Lightning looks playo≠-bound
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.