WASHINGTON — So it comes down to this. In Sunday’s regular-season finale, the 721st and last game of the lockout-shortened season, the Bruins will play for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference.
They can’t ask for any help from other clubs. They will not rest any of their star players. They will determine their destination. Second place in the East is what they desperately want.
“We want to win the division,” said coach Claude Julien after Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Capitals before 18,506 at the Verizon Center. “So we’re going to play to win tomorrow. No ifs or buts.”
The Bruins’ overtime loss, coupled with Montreal’s 4-1 win over Toronto, set up the current scenario. The Canadiens lead the Northeast with 63 points and are in second place in the East. The Bruins have 62 points and are the No. 4 seed.
With a regulation win over Ottawa at TD Garden, the Bruins will finish with 64 points and clinch the No. 2 seed. That would set up a postseason meeting between the Bruins and the Islanders, arguably the most desired of the three possible opponents (Toronto and Ottawa are the other two). The Islanders last appeared in the playoffs in 2006-07.
If the Bruins win in overtime or the shootout, the Bruins would claim the second seed and play Ottawa in the first round. The Bruins are 4-0-0 against the Senators this season.
If the Bruins lose in any fashion (regulation, overtime, shootout), they will finish in fourth place and play the Maple Leafs. A fourth-place finish would set up a second-round showdown against Pittsburgh, assuming no upsets take place. Like all teams, the Bruins want no part of the Penguins.
“It’s what we play for all year — to be at the top of the division and give yourself a good chance to have that home-ice advantage in the playoffs,” Milan Lucic said. “Tomorrow, it’s kind of a blessing. You have something to play for. The last thing you want to do is take your foot off the gas pedal. You want to keep going hard and pretend like the playoffs are starting tomorrow. We’ve said it a million times. You can’t just flip the switch on and off. You saw what happened last year when we tried that. There’s definitely a lot to play for.”
The Bruins were in line for a regulation win. They were up, 2-0, in the third period. Lucic scored a goal in the first when his shot glanced off Karl Alzner’s skate and caromed past Braden Holtby at 9:59 of the first. In the second, Andrew Ference snapped a long-distance shot past Holtby at 7:49.
But three straight power-play goals, including the winner in overtime, left the Bruins without the two points they were seeking. Had they beaten the Capitals, they only would have needed one point against Ottawa to clinch the No. 2 seed.
The trouble started at 5:11 of the third when Adam McQuaid was called for tripping. On the next shift, Mike Green unloaded a snap shot from the right point. Tuukka Rask didn’t see Green’s release. When Rask finally spotted the puck, it was whizzing past his blocker at 5:26 of the third.
“I saw where he was standing, but I didn’t see the shot,” said Rask (34 saves). “Too late reacting to that. Just one of those floaters.”
Less than two minutes later, Green struck again. At 6:27, Rich Peverley took an ill-advised tripping penalty on Eric Fehr. Earlier in the shift, Fehr had given Peverley a bump that the right wing didn’t like.
With Peverley in the box, Green set up at the right point once more. After taking a pass from Mike Ribeiro, Green brought the hammer down on a screaming slapper that Rask couldn’t stop at 7:21 of the third.
Green was injured for the two previous games against the Bruins. But with Green healthy, the top-ranked Capitals power play is even more dangerous. Green is the right-side threat at the point. Alex Ovechkin stands ready to fire on the left side. When penalty killers take away Ovechkin’s shot, Green has more space to work.
“He’s given them a huge spark in the way they play,” Lucic said of Green. “He’s an important part of the team. You saw how he was in the third period.”
Green came through once more in overtime. Zdeno Chara was nabbed for hooking at 1:40 of OT. During the four-on-three power play, Green ripped an off-wing one-timer. Rask stopped Green’s shot, but the rebound fell in front. Before Rask could recover, Eric Fehr jammed the rebound home at 3:23 of OT to give Washington the 3-2 win.
“It’s good there are no games that don’t matter,” said Rask, who should be back in the crease on Sunday. “Every game has mattered this season. That’s the way it’s going to be until the end.”Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.