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Mishkin's Musings: Sizing up the Eastern Conference playoff race

The Bolts are currently on a good pace, but they'll need to keep it up down the stretch with plenty of strong contenders in the East

by Dave Mishkin @DaveMishkin /

I've often mentioned the "playoff points pace" in this column. Teams aim to earn at least 12 points in every 10-game segment. That adds up to 96 points after 80 games. This total typically is high enough to secure a playoff spot. If needed, a team still has two more games to pad that amount.

It can be helpful to view a team's position from the points pace lens, particularly if a club has played fewer games than its divisional rivals. This was true for the Lightning earlier this season. For much of the first half, they were near the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings. But their positioning was linked, at least in part, to the fact that they hadn't played as many games as the teams ahead of them. In terms of their points pace, however, they were hitting their benchmarks consistently. Jon Cooper referenced multiple times during the first half that "if we keep up this pace, we'll be a playoff team."

Of course, thanks to their 13-2-1 run over the past 16 games, the Lightning have leapfrogged four teams in the Atlantic Division and are now in second place. Also, from a playoff pace standpoint, they've accumulated "bonus" points. Using the 12-in-10 metric, a team needs 60 points after 50 games to stay on playoff pace. Following Wednesday's win over the Kings, the Lightning have 65 points after 50 games.

Over their final 32 contests, it'll be important for the Lightning to keep banking points, because this might be a season in which the eight qualifying teams in the East need to exceed the 12-in-10 pace. If so, this would be an outlier season.

Why has the 96-point threshold been such a reliable benchmark? The NHL's current points format has been in place since the 2005-06 season, when the league introduced the shootout. Let's exclude the 2012-13 campaign - teams played only 48 games that year - and examine the 13 other regular seasons. During each of those 13 seasons, there have been two races - one in the East and one in the West. In only three of those 26 races has a team reached 96 points and missed the playoffs. (Incidentally, they all occurred in the East and each happened over the past five seasons). But under the current format, a team with at least 97 points has never failed to qualify. So historically, even in the tightest races, clubs that hit their 12-in-10 benchmarks have needed only one extra point in their final two games to secure a postseason berth.

But this season, there are currently 10 teams in the East at or ahead of playoff pace. I'm including Toronto, which has 61 points after 51 games. Four of those teams are in the Atlantic and six in the Metropolitan.

So, understanding that this is a snapshot view and that a lot can happen during the final 30-plus games for these teams, at this moment it looks as though the East will be a 10-team battle for eight spots. And if the 10 teams can maintain a 12-in-10 pace, they'll all have at least 96 points after 80 games. This might be the first year - under the current points format - that 97 points won't be enough.

What does this mean for the Lightning? The Atlantic's top three teams automatically qualify for the playoffs. So whichever club occupies fourth has to jostle with the Metropolitan teams for the two available wildcards. Therefore, as the Lightning look to keep getting points out of games and hitting their benchmarks, they want to maintain their hold on second place and avoid what is sizing up to be a very competitive and unprecedented race for those wildcard spots.

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