Lightning coach Guy Boucher and his players like to say they don't worry about the standings, a fine sentiment, as far as it goes. But the truth is, where Tampa Bay finishes in the Eastern Conference will have a huge effect on the road it takes in the playoffs.
Win the Southeast Division and the road looks a lot smoother. Let the Capitals slip past and there are potholes to avoid.
If the playoffs began before Saturday's games, the Lightning, as Southeast leader, would be the No. 2 seed. Its opponent in the first round would be the seventh-seeded Rangers. The series would be a blast, with crazy media hype around Tampa Bay facing former coach John Tortorella. Can you imagine Torts telling Boucher to shut his yap?
The series would not be easy. New York is hard-working. But the Lightning is 3-0-0 against it, though only one win was in regulation.
Other possible opponents, assuming the Lightning remains the second seed, include the Canadiens, against whom it is 2-0, and the Hurricanes, against whom it is 2-1.
But let's say Tampa Bay finishes second in the division behind the Capitals. Based on standings entering Saturday, the Lightning would be the No. 5 seed. Its opponent: the fourth-seeded Penguins.
This is a trickier call. Pittsburgh has been decimated by injuries, especially by the losses of Sidney Crosby, out with a concussion, and Evgeni Malkin, lost for the season with a knee injury.
Still, the Penguins have won two of three over the Lightning, and in their two victories, they have outscored it 13-2. In an 8-1 win Jan. 5, Crosby and Malkin had one goal and an assist between them, so the Penguins can be potent without them.
That's not saying the Lightning can't beat the Penguins, or any other team, in a series. It's just that by winning the Southeast, it has a better chance of facing teams against which it matches up better, even in the second round.
Tampa Bay has achieved more than anyone anticipated. It would be a shame if it put itself at a disadvantage by not paying attention to the standings.