What We Learned: Three teams vying for league's last playoff spot

TORONTO, ON – MARCH 18: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on March 18, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blackhawks defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Most of the playoff teams in the league seem pretty much set. In a lot of cases it’s just a matter of seeding over these last 10 to 12 games.

In the West, the gap between the No. 8 team (currently Nashville) and No. 9 (currently LA) is six points. With this little road left, that seems insurmountable.

And in the East, seven of the eight playoff spots are set as well. The Rangers occupy the first Wild Card spot and enjoy a 14-point gap between themselves and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who hold the last spot. And that final spot is now the sight of some significant drama.

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With an OT loss to a Chicago team that once again can’t lose, the Leafs pulled into that No. 8 seed on Saturday night, up one point on the New York Islanders and two on the Tampa Bay Lightning with a game in hand. But the same night, Islanders got a point out of Columbus, and Tampa lost to Washington, as teams tend to do.

This is likely to be one of the only things in the league worth watching down the final stretch of the season.

Right now the Leafs have the best chance to win that final spot just because they’re in the lead right now and have an extra game to play, but they also play a slightly tougher schedule than the other two; their remaining opponents are collectively above .500; Tampa’s and New York’s are both below that number.

In terms of points percentage, the team playing the best of these three is Tampa, with .650 points percentage, versus .550 for Toronto and .500 for New York. There’s not a lot separating them, obviously, but when you combine that with the strength of schedule above them, you can perhaps see where Tampa might be able to make up its two-point deficit.

Of course, record doesn’t always take into account quality of play, and to that end you have to say Tampa and Toronto are in more or less a dead heat, while the Islanders are dropping off a bit of late. I know we’re supposed to be in awe of the job Doug Weight has done since taking over — winning 36 of an available 58 points (.621) — but in terms of actual quality of play I have to say he’s never really done much to push this team above the level seen under Jack Capuano.

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Now, that’s not necessarily on him, because that roster just isn’t great, and it’s nice to get results for sure, regardless of how you do it. But right now even with the weaker strength of schedule and relatively easy travel, the overall form of how they’ve played for the last 10 games it’s pretty easy to be discouraged about their chances. That’s especially true because the Islanders aren’t getting saves from their goaltenders (.883 in all situations in the past 10 games) while the Leafs (.923) and Bolts (.924) definitely are.

You’d hate to immediately reduce this to a two-horse race out of hand, especially given that they do indeed have an extra point on Tampa, but there’s not a lot of encouraging information about where the Islanders are headed here. Again, this boils down to an issue of roster construction, and the fact that Weight seems to have gotten them anywhere close to the playoffs after what Jack Capuano did in the first 42 games is a nice little story. But he didn’t exactly sit down to a good hand here, and sometimes that’s how it goes.

With both Toronto and Tampa looking like the most likely final opponents for that last playoff spot, and the Leafs enjoying that two-point advantage, it’s kind of a amazing these divisional opponents seem to have so little else separating them in the past two weeks or so.

Toronto probably remains the better team for the balance of the season but that’s discounting the fact that they’ve only recently recovered from a swoon they suffered from December to early February or so, but Tampa was playing even better for a recent stretch.

But here’s the amazing thing: Over the past 15 games they’ve both played, they’re effectively the same team in most respects.

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Tampa has a few meager advantages here but its team shooting percentage is low enough to be worrying right now. It’s not for lack of a surfeit of scoring chances — they’re getting more than their opponents by a considerable — but they’re doing the Julien-style thing where they don’t actually generate a lot, but they just give up far fewer (third-fewest per 60 in the league since Feb. 15, in fact). They also put themselves at a significant disadvantage when it comes to committing too many penalties. Tampa’s currently fourth-best at limiting expected goals, which tells you how well they’re keeping opponents away from their net.

As for the Leafs, well, they remain a chance-generation factory (more than 11 per 60, with only three teams league-wide ahead of them). But no surprise here, they can’t exactly lock down their own zone. It’s a good thing their goaltending situation sorted itself out and is delivering above-average results, because the team in front of Freddie Andersen is giving up almost as many scoring chances per 60 minutes these days as Buffalo.

There’s plenty of reason to think both these teams can close it out and take that last playoff spot. The Leafs have the league’s best coach, high-end talent up front, and good goaltending. Tampa has a bit of a disadvantage behind the bench but not much of one, and elite talent at literally every position.

One gets the feeling this will be a nail-biter, especially because neither team is currently playing as well as it probably could be. It would be awesome for the league if it literally came down to April 9, when Tampa hosts Buffalo to close out the season at 5 p.m. and the Leafs host Columbus an hour later.

