The Lightning have reached the final quarter of the season and their playoff aspirations remain very much alive. Still, the Bolts face an uphill climb. Their 7-1-2 record over the past 10 games has kept them in the hunt, but they remain on the wrong side of the playoff cut line and must leap over multiple teams if they hope to earn either a wildcard spot or third place in the Atlantic Division.
In today's column, I'll spell out the specific challenges facing the Lightning in their quest for a playoff berth and the reasons for optimism that they can overcome those challenges.
96 Points. In an earlier column this year, I referenced how the 96-point threshold is viewed as the magic number for playoff qualification. With rare exception, getting to 96 points guarantees a spot in the postseason.
The Lightning have 66 points. So to reach 96, they must amass 30 points in their final 20 games. That equates to a .750 winning percentage. That's a tall order. In other words, they'll need a record of 15-5-0. Or 14-4-2.
Key Players Moved At The Deadline. General Manager Steve Yzerman was upfront about why he traded Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula. In the long run, those moves will help the Lightning, both in terms of alleviating next year's cap crunch and allowing him to re-sign the team's pending restricted free agents. But Yzerman conceded that in the short term, "we've got work to do". If the Lightning are going to qualify for the playoffs, other players must eat up the minutes and collectively fill the void left by Bishop, Boyle and Filppula.
Back-to-Backs. While the Lightning don't have a particularly grueling schedule (more on that in the "Reasons for Optimism" segment), they do have five sets of back-to-back games remaining. Four of those are road-road, including this weekend's set at Pittsburgh and Buffalo. In each of the four, the Lightning will be facing a team in the second game that didn't play the night before.
The Lightning are just 3-4-4 in the second half of back-to-backs so far this year, but they've won their last two - at Winnipeg on February 11 and at Colorado on February 19.
Six Games Against The Top Six. Six of the remaining 20 games will be played against the teams that currently own the top six spots in the overall NHL standings. The Lightning still have games left against Washington, Minnesota, Chicago and Pittsburgh. They also have two contests with the New York Rangers. (The Lightning have finished their season series with the other team in the top six - the Columbus Blue Jackets). The good news is that four of the six games will take place at Amalie Arena. Also, the Lightning recently had a strong outing in Minnesota on February 10 and won in Chicago on January 24.
Reasons For Optimism
It May Not Take 96 Points. The 96-point threshold is considered a safe one to qualify for the playoffs. But it doesn't always take that many. Last year, for example, the Detroit Red Wings claimed third place in the Atlantic Division with 93 points.
Ironically, the closeness of the race in the Eastern Conference may help the Lightning (or potentially other teams) get in with less than 96. The East race - after the top four Metropolitan teams - is tight. When points are distributed more evenly throughout the conference (as is the case this year), it could mean that the point total of the second Wildcard or the third-place Atlantic team will be lower than usual.
So while the Lightning should aim for 96 points, it's certainly possible that they won't need all 30 points in the final 20 games to qualify.
The Lightning's Best Players Are Leading The Way. It's true that the Lightning will miss Bishop, Boyle and Filppula. But they still have plenty of talented players on the roster. And those players have been difference-makers of late. Entering Friday's game in Pittsburgh, Nikita Kucherov has 12 points in his last four games. Jonathan Drouin provided an incredible overtime goal in Colorado on February 19 and had a three-assist night against Ottawa on Monday. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are playing their best hockey of the season right now. Victor Hedman has 11 points in his last seven games. And Andrei Vasilevskiy, since the Bishop trade, has produced two quality starts and picked up wins over Ottawa and Carolina.
Friendly Schedule. The flip side of having four sets of road-road back-to-backs is that the Lightning aren't spending much time on the road. In March, the three separate road trips are all two-and-half days long. So the Lightning will be home a lot in the final five weeks of the regular season. The schedule is a busy one, but it's busy for all teams. So the Lightning should have more rest/practice time than many of their opponents.
Playing The Teams They Need To Catch. Those six games against the league leaders won't be easy and the Lightning will need to gain as many points as possible in those six. But let's put these final 20 games in perspective. While it would be wonderful to see the Lightning win all 20, that's not realistic. So of the remaining 20, some games are simply more important than others. An isolated loss to a Western Conference team or to a club at the top of the Metropolitan Division isn't ideal, but it's potentially not as damaging as a defeat to a team directly ahead of or just behind the Lightning in the standings. And they have plenty of those games left. The Bolts play 12 of their final 20 against the seven other Atlantic Division clubs. Five of those teams are currently ahead of the Lightning. Win those games and the Lightning will greatly improve their odds of reaching the postseason.