Countdown to playoffs: Battle for seeding

Editor's note: The regular season wraps up Sunday, and ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun look at the teams on the bubble and what they need to do to qualify for the postseason dance and/or playoff position.

Thursday's clinching scenarios

Scott Burnside: Hello, my friend. Well, it's hardly the tortoise and the hare in the Eastern Conference playoff races. More like the tortoise and the tortoise. While most of the attention will be focused on the dramatic home-and-home series between Philadelphia and the New York Rangers on Friday and Sunday, two of the other tortoises, Boston and Montreal, are in action tonight. It may well be the Bruins who are the most vulnerable to falling out of the playoff picture.

Already ravaged by injury, Boston will be without trade-deadline acquisition Dennis Seidenberg, who had done a nice job along the blue line since coming over from Florida. He is out for the rest of the season with a wrist injury. Ouch. The Bruins host the Sabres, which are red-hot and still in the hunt for the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins, who have three games left but are just one point ahead of the Rangers, are hoping Tuukka Rask can keep up his strong play. Your thoughts?

Pierre LeBrun: Well, for starters, I would be ecstatic right now if I was a Bruins fan, or the Bruins, for that matter. Why? Because thanks to Toronto's loss Wednesday night, the Leafs will finish 29th in the overall standings, thus giving Boston a 67 percent chance to get the first or second overall pick in Tuesday's draft lottery. Hello, Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. That development is so much more important than whatever transpires in Boston's games tonight against Buffalo and this weekend with Carolina or Washington. It's nice to make the playoffs, but the Bruins aren't going anywhere this season. It's just not there. But the prospects are pretty darn exciting for them turning the page.

In the meantime, Montreal is also playing tonight in Carolina, as the Hurricanes hope to play spoiler again after beating the Habs at the Bell Centre last week. Imagine the heat on the Canadiens if they lose tonight and must get a result Saturday night against Toronto at the Bell Centre. You don't think the rival Maple Leafs wouldn't love a shot at knocking out the Habs on "Hockey Night in Canada"? The Habs need one single point to clinch a playoff spot.

Burnside: Pierre, you are right about the Bruins. That's why I thought it showed tremendous restraint for GM Peter Chiarelli not to overspend at the trade deadline and hold onto those important assets. As for the playoffs, all four of the teams at the bottom of the bracket will be looking not just to make the playoffs, but also to avoid the eighth seed if at all possible. Washington is head and shoulders the best team in the NHL and will walk through any of the four teams (in my humble opinion) in a blur. For the Habs, locking down a playoff berth is key, but staying ahead of the Boston/Rangers/Philadelphia vortex will be equally important. Montreal is the one team that could give Pittsburgh, Buffalo or New Jersey a test. Still, the Habs are a funny club. Even with Mike Cammalleri back in the lineup, their offense seems to have gone a bit sideways, which isn't a good thing.

LeBrun: It's really about Jaroslav Halak. The Habs have a storied past when it comes to playoff goalies leading big upsets (Ken Dryden, Steve Penney, Patrick Roy, Jose Theodore), and the Slovak Olympic netminder could give us another chapter. But you're right, the Canadiens continue to struggle to score. They are ranked 25th in the NHL in offense; the only team currently in a playoff spot that's worse is Boston. That, in the end, will be Montreal's downfall. Which stresses the fact that new GM Pierre Gauthier must recoup a quality top-six forward in return for either Halak or Carey Price in the offseason.

Before we go, Scotty, maybe a quick mention of the Devils and Penguins also playing games tonight. New Jersey is two points up for the Atlantic Division lead; we know how important winning that division will be.

Burnside: Good point. The Devils are in the driver's seat to grab the Atlantic and either the second or third seed, but they've been curiously inconsistent since the Olympic break. They are in Florida on Thursday, while the equally inconsistent Penguins host the New York Islanders. While winning the Atlantic provides what should be an easier matchup in the first round, the Pens are certainly comfortable playing out of the fourth seed (that's where they've started the past two playoff years). The Devils, of course, won the Atlantic last season and couldn't get out of the first round, so maybe it doesn't matter all that much. For the Pens, it's more about getting Evgeni Malkin healthy and back in the lineup; for the Devils, it's about getting into some sort of a groove, regardless which team they face next week.

LeBrun: I completely disagree that winning the Atlantic doesn't matter. I think avoiding the powerhouse Caps until the conference finals is worth winning the division title. I know the Pens beat the Caps in the second round last season, but this is a more evolved, more mature Washington team that has taken the next step. If you're New Jersey or Pittsburgh, you want to cross that bridge at the latest possible time.

OK, my friend … until tomorrow, when we tackle the big Rangers/Flyers home-and-home season finale.