Every couple weeks, we've been updating Tampa Bay Lightning fans on how our current pace compares to last year, when to panic, and when to sit tight. Today, as we turn our calendars to 2012, it's time to start thinking about playoffs (with apologies to Jim Mora). And with that in mind, we have a special pacing post, one that goes beyond last year and looks at every season since the lockout, trying to figure out what we should expect in the next three months.
Our Position and Our Chances
On January 1st, 2012, the Bolts have 37 points in 37 games, a pace that puts them 12th in the Eastern Conference and would yield just 82 points over a full season. Since the lockout, there have been 12 teams that rang in the new year on a point per game pace, with the most recent being the 2010-11 Calgary Flames. While the Flames finished with 94 points, they were just 10th in the Western Conference and became the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs with 94 or more points.
Of those 12, just two (17%) have recovered to make the playoffs, with the 2007-08 Nashville Predators finishing 8th in the Western Conference with 91 points and the 2005-06 San Jose Sharks finishing 5th in the West with 99 points. However, a third, the 2008-09 Florida Panthers, worked their way into a tie for eighth in the East with 93 points, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker, and six (50%) have recovered to net 90 or more points, putting themselves solidly in the mix over the season's last weeks. Only one, the 2007-08 Toronto Maple Leafs, finished worst than 11th in their conference. So while the success rate doesn't look great, the Lightning will as likely as not be in the thick of playoff race as the season winds down.
Tampa Bay currently sits six points out of the final playoff spot, but they have two games in hand on its current occupant and at least one game in hand on the vast majority of the league. Against a point per game pace, the Lightning are currently +0, and the 7th, 8th, and 9th place teams are all +5. Essentially, we just assume overtime losses for teams who have played fewer games to give us numbers that are not skewed by number of games played, thus finding Tampa effectively five points out of a playoff spot.
Using the same method, we can search through past seasons to determine how many teams were four to six points out of a playoff spot in past seasons. Since the lockout, there have been 18 teams who meet this description. Five (28%) have made the playoffs: the 2010-11 Buffalo Sabres, the 2007-08 Nashville Predators, the 2007-08 Washington Capitals, the 2006-07 Tampa Bay Lightning, and the 2005-06 New Jersey Devils. Right now, only the Lightning and Sabres are in this position. Recent history suggests that we have a fairly even chance of seeing one of the two play through the third week of April.
Our Competition and Their Chances
What of the rest of the conference? Let's take care of the top and the bottom first. On January 1st, 2012, three Eastern Conference teams, the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, and the Philadelphia Flyers are between +12 and +15 against the point per game pace. Since the lockout, no team +12 or better on New Year's Day has missed the playoffs. The 2008-09 Canadiens fell all the way into a tie for 8th, but they won a tiebreaker over the feisty Florida Panthers team we saw earlier before being swept by the Bruins in the first round. So go ahead and pencil Boston, New York, and Philadelphia into the playoffs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, three teams sit at -4 or below: the Montreal Canadiens (-4), the New York Islanders (-4), and the Carolina Hurricanes (-8). Since the lockout, no team at -4 or worse on New Year's Day has come back to make the playoffs. So go ahead and write off the Habs, Isles, and Canes.
So in addition to the Lightning and Sabres, there are seven teams fighting for five remaining playoff spots. The Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins sit at +8 and the New Jersey Devils at +6. The Winnipeg ThrasherJets and Washington Capitals sit at +5, the Ottawa Senators at +4, and the Toronto Maple Leafs at +3.
Since the lockout, 13 teams have ushered in a new year at +7 or +8. Eight (62%) have made the playoffs. And in every year in which there have been multiple teams fitting this description, at least one has failed to make the playoffs, most recently last year's St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche. So recent history suggests that we will more likely than not see the Penguins, Panthers, Minnesota Wild, or San Jose Sharks (all currently +8) miss the playoffs, possibly more than one.
Since the lockout, 31 teams have found themselves +3, +4, or +5 when the calendar turned to January. Of these, 20 (65%) have made the playoffs, a higher success rate than the teams with hotter starts (and to explain this, I scream "sample size!"). [I will note that, because I compiled these statistics before yesterday's games finished, they do not cover everyone in the Eastern Conference, with the +6 Devils left out.] However, the numbers suggest that seven teams can be grouped into a similar category with a roughly 65% chance of making the playoffs. So, of the group containing the Penguins, Panthers, Devils, Jets, Capitals, Senators, and Leafs, we will should expect to see 4.5 teams come playoff time. Because, as we said earlier, there are five remaining playoff spots, the Bolts want that number to be four or less, and this again suggests a 50/50 chance of either Tampa Bay or Buffalo reaching up and snagging a place in the postseason.
