- Florida (41-30-8, 90 points) could play "spoiler" for the Bruins, and still have an outside shot at a Wild Card spot of their own. So in any event, the Bruins should be getting a truly desperate Panthers team on Thursday night.
-- The Panthers have won two straight at home since losing 5-1 to the Bruins last Saturday. They beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 on Monday and, more impressively, the Nashville Predators 2-1 on Tuesday.
-- Aleksander Barkov will look to rebound from a rough afternoon against the B's last Saturday. He was blanked on the score sheet to go with a minus-1 rating and an abysmal 28.6 percent of faceoffs won. The dynamic 22-year-old has enjoyed a breakout season, but the last game against the Bruins was not one of his finest moments.
Meanwhile, In Toronto...
The Leafs don't necessarily have the right personnel on defense to slow down the Bruins' offensive attack. But their blue liners can certainly score.
Morgan Rielly (51 points) and Jake Gardiner (50) are now both above the 50-point plateau, a strong benchmark for any NHL defenseman. They're now one of just two teams in the league to boast two blue liners over 50 points - it's them and the Nashville Predators with P.K. Subban (58) and Roman Josi (51).
Toronto's back end wouldn't exactly scare you as far as finding a way to stop the B's up front, especially against the Marchand-Pastrnak-Bergeron line. But with the Leafs bringing offensive firepower from all directions, the Bruins will have their hands full if they have to face them in the playoffs.
-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].