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Mishkin's Musings: Setting stage for the final seven

With a week and a half left in the regular season, the Lightning's race for the playoffs is tightening

by Dave Mishkin / TampaBayLightning.com

With a week and a half left in the regular season, the race for the final couple of playoff spots in the Eastern Conference continues to be a multi-horse one. The Lightning are in the middle of that race. They occupy 9th place in the Eastern Conference, three points behind the Boston Bruins for the second Wildcard spot. They are four points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it. Just a point behind the Lightning are the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes.

Here's are topics to peruse as the Lightning get ready for Thursday's home game against Detroit.

Points and Wins > Scoreboard Watching: It was a bit discouraging to check the out-of-town scores on Tuesday. The Lightning didn't get any help. Toronto, Boston and Carolina all won their games. But ultimately, as a number of Lightning players have stated, their performance on the ice is more important than what occurs with other teams. It's true that Boston's recent four-game regulation losing skid helped the Lightning close the gap between the teams. And the Islanders' regulation loss on Monday to Nashville allowed the Lightning, winners over Chicago on the same night, to leapfrog the Isles in the standings.

Here's the reality, though. If the Lightning don't continue winning themselves, it's not going to matter what happens on the out-of-town scoreboard. Regular readers of my column know well about the 96-point threshold, since I've mentioned it frequently over the past few weeks. Again this season, it appears as though 96 points will be enough to qualify. Based on the current standings, many believe the second Wildcard will finish in the 93-95 point range. The Bolts have 83 points with seven games remaining. That's 14 available points. If those projections are accurate, they'll need 10 or more points from here on out.

Of those final seven games, two jump out as particularly significant - next week's contests at Boston and Toronto. The Lightning still have a viable path to either the second Wildcard or third place in the Atlantic. But a loss in either of those games likely takes away one of those paths. Dropping both would hurt their overall chances dramatically. On the other hand, Lightning victories over the Bruins and Leafs might give them a small margin for error in one or two of the other games.

Video: CHI@TBL: Gourde buries OT game-winner on a breakaway

So if the Lightning are going to get in, they'll need to do all of their own heavy lifting. And that's what they should expect. Just like the Bolts, the other teams in this race are competing with playoff-like intensity. That's why the Lightning cannot expect to receive much good news from watching the scoreboard. It does sometimes happen that a team destined to miss the playoffs can knock off one of these desperate clubs (more on that in the next section). But for the Bolts, wins and points supersede scoreboard watching.

Beware Of Detroit, Dallas and Buffalo: Of the Lightning's seven remaining games, four are against teams ahead of them in the standings. In addition to the contests in Boston and Toronto, the Lightning play Montreal twice. The other three games are against clubs that have been eliminated from the playoffs: Detroit, Dallas and Buffalo.

These are landmine games for the Lightning, who lost recently to an Arizona team with far fewer points than the Red Wings, Stars or Sabres. Because such teams are out of the playoffs, they tend to play a pressure-free type of game. Also, they relish the role of playing spoiler when taking on a team fighting for its posteseaon life. Furthermore, all three of these teams have had recent success. As the Lightning saw first-hand last Friday in Detroit, the Red Wings are playing a sound, defensive game right now. They have recent wins over Chicago, Montreal, Minnesota and Carolina. The Stars beat San Jose twice last week and knocked off Washington earlier in the month. The Sabres defeated Toronto last weekend and effectively ended Florida's playoff hopes with a win over the Panthers on Monday.

Incidentally, these three teams could wreak a bit a havoc with the other clubs in the Eastern Conference playoff race too. The Wings have a game left with Toronto. Dallas faces both Boston and Carolina. The Sabres see the Islanders and Leafs.

So for the Lightning, they must be ready for a challenge when they face these opponents and be prepared to put on a complete, solid performance.

Video: TBL@DET: Vasilevskiy closes the door at the horn

On The Other Hand …: Scheduling circumstances sometimes work to your advantage. Sometimes they don't. The Lightning can't complain about the circumstances facing the Red Wings, Stars and Sabres heading into those three games at Amalie Arena.

Because of having to reschedule a game in Carolina, the Red Wings just completed a three-game-in-three-day stretch. They hosted Minnesota on Sunday afternoon, then played on back-to-back nights in Carolina on Monday and Tuesday. The Red Wings have Wednesday off, but play the Lightning on Thursday. So it'll be Detroit's fourth game in five days. The Lightning have played just once since last Friday.