Your 2012 Rooting Guide
1. The Western Conference is your friend*. Unless you also cheer for a Western Conference team, in which case you have a whole new set of problems. Root for Western Conference teams over Eastern Conference teams (who aren't the Lightning, as should go without saying).
2. The top three are your friends*. While we like or loathe the Bruins, Rangers, and Flyers to various degrees, they can help us in the playoff race. They're going to make it--it's time to accept that. So when they're playing a middle of the pack Eastern Conference team, cheer for the big dogs, if you can stomach it. Every time Boston beats Buffalo or the Rags take down the Devils, the Lightning's chances to make the playoffs increase.
3. The bottom three are your friends*. The Canes, Isles, and Habs are more likely to net the #1 pick in the 2012 draft than to appear in the 2012 playoffs. So lay down your hate** and cheer for them against the middle of the conference.
4. No Bettman points. This one is pretty self-explanatory. We never want to see the Penguins, Panthers, Devils, Capitols, Jets, Senators, Maple Leafs, or Sabres in overtime. Unless it's a last ditch alternative to them winning outright over a team outside that group.
5. While we have general guidelines for how to handle teams in this group, they're not hard and fast. For instance, the Penguins have a goal differential of +21, while the Panthers are -4. If I had to make a guess as to which team falls off in the second half, it'd be Florida. So my personal inclination might be to root for Pittsburgh against other members of the middle group--I just think the Lightning have a better chance of overtaking the others in the group. I may also root against Winnipeg and Washington when playing other members of the middle set, for my own personal reasons. Finally, I will likely root for Buffalo against all seven of the others. Tampa merely has to keep pace with Buffalo. They have to catch the rest (or at least three of the rest). The latter is harder.
*None of these friendships apply when they face off against Tampa head to head.
**This is obviously a guide for pragmatics. If you can't bear to root for Montreal against Florida, you don't have to. But their victory in such games helps the Lightning.
What's It Gonna Take?
The Lightning currently have 37 points in 37 games, or 1.00 points per game. While 90 will get a team in playoff contention and current paces suggest that 92 might do the job, an Eastern Conference team has never reached 94 and missed the playoffs, so that's the goal I'll be working with. To finish with 94 points, Tampa must collect 57 points in the next 45 games, an average of 1.27 per game (and a pace that only the Bruins, Rangers, Flyers, Blackhawks, Canucks, and Red Wings have kept up to date). So basically, the Bolts need to average five points in every four game stretch. Which sounds easier than it is, but is certainly not impossible.
Breaking it down further, Tampa has netted 15 points in 21 road games (.71 points per game, a truly horrendous pace) and 22 points in 16 home games (1.37 per game, which is pretty good). Extrapolated over a season, that comes out to 29 road points and 56 home points, for a total of 85. While this is slightly better than the overall pace of 82 (as one would expect from a team having played more on the road than at home), it still won't deliver a playoff berth.
If the road play remains as bad as it is, the Bolts will need to pick up 1.72 points per game at home for the remainder of the season to make the playoffs. No one does that. Okay, so the Wings do that, but they're 15-2-1 at home. That's what it'll take. And I don't see that happening. If the home record remains static, Tampa needs improve to a 1.15 point per game pace on the road, a pace currently held by Boston, Philadelphia, the New York Rangers, Chicago, Vancouver, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Not easy, but plenty doable. In fact, last year's Bolts, who averaged 1.17 points per game on the road, did it. Of course, were the Bolts to improve in both areas, they could get by with a more modest improvement in each. But the road record, dragged down by a truly horrific road power play, seems the best candidate for improvement.
So that was a lot. But we can break it down into smaller chunks. This week, the Lightning play three road games in Eastern Canada. Four points will represent the kind of pace required to make the playoffs. Three points, while falling short of the requirement, would represent a drastic improvement over the road play of the first half of the season and would not be worrisome. But if the week passes and Tampa Bay nets two or fewer points, we've moved yet another week closer to the end of the season without making progress toward our postseason goal.