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Mishkin's Musings: The Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

Dave Mishkin takes a closer look at the Eastern conference standings

by Dave Mishkin /

Now that the NHL season has entered its second half, let's take a look at the Eastern Conference Playoff race.

Regular readers of this column know I've often mentioned the following two truths regarding the path to the postseason in the NHL. First, as the season progresses, it becomes very difficult for teams below the playoff cut line to overtake those above it. Not impossible, but very difficult. Teams that are in playoff position tend to clamp down on those spots in the second half of the regular season. Overtime games don't help the chasing teams, because those are "three-point" contests in which both clubs earn points. Additionally, teams below that cut line not only have to worry about making up a point-deficit, but also may have to overtake multiple opponents along the way. 

Here's an example. On Thursday, the Lightning ended Carolina's season-long five-game winning streak. Prior to the start of their streak, the Hurricanes were 10 points out of the second wildcard. Entering last night's game - after accumulating 10 points in the five-game winning streak - the 'Canes were still six points out of the second wildcard and in 10th place in the conference. They had only made up four points and still needed to leapfrog two clubs.

Video: Two late PPGs propel Lightning to 3-1 home victory

So the path up the standings is a narrow and arduous climb. It can be done, but it often takes a remarkable second half run. And sometimes, even a great run isn't enough. The Lightning lived through that reality two seasons ago. With 30 games left in the 2016-17 regular season, the Lightning were in last place in the Eastern Conference. They went 20-6-4 over the final 30, but still missed the playoffs by a single point.

The second truth is that a 96-point total usually serves as a "magic" number for teams to qualify for the postseason. In other words, getting to 96 has virtually guaranteed a spot in the postseason. There has been only one instance in recent years when a team from either conference made it to 96 and didn't get in - the 2014-15 Boston Bruins. They were the lone exception. Usually, the cut line ends up being below 96. In that 2016-17 example, the Lightning picked up 44 points in their final 30 games and finished with 94. Toronto grabbed the second wildcard with 95, so one more win for the Lightning down the stretch would have gotten them to 96 and into the postseason.

So, with those two elements in mind, here is where things currently stand in the Eastern Conference. Obviously, the Lightning are in great shape. With 70 points already in the bank, they have put themselves in an enviable spot.

The other 15 teams in the Conference may not be as well-positioned as the Lightning, but some are in much better shape than others. Earlier, I mentioned the Hurricanes, who still occupy 10th-place in the East. Even with nearly half a season remaining, the odds are working against Carolina. Heading into their game against Buffalo on Friday, the 'Canes are seven points out of a playoff spot and need to jump over two teams. They have just 45 points through 43 games, so in order to reach 96 points, they'd need to accumulate 51 points in their final 39 games. That would be a marked points percentage improvement over what they've managed thus far.

So it's a tall order, but not out of the realm of possibility. The prospects for the six teams behind Carolina are much bleaker. If any of those clubs hope to climb into the top eight, they are going to have to set a blistering pace and hope for multiple collapses from teams in front of them.

Then there are the nine teams above Carolina. Unless the Hurricanes make a big run (or something truly remarkable happens for one of the clubs below the 'Canes), the Eastern Conference is going to come down to a "nine-for-eight" musical chairs race. Other than the Lightning, Washington and Toronto have the best position. The Caps and Leafs both have 58 points, seven more than ninth-seeded Montreal. The other six clubs, however, are separated by just three points. All six are either on pace to reach 96 points or within striking distance of that pace. Meaning that it very well could be a white-knuckle sprint to the finish for those clubs and their fans.  

The Lightning will see two of those teams this weekend and should expect high-intensity games from both the Sabres and Islanders.

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