BOSTON — The Lightning has stunningly made it this far, climbing from the Eastern Conference cellar two months ago to within striking distance of a playoff spot.
Sunday's 6-3 win over the Stars ensured that the final six days of the regular season will be interesting, intense and important.
There's no guarantee the Lightning makes the playoffs even if it wins its final four games, three of which are on the road. There are realistically three playoff spots up for grabs — second and third place in the Atlantic Division, the final wild-card spot — with three teams that the Lightning (88 points) can potentially catch. Monday's results didn't help, with the Leafs picking up two points, the Senators one.
It all starts Tuesday night for the Lightning with the biggest game of the year against the Bruins, who hold a four-point edge and have one fewer game left.
"It's down to win or go home," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "It's Game 7."
Make that four Game 7s.
There are ways for the Lightning to make the playoffs even if it goes 3-1, but that would require a massive collapse from a team it is chasing. And the Islanders are just two points behind Tampa Bay. The Lightning feels like it has been playing pressure-packed hockey for more than a month.
"It's something you dream about," rookie wing Adam Erne said. "It really brings out the best in guys when you're playing for something."
Tampa Bay has won five of its past six — including a game in Boston.
"We've still got a chance — that's all we can ask for," Stralman said. "We believe."
Here's the road for the teams the Lightning is chasing, and the chances of catching them:
Boston (92 points)
Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay; Thursday vs. Ottawa; Saturday vs. Washington
Regulation/overtime wins: 41
How Lightning catches it: Winning tonight — in regulation — is paramount as the Lightning can't allow the Bruins to grab a point. If the Lightning beats Boston in regulation and wins its final three games, it would pull into a tie with Boston, no matter what the Bruins do from there. The problem is that Boston is red-hot, winning five straight. Plus, the Bruins hold the tiebreaker with more regulation/overtime wins at 41, a mark the Lightning can't catch (35). So the Lightning also needs help from Ottawa or Washington.
Toronto (93 points)
Tuesday vs. Washington; Thursday vs. Tampa Bay; Saturday vs. Pittsburgh.; Sunday vs. Columbus
Regulation/overtime wins: 38
How the Lightning catches it: Winning Thursday in regulation is vital. With Toronto's win at Buffalo on Monday, it needs just three points in its final three games to match the Lightning's maximum point total. Toronto has a tough schedule (albeit all at home) against the top three teams from the Metropolitan Division (Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus), along with the Lightning. But the Maple Leafs are on an 8-1-1 run.
The Lightning trails by three regulation/overtime wins, so getting that tiebreaker would be challenging unless Toronto loses three of its last four., and Tampa Bay wins all four. Do you see the Maple Leafs stumbling that badly?
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Ottawa (92 points)
Tuesday vs. Detroit; Thursday at Boston; Saturday vs. Rangers; Sunday at Islanders
Regulation/overtime wins: 36
How the Lightning catches it: The Senators might be the Lightning's best shot. Ottawa has lost five straight games, but picked up a big point in Monday's shootout loss in Detroit, giving it a four-point cushion over Tampa Bay with four to go. The Senators are banged up, with Cody Ceci (leg), Marc Methot (finger) and winger Zack Smith (undisclosed) out the rest of the regular season. Star defenseman Erik Karlsson had been hurt, but returned Monday. Ottawa has the easier schedule of the remaining contenders, playing Detroit again tonight, but has tough matchups with Boston and the Rangers. Tampa Bay doesn't have a head-to-head matchup left, but if the Senators continue to stumble, they can be caught. Tampa Bay is just one regulation win behind and has more points in the season series (the second tiebreaker).
Tampa Bay (88 points)
Tuesday at Boston
Thursday at Toronto
Friday at Montreal
Sunday vs. Buffalo
Sun: vs BUF
Regulation/overtime wins: 35.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.