The Lightning could have counted every single game post-trade deadline as a must-win contest in their chase for a post-season berth, but there’s no single outing that will do as much to determine the fate of Tampa Bay’s season quite like Tuesday’s game against the Boston Bruins.
You see, despite the fact only the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues have posted better records over the past month-plus, the Lightning’s charge up the standings has only put them in position to sneak into a playoff spot. It hasn’t guaranteed them anything. And heading into Tuesday’s game in Boston, Tampa Bay, who will again be without the services of Steven Stamkos, will desperately need two points if they’re going to keep their slim — and we’re talking 14-percent-slim — chance of a fourth-straight post-season appearance alive.
Matter of fact, the tilt again the Bruins will have to be the start of perfection for the Lightning if they wish to keep their playoff hopes in tact.
As it stands, Tampa Bay sits four points back of Boston for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, but with a win on Tuesday, the Lightning will be within two points of the Bruins while maintaining a single game in hand. It can’t be overlooked how important that game in hand is right now, either. It gives the Lightning one extra outing to make up two points, and given the Bruins’ schedule, one more crack at two points could be all Tampa Bay needs for a last-minute takeover of the final playoff spot.
After tonight, Boston will square off against two tough opponents in the Ottawa Senators — more on them in a second — and the Washington Capitals. The Bruins haven’t beaten either team this season. The Lightning, on the other hand, will meet the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres. It’s not an easy schedule, but Tampa Bay has a combined 5-2-2 record against those three opponents.
However, when it comes to Tuesday’s all-important matchup, it could be vital that Tampa Bay not only wins the game, but does so in regulation. If the Lightning pull off the victory in overtime or a shootout, that will help them close the gap on the Bruins, but Boston will still escape with a single point. That would leave Tampa Bay needing at least three points out of their final three games to match Boston’s point total. That’s assuming the Bruins fail to pick up a single point in their final two outings, too. A regulation victory, though, would see the Lightning make up ground and sit three points back of not just catching the Bruins, but surpassing them. And the only way Tampa Bay can finish ahead of Boston in the first place is by leapfrogging the Bruins’ point total thanks to the NHL’s tie-breaking rules.
The primary statistic for breaking a deadlock in the standings is regulation and overtime wins, known as ROW. With four games remaining, the Lightning have 35 ROW, while the Bruins have won 41 of their 43 games without entering the shootout. With four games remaining in Tampa Bay’s season, it’s impossible for the Lightning to match the Bruins’ ROW total, so ensuring that Boston doesn’t take any points at all gives Tampa Bay all the more chance of surpassing the Bruins for the final wild-card spot.
A regulation victory also serves a purpose beyond chasing down Boston. While it’s undoubtedly the tougher climb, the Lightning could potentially catch the Senators, who sit in the third spot in the Atlantic Division. Heading into Tuesday, both teams have played 78 games with Ottawa holding a four-point edge in the standings — 92 points to the Lightning’s 88. However, Ottawa’s ROW lead is only one, with the Senators having won 36 of their 41 games outside of the shootout. A Lightning victory in regulation or overtime against the Bruins paired with the Senators falling to the Detroit Red Wings in any fashion would see Ottawa and Tampa Bay even in ROW.
But even if that is the case and seemingly everything falls into place, the math still proves tricky for the Lightning.
Consider this: if Tampa Bay wins their four remaining games, they would max out at 96 points. Ottawa, meanwhile, would need only five of a possible eight points down the stretch to eliminate the Lightning from post-season contention. Boston winning their final two games of the campaign would likewise eliminate Tampa Bay. And the harsh reality for the Lightning is that one way or another, one of Boston or Ottawa is assured to take home two points before the season is through. The Senators face the Bruins Thursday, and be it in regulation, overtime or a shootout, one of the two will emerge victorious and take the two points that go along with the win. That contest guarantees either the Senators or Bruins will finish with 94 points.
Mathematical possibilities are still alive for Tampa Bay at that point, but everything has to start with a win tonight. The clearest path to the post-season is by picking up every possible point as the season winds down with hope that Ottawa and Boston slide at just the right time. Unfortunately for the Lightning, though, their own perfection down the stretch still might not be enough to get into the post-season.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.