I10-2-3, but challenges remain: The Lightning, on the strength of their 10-2-3 record over the last 15 games, have kept themselves in the hunt. Since my last column, they've gone 3-1-1 and moved into 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
It's a tough go for teams on the wrong side of the playoff cut line. Not only must they get above that line, they also may have to leapfrog a number of clubs to do so, depending on their position in the standings. The Lightning have done well in recent weeks to catch and pass teams that previously had been ahead of them in the Conference.
Unfortunately, the Lightning are still on the wrong side of that cut line. If they are going to make the playoffs, they must climb over two more teams.
Some Separation: There's a reason why the Lightning have been able to gain ground on some teams but not others. For the first time all season, there has been separation in the Eastern Conference. Obviously, I not referencing the top four teams in the Metropolitan Division - those clubs have been well ahead of the pack for most of the year. But the rest of the conference had been reasonably close. That's no longer the case. New Jersey, Detroit, Carolina, Buffalo, Florida and Philadelphia are all under .500 in their last 10 games. For the latter three clubs, the subpar record hasn't extinguished hope, but it's put them in a precarious position.
On the other hand, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, the Islanders, Toronto and the Lightning have all done well during that timeframe. Those teams have, to varying degrees, gained ground on those other clubs.
The effect of this separation is hard to predict. It's true that it may whittle down the number of teams contending for playoff spots. And for the Bolts, as mentioned earlier, they have fewer teams to pass. But there may another ramification that I'll explore in an upcoming section.
96 Points: Regular readers of this column are familiar with the significance of the 96-point marker. As I've written before, teams that amass 96 points traditionally qualify for the playoffs. Going back to the 2009-10 season, there has been only one team to not make the playoffs with 96 points - the 2014-15 Bruins. In every other season, regardless of how many teams were in the running, 96 was enough. I'm no statistician, but I'm going to assume that 96 again will do the job this year.
The Lightning have 73 points. To reach 96, they'll need 23 points in their final 15 games. Coincidentally, with their aforementioned 10-2-3 mark over the past several weeks, they've accumulated exactly 23 points in their last 15 games. So another 10-2-3 mark should get it done. Or 11-3-1. By no means will it be easy. But it's possible. And based on the aforementioned history, if they can get to 96, it shouldn't matter what any other team in the East does over the final four weeks.
Less Than 96: But what if they don't get to 96? Then the Lightning may need some help along the way. Look at the three teams directly ahead of the Lightning in the standings: the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Islanders. The Bolts play two games each against the Bruins and Leafs. Clearly, if the Lightning are going to get to 96, they'll need to have success in those head-to-heads. Which would make it tougher for Boston and Toronto to both reach 96 themselves. Additionally, Boston and Toronto face each other once. The Bruins and Islanders also meet. In each of those games, one team isn't getting two points, reducing that club's odds of hitting 96.
But if the bar is lower than 96, the Bruins and Leafs could absorb potential losses to the Lightning, yet still post a good enough record to maintain an advantage over Tampa Bay. That's why that recent separation in the conference also complicates matters for the Bolts. The teams ahead of them have been hot and haven't relinquished their lead on the Lightning.
So it would be nice for the Lightning if the Bruins struggle on their upcoming trip to Western Canada. Or if the Leafs stumble when they play Columbus twice, Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Tiebreaker: In the event of a points tie at the end of the regular season, the first tiebreaker is regulation/overtime wins (ROW). In other words, total wins minus shootout wins. Unfortunately, the Lightning currently are on the wrong side of this tiebreaker against the teams they are chasing.
The Bolts trail the Islanders by two points, but have three fewer ROW. So even if they make up that deficit with a regulation/overtime win, they would be still two ROW behind. They have to hope the Islanders pick up points via shootout wins and overtime losses down the stretch. If the Lightning and Islanders tie in ROW, then it goes to the second tiebreaker - head-to-head. The Bolts dominated the Islanders in the season series. Tampa Bay won all three contests, outscoring the Isles, 14-2. But the head-to-head only comes into play if the teams are tied in ROW.
The Lightning are three points behind Toronto and have two fewer ROW. So they could pull even with a couple of non shootout wins and a Toronto overtime loss. The head-to-head winner will be determined in the final two meetings. To this point, the Lightning have three points in the season series and the Leafs have two.
It's unlikely that the Lightning will catch the Bruins in ROW. Boston has a five-point lead, but owns six more ROW.
Remaining Schedule: As I wrote in the last column, the Lightning have a favorable schedule. In terms of duration, their road trips are short. They have a nine-day stretch at home in late March/early April. They still have four sets of back-to-backs left, but they've done well in those recently - in the second half of their last three back-to-backs, they've gone 3-0.
But when looking at frequency of games, there are some challenging segments. Saturday's win over Florida began a stretch of three-games-in-four-nights, four-games-in-six-nights and five-games-in-eight-nights. The return trip from Ottawa on Tuesday will be a late one - or, to be more specific, an early one on Wednesday morning. And the Lightning must quickly gear up for that critical contest on Thursday against the Maple Leafs, who will be coming off a Tuesday game in Sunrise. The fifth and final game in the eight-night stretch occurs against league-leading Washington.
Then, in the final nine nights of the regular season, the Lightning play six games. Fortunately, most of the rest of the league has a similarly grueling stretch in the season's closing days.
Playoffs Are Now: It's true that there's nothing better than the excitement of the NHL playoffs. We don't yet know if the Lightning will participate this season. But at least their recent surge has kept hope alive and allowed us to watch action that has been playoff-like in its intensity. So no matter how it turns out, let's relish these last 15 games and enjoy a wonderful ride.