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Mishkin's Musings: Taking a look at the Eastern Conference playoff race

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Only 11 days remain in the NHL’s regular season. While there are still plenty of questions to be answered over the next week and a half, the Eastern Conference playoff picture has gotten at least a little bit clearer.

First of all, let’s look at the Lightning. The Bolts have 93 points and are currently tied with the Florida Panthers for first place in the Atlantic Division. A top three finish guarantees a postseason berth. So as long as the Lightning finish ahead of either Boston or Detroit, they’ll be in. (If they fall behind both those clubs, they’d still be in the running for one of the two wildcard spots, but that’s a scenario they’d like to avoid).

In the closing weeks and days of the regular season, we hear a lot about each team’s “magic number” to clinch. The magic number is the combination of points gained by the contending club and points not gained by chasing teams. Detroit, for example, has 87 points and five games remaining. The Red Wings’ maximum point total, then, is 97. The Lightning, with 93 points, would need five points to surpass Detroit’s potential total. So the Lightning’s magic number is five points. Each point gained by the Lightning reduces that number. If Detroit loses even one of those remaining games (or, to use the above verbiage, doesn’t gain two points), then its max total drops to 95. That would also reduce the Lightning’s magic number.

But when factoring in tiebreakers, the Lightning’s magic number is actually four points, not five. The first tiebreaker is regulation/overtime wins. The second is points gained in head-to-head matchups. The third is goal differential. Both Detroit and Boston have five games remaining and own 36 ROW. The Lightning have 41. So the Lightning cannot lose the first tiebreaker. At worst, they’d tie it. The Lightning win the second tiebreaker over Boston (five points to four in the season series) and are tied with Detroit (four points each). The Bolts have a huge advantage in goal differential over Detroit (plus 32 to minus 14).

It’s extremely unlikely that the Lightning would surrender such a big goal differential advantage in the final few games of the regular season, but they don’t even need to rely on that third tiebreaker. That’s because Boston and Detroit play each other on April 7. One of those teams will not be earning a ROW that night, meaning the Lightning would win the first tiebreaker against the loser of that game. So even if Detroit wins that game in overtime, then Boston, which currently has 88 points and a max total of 98 points, could only get to, at best, 97 points. And the Bruins would then lose the ROW tiebreaker to the Lightning. If Boston wins, then Detroit’s max total drops below 97 points. That’s why the Lightning’s current magic number is at four points.

The Lightning would very much like to secure a postseason spot before they head out on their regular season-ending four game road trip next week. Meaning that, no matter what happens with the Bruins and Red Wings in their respective weekend games, the Lightning can accomplish that goal with wins over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday and New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

So while there is still work to be done for the Lightning before they have earned a playoff spot, they are closing in on one. What about the other Eastern teams in contention?

In the Metropolitan Division, Washington has already clinched the President’s Trophy, awarded to the team with the highest regular season point total. The New York Rangers (95 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (94 points) occupy second and third place. To clinch, they’d need to finish ahead of the ninth-seed (Detroit). So only a few more points for each team will get them in.

In the Atlantic, the Panthers, as mentioned earlier, are tied with the Lightning. They don’t hold the same tiebreaker advantages as the Bolts. In fact, they actually trail both the Bruins and Red Wings in ROW. But they lead in points and, like the Lightning, will benefit from the Boston-Detroit matchup on April 7. In other words, they are also in good shape to qualify.

Similar to the Lightning, the Panthers, Rangers and Penguins still haven’t clinched a spot. But they are all in a much more advantageous position than the clubs behind them in the standings. If and when these four clinch, they’ll shift their focus to finishing as high as they can in the standings and trying to secure home ice advantage for (at least) the first round.

What about the rest of the bunch? Carolina and New Jersey, both with five games left, need to make up five points, finish ahead of the other, and leapfrog two other teams. That’s a tall order. They are hurt by the fact that the Flyers and Wings meet on April 6. So one of those teams will get two points. Barring some bizarre circumstance, the Hurricanes and Devils likely will fall short.

That leaves four teams – the New York Islanders (91 points), the Bruins (88 points), the Flyers (87 points) and Red Wings (87 points) – competing for three open spots. The Isles and Flyers would seem to have the inside track. The Islanders have the most points of those teams and have two games in hand on the Bruins and Red Wings. The Flyers also have two games in hand on Boston and Detroit, but they have three sets of back-to-back games remaining.

Even if the Isles and Flyers currently have an edge, it should be an exciting finish. That’s because these teams will see each other down the stretch. The Red Wings have those games against the Flyers and Bruins. Also, in a rescheduled game that’ll be played on Sunday, April 10, the Flyers and Islanders meet in Brooklyn.

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