The Boston Bruins have been in control of their postseason destiny since before the Olympic break, but now with just over a week left in the regular season, the situation has intensified.
The Bruins look to take another step closer to a playoff berth Thursday night when they host a Florida Panthers team trying to avoid losing its fifth straight.
With six games left in the regular season, Boston (35-29-12), Montreal and Philadelphia all have 82 points to hold down the Eastern Conference's final three playoff spots. The Bruins have a two-point lead and a game in hand on ninth-place Atlanta.
Boston had slipped out of the top eight in early February, but won its final four games prior to the Vancouver Games to go into the break in control of its own postseason fate.
"It's in our hands," said center Patrice Bergeron, who leads the Bruins with 50 points. "If we worry about ourselves and do the job, we shouldn't worry about anybody else."
Boston is coming off a crucial 1-0 win over New Jersey on Tuesday, its fourth victory in six games. Bergeron scored with 18.3 seconds left in overtime, and Tuukka Rask made 21 saves for his second shutout in three starts.
"We're fighting for our lives right now," coach Claude Julien said. "It's pretty obvious that those points are huge. That first point gave us something and we really had to work hard to get that second. Every game has to be about desperation."
Rask has been giving the Bruins a chance nearly every time out, going 9-4-0 with a 1.88 goals-against average and three shutouts since Feb. 7. He was between the pipes in Boston's last game against Florida on Feb. 13, stopping 26 shots in a 3-2 shootout win.
The Bruins have won two straight over the Panthers -- both in Florida -- after losing 1-0 in a shootout Nov. 12 in the first meeting of the season.
While Boston is edging closer to a postseason berth, the Panthers (30-34-12) are on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention for a ninth straight season. This would match the longest NHL drought set by the New Jersey Devils franchise from 1978-1987.
Florida, 10 points behind the Bruins with six games remaining, lost its fourth straight with a 6-2 defeat to Buffalo on Wednesday. The Panthers have tallied seven goals and have gone 1 for 13 on the power play during the skid.
Wednesday's loss was particularly discouraging. The Panthers played with little enthusiasm, getting outshot 41-15, while managing only five shots after the first period.
"It was pretty ugly," coach Peter DeBoer said. "When you're standing behind the bench for that, you want to be anywhere else. Unfortunately, this is the bed we've made and we have to lie in it."
Tomas Vokoun had another tough night, stopping 35 shots to drop to 0-5-1 with a 4.21 GAA in six starts since March 16.
With Vokoun struggling, Scott Clemmensen could get the nod in goal. Clemmensen is 2-0-1 with a 1.95 GAA in his last four games, and 2-2-0 with a 1.50 GAA and a shutout in four games against Boston since the start of last season.