Light­ning looks playo≠-bound

The Washington Post Sunday - - HOCKEY - BY NEIL GREEN­BERG­berg@wash­

With just a few weeks re­main­ing in the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Stan­ley Cup play­off race is start­ing to see some sepa­ra­tion.

As Satur­day be­gan the San Jose Sharks had all but se­cured first place in the Pa­cific Di­vi­sion and en­joyed a six-point lead on the Ana­heim Ducks. The Cal­gary Flames were third in that di­vi­sion and had a one-point edge on the Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers, who were in the first wild-card spot in the Western Con­fer­ence. The Chicago Blackhawks and Min­nesota Wild were sep­a­rated by three points in the Cen­tral, but with the Nashville Preda­tors 11 and 14 points be­hind them, there won’t be much drama in terms of seed­ing from now un­til the end of the reg­u­lar sea­son. There also was a four-point gap be­tween the St. Louis Blues and Los An­ge­les Kings for the fi­nal play­off spot.

The play­off race in the East still needs time to crys­tal­lize.

The Metropoli­tan Di­vi­sion is stacked: The Washington Cap­i­tals, Pitts­burgh Pen­guins and Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets all have at least 97 stand­ings points and are play­off locks. The Mon­treal Cana­di­ens, Ottawa Sen­a­tors and Bos­ton Bru­ins are also in, giv­ing the Atlantic Di­vi­sion three solid rep­re­sen­ta­tives once the post­sea­son be­gins.

That leaves two wild-card spots, one of which is already spo­ken for by the New York Rangers, whose 44-24-2 record (90 points) gives them a 13-point cush­ion on the three bubble teams: the New York Is­lan­ders (77 points), Toronto Maple Leafs (78 points) and Tampa Bay Light­ning (77 points).

Of those three, the Maple Leafs have the tough­est road ahead. Ac­cord­ing to the sim­ple rat­ing sys­tem of their up­com­ing op­po­nents, which ad­justs mar­gin of vic­tory for strength of sched­ule, Toronto will face teams with an av­er­age SRS of plus-0.12, roughly the equiv­a­lent to how well the Sen­a­tors (39-23-7 through Fri­day) are playing this sea­son. Re­main­ing op­po­nents for the Leafs in­clude the Blackhawks, Bru­ins, Blue Jack­ets (twice), Light­ning (twice), Cap­i­tals and Pen­guins. The Light­ning and Is­lan­ders are each ex­pected to play against a softer, league-av­er­age sched­ule.

Per­haps now that Aus­ton Matthews, the sec­ond-best scorer among rook­ies this sea­son (31 goals and 24 as­sists be­fore Satur­day night), has bro­ken his seven-game scor­ing slump, the Maple Leafs will have a chance, but it’s tough to dis­count what the Light­ning can do to in­fe­rior op­po­nents.

Af­ter ad­just­ing for score ef­fects and spe­cial teams, Tampa Bay is putting 51.3 per­cent of shot at­tempts in its fa­vor, sev­enth most in the NHL, com­pared with 51 per­cent for Toronto and a woe­ful 47.9 per­cent for the Is­lan­ders. On­drej Palat, Bray­den Point and Nikita Kucherov — Tampa Bay’s top line — have played only 57 even­strength min­utes to­gether but in that time have out­shot op­po­nents 78 to 51 (in­clud­ing missed and blocked shots), scor­ing three goals while on the ice for two against.

“What’s re­ally im­pressed me is ev­ery­body has just come to­gether as a group and there’s just kind of that never-die at­ti­tude that’s go­ing in there,” Light­ning Coach Jon Cooper told Fox Sports be­fore Thurs­day’s loss to the Maple Leafs. “Ev­ery­body’s con­tribut­ing, whether it’s a guy win­ning a face­off or block­ing a shot or scor­ing the big goal. But a lot of those guys that have been down that road with us the last cou­ple years, it’s al­most like they’re go­ing to lead the way and the new guys com­ing up aren’t go­ing to let them down. That’s kind of work­ing for us.”


Toronto goalie Fred­erik An­der­sen makes a div­ing stop against Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, who is part of a loaded top line for the Light­ning.

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