The Lightning begin a four-game road trip tonight in Toronto. They have 30 regular season games remaining. Most NHL clubs have, approximately, the same amount left on their schedule. Thirty games is not a small number – more than one-third of the season – but for NHL teams trying to lock down a playoff berth, 30 is a sprint to the finish.
As I’ve written often in this space, it’s difficult to make up ground in the NHL, especially in the second half of the season. With the playoffs looming, games tighten up, which means that many are going to overtime. So “three-point” games become even more prevalent. Also, teams on the outside might have to leapfrog multiple opponents to get in. Still, those clubs rely on simple math to keep hope alive – for example, a four-point deficit can be erased with two wins. So their desperation level rises and rises, until the reality of elimination sets in. That might not happen until the final week or two of the regular season.
What about the teams on the “inside” that hold the final few playoff spots? They have the advantage of a playing with a lead in the standings, but know they can ill-afford any extended losing streaks. They’re also feeling the inevitable push from the desperate clubs just below them. So their level also increases, as they try to put a vice-like hold on their standings position.
All four of the Lightning’s opponents on this trip fall into one of these groups. Here’s a look at where they are today – and what challenges they face.
Toronto: In a scheduling quirk, the Maple Leafs and Lightning, now divisional rivals, have yet to meet so far this season. They’ll play twice before the Olympic Break, then two more times afterwards.
Toronto resides in third place in the Atlantic Division, holding the last guaranteed playoff spot. But it’s been an up-and-down January for the Leafs. They started the month with their shootout win over Detroit in the Winter Classic, but then dropped four straight games in regulation. They lost the first three of those by a combined score of 18-5. Then, beginning with a shootout win on January 12 over New Jersey, the Leafs rattled off six consecutive victories. They’ve yielded 12 goals in their last two games, but still got one point out of those contests, which put them in their current spot, one point ahead of Montreal.
Toronto is in a tenuous position, however. No team in the division has played more games than the Leafs. They’ve still got their Western California trip on the schedule, which is a treacherous swing through Anaheim, LA and San Jose. And they’re only three points up on fifth-place Detroit – that fifth-seed will only qualify for the postseason if it has more points than the Metropolitan Division’s fourth-place club.
Toronto is also looking up the standings – at Boston and Tampa Bay. The Leafs begin a three-game homestand on Tuesday against the Lightning. They’ll be hungry to put more distance between themselves and the clubs beneath them – and eat into the seven-point gap that separates them from the Bolts.
Ottawa: Heading into last Thursday’s game against the Lightning at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Sens had gone 7-1-2 in their previous 10 games. At the start of their streak, the Sens had been in sixth place. Despite banking 16 out of a possible 20 points, they remained in sixth. While the Sens got a point out of Thursday’s shootout loss, they lost their next game, 6-3, on Saturday in Carolina.
The Senators remain within striking distance of the teams ahead of them. Fifth-place Detroit is three points away, fourth-place Montreal is five. But the Sens know the sand in the hourglass is running out. They’ll need another terrific streak if they hope to pull themselves out of sixth place.
Montreal: For most of the season, the Canadiens and Lightning have been neck-in-neck, slightly behind the Boston Bruins for first place in the division. With a January record of 8-4-1, the Bolts have been able to keep pace with Boston and currently trail the Bruins by only two points. Montreal, on the other hand, is in the midst of its worst stretch of the season. The Habs have lost four in a row in regulation – and are just 4-6-1 in January. They’ve fallen eight points behind the Lightning and have surrendered third place to Toronto.
The Canadiens have two games this week before hosting the Lightning on Saturday afternoon. Leading up to and including Saturday, they’ll be frantically trying to right their ship.
Minnesota: The Wild are in fourth place in the Central Division, four points ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes (fifth in Pacific) and five ahead of the Dallas Stars (fifth in Central). They trail third-place Colorado by nine points.
Working against the Wild is the GP number – like Toronto, the Wild have played 54 games, more than any of the teams closest to them. The Wild are on a four-game road trip, having lost the opener in San Jose, and the Lightning will be their first opponent back home when the clubs meet next Tuesday.
What do these numbers mean for the Lightning, who have given themselves a little more breathing room than any of their opponents on this trip? The numbers tell us that they cannot rest on their laurels, especially against desperate opponents. The Bolts need only look at Montreal’s example – a four or five-game skid, in which no points are generated, will potentially erase any point cushion.