The Toronto Maple Leafs didn't do themselves any big favors on Sunday evening in NHL action. In a game that the Leafs hosted, the last one of their regular-season schedule, they lost 3-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Toronto did not need to win the game to improve the complexion of their playoff chances. However, they did need at least one point, meaning a loss in overtime or in a shootout would have sufficed. As things worked out, they squandered an opportunity to finish third in the Atlantic Division.

Loss to Columbus hurts Toronto

The implications are drastic when it comes to their first-round series in the NHL playoffs.

If the Leafs had finished third in the Atlantic then they would have drawn the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, with the loss they became the No. 2 Wild Card team. That means they have to play the strongest division winner and, in this case, that means playing against the Washington Capitals. The difference between Washington and Ottawa is 20 points in the NHL's year-end standings. In effect Toronto went from being in a coin toss against Ottawa to being longshots to make the second round now.

Of course Toronto fans will ground some optimism in Washington's knack for underachieving in the NHL playoffs over the long term. There is plenty of precedent for the Capitals losing in the early rounds in the playoffs even after a solid regular season.

But while Washington's chances might seem fuzzy to some, they have won their first-round series in each of the last two seasons under Barry Trotz. Toronto will have to earn their spot in the 2nd round of the NHL playoffs, the Leafs can't simply count on a Washington meltdown.

However, in moving over to the Metropolitan Division side of the Eastern Conference, the Leafs have made any kind of extensive run very improbable.

Beating Washington itself, as unlikely as it would be, is just one step in making the Stanley Cup Finals. The Leafs would have to beat either Pittsburgh or Columbus in the 2nd round. A draw through Ottawa and then either Montreal or the New York Rangers would have been much more preferable.

Boston Bruins benefit from Toronto loss

In effect, the big beneficiaries of Toronto's missed opportunity are the Boston Bruins. The Bruins are the team that will finish third in the Atlantic Division and they avoid Toronto's fate. Boston will face Ottawa instead of Washington in what looks like an open series, meaning neither team will really be a heavy favorite. If the Bruins make the second round, they might themselves in a winnable series as well. Both Montreal and New York are strong, but neither is as strong as Washington, Pittsburgh, or Columbus.

The 2017 NHL playoffs start on Wednesday. Series schedules are pending at this time, but Toronto will be in Washington to open their series when they do open their playoff schedule.