The Montreal Canadiens tailspin couldn't have come at a better time for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After a 25-8-5 start, the Habs lost for the fifth time in six games and sixth time in eight on Tuesday night to give Toronto an opening to grab home-ice advantage in Round 1.
Montreal's latest loss (3-2 to the New Jersey Devils) now means that if the Leafs win out in their final three games, they will be guaranteed to finish in the top four in the East.
Step 1 in that bid will go Wednesday night here against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has lost six in a row and sits third last in the league after a strong start.
"Home ice is a big advantage in playoffs," Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul said after the morning skate. "If you look back over the records over the past couple years.
"It's going to take, most likely, winning three games, but really all we can control is tonight right now… It's a good motivator that we can get home ice. That'd be great for our fans, it'd be nice for us and it gives you an advantage in the series."
Should the Leafs win their final three games, sportsclubstats.com gives Toronto a 90-per-cent chance of either winning the Northeast Division or finishing fourth in the conference.
A 2-0-1 finish, meanwhile, will give them roughly a 32-per-cent chance of getting home-ice advantage to start the postseason, something that was considered very unlikely to start the year.
One thing to watch for over the next few games, however, is the potential layoff factor working against Toronto, as the team has been enjoying three relatively work-free days here in Florida since clinching a playoff spot in Ottawa.
That said, the Leafs had Sunday off, an off-ice workout in a parking lot on Monday and then an early morning skate Tuesday, so they shouldn't be particularly rusty – even if more than a few will be playing with sunburns.
"I didn't have a concern until you mentioned it," coach Randy Carlyle joked with the media when asked about the lack of energy the layoff could bring. "No, the question is a valid one. It's one of the things that you guard against, but we think in the long haul having a couple days to rest here… will let the pressure dissipate and now we're right back into it."
The players, meanwhile, believe the break will do more good than harm, especially given teams will be playing every second night throughout the playoffs in order to fit four rounds in before the end of June.
"This year in particular it has been a pretty gruelling schedule," Lupul said, noting the shortened season has affected his teammates more than him given all the games he has missed due to injury. "I know everyone was happy to get that break. It just so happened it was on the perfect day right after we had clinched.
"It was nice to spend some time with the guys and get some sun. We haven't gotten much of that in Toronto so far this year. It was a nice break, but there's no reason why we shouldn't come out and play really well tonight after the rest."
- James Reimer gets the start for the Leafs. He'll be up against Ben Bishop, who has struggled in four games against Toronto, posting a .856 save percentage that includes allowing nine goals in his most recent two starts when he was still with the Ottawa Senators.
- Carlyle also hinted strongly he will use every one of his 25 players in the final three games, which likely includes backup Ben Scrivens starting on Thursday in Florida against the Panthers. With five extras, some players have been sitting for a while.
"We think that we're going to have to use everybody in the last three games," Carlyle said. "We're not afraid of putting people in the roster that are going to help us in specific situations."
At the morning skate, he had Joe Colborne centring a line with Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur and Ryan Hamilton centring a line with Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. It's possible that one of those trios could sit Wednesday and then play Thursday.
- Forty-five games in, a couple Leafs are nursing minor injuries. McLaren hurt his shoulder or upper arm in a fight on Saturday and has been wearing a wrap on it of late, while Carl Gunnarsson and Nazem Kadri both appear to be dealing with some sort of hip injury or soreness.