The Lightning's game against the Stars this Sunday will be the second half of a back-to-back for the Bolts. But they won't have any travel between games, because their Saturday contest against Montreal is at home. Dallas too will be completing a back-to-back. Not only will the Stars be traveling in from Carolina, where they play on Saturday, the Stars' game against the Lightning will be the last of a five-game road trip, one in which they will have played those five games over an eight-night span.

The Lightning and Sabres conclude the regular season on Sunday, April 9. The Bolts do not play on Saturday, while the Sabres will be in Sunrise. So Buffalo will be completing a back-to-back.

These circumstantial advantages don't always equate to an advantage on the scoreboard, though. In that aforementioned Lightning loss to Arizona on March 21, the Coyotes were completing a back-to-back and playing their third game in four nights. Conversely, the Lightning had two days off before that contest. So obviously, there are no guarantees about the outcome.

Video: TBL@BUF: Kucherov ends shootout with nifty goal

Speaking Of The Schedule: Surprisingly, at this late date in the regular season, the Lightning are currently enjoying a little break. Prior to Saturday's home game against Montreal, the Lightning will have played just two games in seven days. That will change abruptly. Beginning with their contest on April 1 against the Canadiens, the Lightning play their final six games over nine days. That stretch includes two back-to-backs and a three-game road trip over a four-day span.

Fortunately, most of the other teams in the league have a similarly busy stretch in the season's final week or so. But the Lightning's playoff hopes may hinge on how well they handle the grind of those final nine days.

The Metro Race: Obviously, I stand by the statements made in the opening segment. The Lightning need a strong finish, regardless of what happens to the other teams in the race. Having written that, the Bolts won't mind if they do get a little help.

Interestingly, the battle for first, second and third in the Metropolitan Division could impact the Lightning's push for the postseason. Washington and Columbus have the two highest point totals in the league and Pittsburgh is tied with Chicago for the third-most. The Caps, Blue Jackets and Penguins have all qualified for the playoffs. Comfortably. But the team that finishes first in that division will draw the second Wildcard in the opening round of the playoffs. The other two clubs will face each other, with the second seed enjoying home ice.

All three want to enter the playoffs on a high note. But there may be a difference in their play during the regular season's final week if they are incentivized to maximize their point total. That would happen if the race remains close.

How could this affect the Lightning, who don't have any more games against those clubs? The Bruins finish their regular season with a contest against the Caps. The Leafs, in the regular season's final week, face the Caps, Penguins and Blue Jackets. And the Hurricanes have games left with both Columbus and Pittsburgh.

Tiebreaker Math: As a reminder, in the event two teams are tied in points at the end of the regular season, the first tiebreaker is regulation/overtime wins (ROW). The second tiebreaker is points gained in head-to-head matchups. 

The Lightning trail the Bruins by five ROW, so it's safe to say that if the Lightning hope to overtake the Bruins, they're going to need to finish with more points.

Video: TBL@DET: Kucherov tips Point's feed in for OT win

The Lightning's scenario with Toronto is less straightforward. The Bolts currently trail the Leafs by four points and by two ROW. If Tampa Bay was to make up that deficit with two ROW - and pull into a points and ROW tie - then the second tiebreaker goes into effect. Through three games in the season series, the Leafs have four points and the Lightning three. But if the Bolts beat Toronto in regulation on April 6, they'd win the second tiebreaker. In case you're wondering, the third tiebreaker is goals for/goals against differential.

The Lightning and Islanders currently are tied in ROW. The Lightning own the second tiebreaker, having swept the Isles in the season series.

Carolina has one fewer ROW than the Lightning. If Carolina makes up that ROW, it gets complicated. Because the teams played an uneven number of games, the second tiebreaker wouldn't include the Lightning's win over the Hurricanes on December 31st (the first home game for the team that had the extra home game isn't counted). Therefore, the second tiebreaker is also even, since both teams have an overtime win in the other two games. So it would come down to goal differential.

OK, math class is over. I won't get into the prospect of a three-way points tie. Give your head a rest.

What About The Injured Guys?: As the Lightning prep for their final seven regular season games, questions remain about the potential return of their injured players. Will we see Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Jason Garrison and/or Cedric Paquette? We'll find out soon enough!

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