TORONTO — The task facing the Tampa Bay Lightning is as simple as it is imposing, and it involves receiving a lot of help for everything to fall in place.
Tampa Bay (39-30-10) must win its final three games of the regular season while either the Toronto Maple Leafs (39-25-15) or the Ottawa Senators (42-27-10) must lose all of their final three games.
That is the only way the Lightning can reach the playoffs after losing 4-0 Tuesday night to the Boston Bruins, who clinched a playoff spot with the win.
“We didn’t have any margin for error, and now our margin of error is razor thin,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But we’re not done yet, and it (puts) a lot of pressure on that Toronto game.”
The Lightning will play the Maple Leafs on Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre.
With a 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, the Maple Leafs failed to clinch a playoff berth. They would secure a postseason position with a win over the Lightning.
“We’re not out of it yet,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said after the game Tuesday. “It’s obviously a tough hill to climb, and we need a lot of things to go our way.”
The Lightning trail the Maple Leafs by five points and the Senators by six.
“We’re at the point where we can’t give up any points,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said.
The Maple Leafs, who currently occupy the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, are not only trying clinch their first playoff berth in four years but also to improve their position so they can have home-ice advantage in the first round.
“The path of least resistance is something to shoot for,” Maple Leafs defenseman Connor Carrick said after the game Tuesday. “You want to gain home ice and match up who you play best against.”
“We’re going to have to go through a good team at some point. You want home ice and climb up the standings as best you can, just from a gratification standpoint. If you’re a better team, you’re pushing your shoulders back at this time of year, you want to be finishing strong. It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs, anything can happen. We’ve seen eighth seeds win and vice versa.”
If the playoffs started Wednesday, the Maple Leafs would face a first-round matchup against the league-leading Capitals, who dominated them Tuesday.
The game Thursday is the fourth meeting of the season between the Lightning and the Maple Leafs.
The home team has yet to win in the matchup this season.
The Maple Leafs won 5-0 on March 16 and 3-2 in overtime Dec. 29, both at the Amalie Arena. The Lightning defeated the Maple Leafs 7-3 at the ACC on Oct. 25.
Tampa Bay has won three of its past four visits to Toronto.
The Maple Leafs are playing their final four games of the season at home and will play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday to wrap up their regular-season schedule.
“Obviously, we know the schedule is what it is at this time of year,” Maple Leafs left winger James van Riemsdyk said. “There’s lots of games in a short period of time. All of the teams are dealing with it so you’ve just got to prepare yourself as best you can and do what you can to do your job out there. We have three big games coming up now and we need some results.”
The Lightning visit the Montreal Canadiens on Friday before finishing the regular-season schedule at home Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.
The Lighting recalled left winger Michael Bournival and center Cory Conacher from Syracuse of the American Hockey League on Wednesday.
The Lightning had 17 skaters Tuesday after Gabriel Dumont left the team to be with his wife, who gave birth to the couple’s second son.
The team has been hit hard by injuries with Steven Stamkos missing most of the season with knee surgery and Ryan Callahan out with hip surgery. Tyler Johnson struggled with a lower-body injury in the game Tuesday.
“We’ve asked so much from these guys,” Cooper said. “There are guys who are playing, who probably in normal circumstances wouldn’t be dressing for games. But they’re laying it out there to make the push for the playoffs. They have given everything they’ve had.”
The Maple Leafs lost center Brian Boyle, a former Lightning player, in the first period on Tuesday with an upper-body injury. There was no update on his status Wednesday.