1.In my most recent column, I wrote how the Lightning were playing their best hockey of the year. They were in the midst of a franchise record-setting nine-game winning streak. All facets of their game were in synch. Fast forward a couple of weeks, though, and that statement is no longer true. After last night’s loss in Toronto, they’re just 1-3-1 in their past five games and their overall play has been inconsistent. They’ve played well in two of those contests – a 42-shot effort in a 1-0 OT loss to Boston on March 8 and Sunday’s 4-0 blanking of Columbus. Those solid performances, however, have alternated with subpar and/or flat efforts. The Lightning didn’t even reach 20 shots in either of their two losses to Philadelphia on March 7 and March 11. And in last night’s defeat at Toronto, the Bolts mustered only 11 shots through the first two periods.
There are three and a half weeks left in the regular season and the Lightning have 12 regular season games remaining. Clearly, they want to rediscover the consistent level they displayed during the nine-game winning streak. An additional objective, obviously, is to clinch a playoff spot. After last night’s game, Jon Cooper noted that “we’re not in the playoffs yet. We’ve got a long way to go.”
It’s true that the teams directly behind the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Standings have closed the gap or even leapfrogged the Bolts over the past week and a half. Heading into Wednesday’s games, the Lightning are in third place in the Atlantic Division. They lead the Detroit Red Wings by six points for the second and final Wildcard spot. Just as significantly, they hold a seven-point lead over the ninth-place Philadelphia Flyers, who are the top team on the wrong side of the playoff cut line. Had the Lightning been able to win just one of those games last week against Philadelphia, their lead over the Flyers would now be a double-digit advantage.
So things have gotten tighter. But the Lightning are still in a favorable position. Certainly, they need to avoid a slump in their final 12 games. But let’s suppose, just for argument’s sake, that the Lightning only play .500 hockey in these final 12 games (meaning they’ll have the same number of wins as regulation losses). Such an average finish would still give the Lightning a season total of 97 points. They currently own the tiebreaker (regulation and overtime wins) over both the Red Wings and Flyers and, barring a rash of shootout wins and OT/SO losses down the stretch, would likely maintain the tiebreaker advantage. That means that in order to pass the Bolts, the Wings and Flyers would both need at least 98 points. Detroit has 79 points, so the Wings would need to pick up 19 points in their final 12 games. That would equate to a record of 9-2-1. For the Lightning to fall out of the top eight, the Flyers also would need at least 98 points. They have 78 points and 14 games remaining, so they’d need 20 points, an approximate record of 10-4. Naturally, if the Lightning do better than that hypothetical 6-6-0 finish, their season-ending total goes up. And the odds of both the Wings and Flyers overtaking them goes down.
But Cooper is right when he points out that the Lightning aren’t yet in. There is still work to be done in these final few weeks of the regular season. And it needs to start with more consistent play.
2.The Lightning aren’t the only team in the East feeling the squeeze as we hit the home stretch. Excluding the top-seeded Washington Capitals, the other seven teams above the playoff cut line are only separated by eight points. And, as mentioned earlier, the Flyers are hovering just below Detroit, one point back. 10th-seeded Carolina, with 75 points, is still in the mix. Ottawa (74 points) and New Jersey (73 points) have a taller order, but maintain belief that a hot finish could propel them into a Wildcard spot.
The situation in the West is clearer. It appears as though the top seven teams are secure, even though none has yet clinched a playoff berth. The eighth spot – or second Wildcard slot – will go to either Minnesota or Colorado. Only one point separates the two. Both clubs have 12 games remaining. The Wild lead the Avs, but the Avs currently hold the tiebreaker. They have one game remaining against the other – on March 26 in Denver.
3.If you are on Twitter, give Damian Echevarietta a follow (@Ech28). Echevarietta is the NHL’s Vice-President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations. Every year, as the regular season nears its conclusion, Echevarietta tweets out an updated playoff chart every day for each Conference. It’s the best one I’ve seen. It lists the remaining schedule for each team in contention, breaking down home/road split, games left versus playoff/non-playoff opponents and magic/tragic numbers (points needed to clinch – or be eliminated).
Sometimes, I wonder about the playoff/non-playoff opponent breakdown. Is it possible to handicap remaining schedules based on “caliber of opponent”? It can be a slippery slope. A team near the bottom of the standings and well out of the playoffs sometimes plays a spirited game. Such a club has nothing to lose and, in the case of Toronto, may have a roster filled with recently recalled players eager to make their mark. To that end, the Lightning’s past two opponents – Columbus and Toronto – both have posted recent wins over teams well ahead of them in the standings. Conversely, sometimes a team that has already clinched a playoff berth may not bring the same level of intensity as its opponent, especially if that opponent is still fighting to get in the playoffs.
But there are other components to a schedule that can be used to determine how rough the final few weeks might be for a given team. Does a club have extensive travel? Lots of back-to-backs? Key head-to-head matchups against other contending teams? Under that lens, here are some overall observations about the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Boston has one of the toughest schedules. Even taking into account that the Bruins have been one of the league’s best road teams this year, Boston has an unenviable final 11 games. The Bruins are currently in California, where they lost last night to San Jose. They still have games left at Anaheim and Los Angeles on this trip. Seven of their next eight are on the road – and they still have to visit St. Louis and Chicago.
Due to inclement weather earlier this year, the Islanders and Flyers had to reschedule a game that will be played on Sunday, April 10, in Brooklyn. By adding that game, the Islanders will finish the regular season playing six of their final eight games at home.
The Flyers’ excellent play of late has gotten them to within a point of Detroit. They are coming off an emotional, dramatic home win over the Red Wings, but they must regroup quickly. They complete a back-to-back tonight in Chicago against a rested (and angry) Chicago team that has lost three in a row. Including tonight’s back-to-back finish, the Flyers have five sets of back-to-backs remaining on their schedule. If they can’t sweep the majority of those back-to-backs, their path to the playoffs will become bumpier.
And what of the Lightning? After this four-game trip ends Saturday in Arizona, the Lightning will begin a six-game homestand. That will conclude the regular season portion of the home schedule. Then, as the Frozen Four comes to Amalie Arena, they’ll finish up the regular season with another four-game trip. They’ll face the three New York-based teams before they wrap up the regular season in Montreal. Undoubtedly, they’ll want to have clinched a playoff berth before that final road trip.