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The real dream, of course, is that this all boils down to both teams’ 80th game of the season, because it’s head-to-head. On April 6, Tampa will visit Toronto as part of a three-game road trip. But regardless, there’s going to be plenty to root for down the stretch, especially for whichever team wins the No. 1 seed in the East.

Who would you rather play in the playoffs: Toronto or Tampa? Not as easy a question to answer as you’d have thought at the beginning of the season, is it?

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: This is getting a little closer than I would have thought, too. Four points to make up on the Sharks with one extra game played seems like a tall feat, though.

Arizona Coyotes: I love when eliminated teams are just content to “play spoiler.” They’re anti-Kings tanking.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins are probably going to add Charlie McAvoy for the playoffs after next weekend (unless BU wins two games, which is within the realm of possibility). Maybe Anders Bjork, too. I don’t see Notre Dame having a real chance to advance to the Frozen Four.

Buffalo Sabres: Starting to hear more and more noise about Bylsma being canned. I don’t think this season is fault. Look at that defense. It’s horrible.

Calgary Flames: Curtis Lazar still hasn’t played a game for the club since they traded for him at the deadline. Tough to change your lineup when you’ve won 10 of 11, though.

Carolina Hurricanes: Guys this isn’t how you’re supposed to tank!

Chicago: Can you imagine wanting to hear Patrick Kane’s opinion on the USA Hockey women’s team’s pay issue? Why not go to the zoo and ask a jackal? You’ll probably get a more substantive answer.

Colorado Avalanche: Love that Colorado now has to reassure itself that, yeah, their prospects don’t want to all Vesey their way out of Denver at the first opportunity.

Columbus Blue Jackets: If there’s one team you want to blow a lead against, it’s for sure the Islanders. You know you’re gonna get a goal back at some point.

Dallas Stars: It’s almost like this was a foreseeable problem.

Detroit Red Wings: Haha imagine getting pumped because a team steamrolled the Avs? Man, what a season in Detroit.

Edmonton Oilers: My new theory is that Cam Talbot is going to be bad next year because he’s going to have played 197 games this season.

Florida Panthers: I think you can safely say the Panthers’ season is over, sorry.

Los Angeles Kings: Yes. Thanks for asking.

Minnesota Wild: You’ll never guess Devan Dubnyk’s save percentage starting with his 50th appearance of the year on March 5: it’s .898. No wonder they’re losing.

Montreal Canadiens: Alex Radulov is still having very good season. I’m very happy about that. Sorry to The Haters out there.

Nashville Predators: Win on the road against the caps, then two nights later lose on the road against the Hurricanes. Weird season, man.

New Jersey Devils: The Devils snapped a 10-game losing streak by annihilating the Flyers. Hilarious.

New York Islanders: When they end up missing the playoffs, we’ll all look back and say losing this game is probably what tanked the Islanders’ season.

New York Rangers: The Rangers are bad at home and good on the road. It’s because they try harder on the road. I bet that’s why.

Ottawa Senators: Looks like the Sens probably won’t sign Colin White to help them for the stretch run here. They’re letting Burrows and Stalberg squeeze him out of a spring roster spot.

Philadelphia Flyers: Important to stay hydrated, folks.

Pittsburgh Penguins: I hate to see this!

San Jose Sharks: Jannik Hansen being out any longer period of time than a few games would probably not be ideal.

St. Louis Blues: Turns out, folks, that rich people have nice houses.

Tampa Bay Lightning: You really gotta hope that Stamkos is able to stay healthy at some point. What a shame we’re robbed of his talent so often.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews! Big scoring slump! Seven games without a point! Still has 32 goals and 56 points despite playing a whole lot of time with Zach Hyman for some reason.

Vancouver Canucks: I will never stop doing this.

Vegas Golden Knights: I am getting one of these plates and it will say “BLKKNTS.”

Washington Capitals: Man imagine if Barry Trotz called EVERY game a “must-win?” They’d never lose folks.

Winnipeg Jets: An alternative headline: Shawn Matthias out two weeks.

Play of the Weekend

Might want to put someone on that McDavid guy. Baertschi gets caught puck-watching and gives him eight feet down the wing. Recipe for disaster.

Gold Star Award

My nice sons have done it again.


Minus of the Weekend

TAMPA, FL – MARCH 18: T.J. Oshie #77 of the Washington Capitals celebrates a goal against goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period at Amalie Arena on March 18, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

Defense optional in this weekend’s Washington/Tampa game: Seven goals allowed on just 63 shots. Uncharacteristic for both teams, to be honest.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Kobe Armstrong” is now in the part of the season where we’re getting Vegas-related trade proposals. Thank u Kobe Armstrong.

To Las Vegas:  Tomas Plekanec, 2nd 2017, guarantee that Vegas selects Emelin in the expansion draft

To Montreal:  6th/7th round pick

Signoff

I don’t recall saying good luck.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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