Before a team can win the Stanley Cup, it must first qualify for the playoffs. OK, I know, I’m stating the obvious. But getting into the NHL playoffs is not automatic. It takes a sustained high level of play, an avoidance of long slumps and an ability to, as Jon Cooper often says, “munch points”. At the start of each season, the Lightning’s first goal isn’t to win the Stanley Cup. It’s to make the playoffs.
The Lightning have now met that goal. They’ve gotten their ticket punched for the postseason and they’ll be one of 16 teams beginning a playoff series next week. But it hasn’t been a smooth ride. After leading the NHL in goals last year, they’ve dealt with a vast reduction in offensive production this season. They’ve had extensive injury issues, both early in the season and in recent weeks. After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, the Lightning this season have, more often than not, seen the opposition’s “A” game. For much of the first half, they were on the wrong side of the playoff cut line and needed a strong second half to pull themselves up the standings. As a result of these challenges, much of this season has felt like a grind. A struggle.
But they’ve made it. They are in. And while they’ll still be dealing with injuries to key players as they enter their first round series, they can put behind them the grind of the regular season. And, before the playoffs begin, let’s not forget some of this season’s bright spots. Because there were bright spots. The Lightning have become one of the top defensive teams in the league. For most of the season, they’ve ranked in the top five and are currently tied for fourth. They set a franchise record by winning nine consecutive games and had another streak of seven straight wins. With two road games left in the regular season, the Bolts have won 20 road games (already two more than last year’s club). That’s just two wins shy of the franchise record for most road wins in a regular season.
The Lightning know they will finish either second or third in the Atlantic Division. Any combination of two points gained by the Lightning or two points not gained by the Detroit Red Wings will secure second place for the Bolts and home ice advantage in the first round. The Lightning also know they will be playing either the Red Wings or the Boston Bruins in the first round, but their opponent may not be known until the regular season’s final day. As of Wednesday morning, the Red Wings, Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers are all tied with 91 points. Six teams in the Eastern Conference have clinched berths, so the Wings, Bruins and Flyers will be competing for the final two spots.
Adding intrigue to their game of musical playoff chairs is the fact that there are two head-to-head games remaining involving those teams. Tonight, the Red Wings host the Flyers. Tomorrow, the Wings visit the Bruins.
The Flyers and Red Wings control their own destiny. That’s because they both have games in hand on the Bruins, who have only two games left. Detroit has three and the Flyers have four. So the loser of tonight’s game would still earn a spot if it wins its remaining games.
Do the Bruins have a rooting interest in tonight’s game at Joe Louis Arena, then? Generally, they’ll be hoping for a regulation result. They just need to finish ahead of one of those two teams, so they’re looking for the losing club to come away with zero points.
Specifically, however, the Bruins want the Flyers to win. That’s because the Bruins get to face the Red Wings on Thursday. If the Wings lose in regulation on Wednesday, then the Bruins know they would make the playoffs if they beat Detroit and then win their final game on Saturday against Ottawa. Even if the Wings earn a point tonight with an overtime or shootout loss, the Bruins still could overtake the Wings with a victory on Thursday.
A Detroit win on Wednesday complicates things for the Bruins. That’s because Boston trails the first tiebreaker – regulation/overtime wins. Detroit currently has one more ROW than the Bruins, so a non-shootout win for the Wings on Wednesday would increase their ROW advantage. Interestingly, the Bruins are on the verge of winning the second tiebreaker, though – more points in the head-to-head series. Through three games of the season series, the Bruins have four points and the Red Wings three. But that tiebreaker only comes into play if the teams are tied in ROW.
If the Wings do win tonight, then the Bruins would need to make up three points on Detroit in their final two games. Or they could try beat out the Flyers, who would still enjoy the advantage of having a game in hand on Boston. But a loss tonight for the Flyers isn’t ideal. That extra game will be played on Sunday in Brooklyn against the Islanders, a make-up game from a snowed-out contest earlier this year. So beginning with tonight’s contest, the Flyers will be playing four games in five nights. Tomorrow they’ll host a rested Toronto club that has been playing tight games against teams in playoff contention. On Saturday, they host the Pittsburgh Penguins, the hottest team in the league. Then there’s that final game on the road against the playoff-bound Islanders.
The three-team race for two spots will be the NHL’s main drama over the next few days. The eight playoff clubs in the West are set, as are those six teams in the East. Some of these teams are still jostling for positioning. But the big story will be whether the Red Wings, Bruins or Flyers won’t be joining the party. And, from the Lightning’s perspective, whether the Wings or Bruins will be their first round opponent.