WINNIPEG, Manitoba — For months now, many Boston Bruins fans have been focused on the Toronto Maple Leafs as their team’s first-round playoff opponent.

But as the Tampa Bay Lightning have faltered a bit down the stretch, first place in the Eastern Conference has become a more realistic possibility. And if the Bruins, who are one point back going into Thursday’s home game against Tampa Bay, are indeed able to overtake the Lightning, then the New Jersey Devils could be Boston’s first-round opponent.

And it could very well be a blood rivalry between the teams.

On Jan. 23, Brad Marchand knocked Devils forward Marcus Johansson out of the lineup with a flying elbow late in the Bruins’ 3-2 win at the TD Garden. Marchand was tagged with a five-game suspension, but Johansson is just now trying to get back into the Devils lineup. After practice on Monday, Johansson, in his first public comments since the hit, had some very pointed words about Marchand.

“It was stupid,” Johansson told reporters. “There was no point in doing that. There was no hockey play whatsoever. … There are obviously situations where (you) try and hit someone to make the hockey play and it goes wrong. Then there are plays like this that has nothing to do with hockey. It’s sad to see. I guess I’m unfortunate to be on the receiving end of that.”

Asked if he thought the five-game suspension was enough, Johansson said: “Ah, not really, considering this was the ninth time he’s been suspended or fined. … It’s sad. It’s stupid. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to him ending someone else’s career before it’s enough.”

Invited to respond to Johansson’s comments yesterday, Marchand did not take the bait. The Bruins winger said that he’s happy Johansson is back on the ice practicing. As for the remarks?

“He’s entitled to his opinion. I understand he was frustrated with the situation. I would be as well. I feel really bad about how things played out, but I’m glad to see him back on the ice and hopefully he’s playing soon,” said Marchand.

BRUINS DEFENSEMAN Zdeno Chara signed a contract that will take him through his 42nd birthday, and he’s already anticipating the next one.

“I believe, myself, that I’m going to be playing beyond this contract,” he said on Wednesday after agreeing to a one-year deal that will pay him at least $5 million.

“No matter how long you want to continue to play, you have to perform. You have to back up your status,” he said. “So I know I need to go out there every night and do my job, perform and play hard and work hard and be a great example for my teammates. (The) rest of it, it will fall into place.”

A five-time All-Star who was the league’s best defenseman in 2009, Chara turned 41 this month but still leads the Bruins in ice time with an average of 23 minutes per game. He has seven goals and 16 assists this season, his 20th in the NHL, and is the franchise’s third-leading scorer for a defenseman, behind Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr.

“He’s been a dominant player this year,” Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney said. “He takes all of the hard matchups still, doesn’t shy away from any situations and has embraced the role that he’s kind of emerged into. … He’s indicated that he wants to perform at a high, high level, he expects to perform at a high level, and he’s backed that up.”

Chara was in the final year of a seven-year, $45 million contract that reportedly paid him $4 million this year. His new deal guarantees him $5 million but also has incentives that could pay him $1.75 million more.

SWEENEY OFFERED an update on the health of Chara (upper-body injury), David Backes (leg), Charlie McAvoy (MCL sprain) and Jake DeBrusk (upper-body) – noting that all four were skating Wednesday and will likely be back on the ice Thursday.

“Several of those guys were on the ice today and are continuing to work back toward playing,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think we have a definite timetable on any one of those players – but they’ve all gotten closer to getting back in our lineup. Hopefully they’ll be sooner rather than later.

“David Backes skated fully today. He’ll skate again tomorrow. Same with Zdeno and Charlie and Jake. So I think they’re closer, rather than farther away – which is a positive for us.”

Both Chara and DeBrusk exited Boston’s win over Carolina on March 13 and have missed the last seven games as a result, while Backes is recovering after suffering a serious cut from a skate blade against Tampa Bay on March 17. McAvoy hasn’t played since sustaining a knee injury against Montreal on March 3.

WEDNESDAY’S GAME

MAPLE LEAFS 4, PANTHERS 3: Mitch Marner had a goal and an assist to extend his point streak to 10 games and Toronto beat Florida to set a franchise record with its 46th win.

Toronto also set a high-water mark with its 27th home win.

James van Riemsdyk added his 35th goal – and the 200th of his career – for Toronto, while Auston Matthews and Patrick Marleau added their 30th and 25th goals, respectively.

Jonathan Huberdeau scored twice, and Evgenii Dadonov also scored for Florida, which remained three points behind New Jersey for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, with one game in hand.

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