The Toronto Maple Leafs got a much-needed win Wednesday night, outlasting the Buffalo Sabres 4-2, and that allowed them to get within four points of the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division.
That's important because the Maple Leafs and the Bruins are on a collision course for a first-round playoff meeting for the second year in a row. Boston won last year's series in seven games and had home-ice advantage in the final game.
Unless Toronto can overtake the Bruins, Boston will have home-ice advantage again this year. The Maple Leafs had lost four of their previous five games prior to the win over the Sabres, and head coach Mike Babcock is hoping they can get their situation turned around.
"I thought we played real well last night and weren't rewarded in the end," he said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com), referring to Toronto coming off a 3-0 loss at Nashville Tuesday night.
"And I thought we played real well here tonight and were rewarded. I liked that we played hard and did things well and stuck together."
The Leafs have eight games remaining on the schedule, while the Bruins have nine.
The Tampa Bay Lightning continue to roll, as they won their sixth game in a row by defeating the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals by a 5-4 margin in overtime. Victor Hedman took advantage of a turnover, carried the puck the length of the ice and beat Braden Holtby with a forehand-backhand move for the winning goal.
The Capitals increased their lead over the New York Islanders to three points with the overtime loss. The Lightning have little to play for at this point. They clinched the Presidents Trophy two days ago and are seemingly marking time to get ready for the playoffs. However, with nearly three full weeks to go prior to the playoffs, they still have eight games to play in the regular season.
The Winnipeg Jets picked up two valuable points in a 3-0 road win over the Anaheim Ducks. That allowed them to increase their lead in the Central Division to three points over the Nashville Predators.
Those two teams are likely to battle to the season's final games for the division crown, but the Jets do have the edge. In addition to their three-point cushion, they have nine games remaining while the Predators have eight.
Tampa Bay's position is secure, and the Lightning (118 points) will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The Bruins (97 points) are playing better than the Leafs (94 points) right now and have a four-point edge in the standings and are likely to hold on to that advantage.
Washington (94 points) is in a position to win the Central Division, but it would not be a surprise to see the Pittsburgh Penguins (89 points) bypass the Islanders (91 points) and gain second place in the division.
Carolina (87 points) should be able to maintain its edge for the top wild-card position, while the Montreal Canadiens (83 points) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (84 points) are in a dogfight for the final wild-card spot.
The reward for the winner will be a first-round engagement with the Lightning, and that would seem to be the end for the survivor. The Blue Jackets have a one-point lead, and both teams have nine games remaining. The Canadiens gain the final spot during the final weekend of the season.
Look for the Jets (92 points) to hold off the Predators (89 points) for first place and for the St. Louis Blues (84 points) to keep the Dallas Stars (82 points) at bay for third place.
The Blues have surged in the second half of the season, while the Stars are a red-hot 7-2-1 in their last 10 games.
The Pacific Division seems like it belongs to the Calgary Flames (97 points), as they have a three-point edge over the San Jose Sharks (94 points). The Vegas Golden Knights (87 points) should be able to nail down third place in the division.
The final wild-card spot belongs to the Arizona Coyotes (78 points) presently, but their advantage over the Minnesota Wild (77 points) is one point and the Colorado Avalanche (76 points) is two. The Chicago Blackhawks (74 points) are two points behind the Avs and still have a fighting chance.
The Coyotes have been a huge surprise this year, but they appear to be running out of gas. They have lost their last two games, while the Avs have won their last two.
Minnesota has won just three of its last 10, and while the Blackhawks are playing well, they may have too much ground to make up.
Look for the Avs to secure the last playoff position in the Western Conference.