The Tampa Bay Lightning have clinched a playoff spot. Doing so represents a big step in the right direction after the injury-filled disappointment of last season. But who they play in the first round remains uncertain.
The Lightning still lead the Atlantic but that lead is tenuous over a surging Boston Bruins team. And because the Lightning could easily finish first or second in the Atlantic and all of the shuffling at the bottom end of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, the Lightning have a reasonable chance of facing any of five different teams in the first round.
To help us keep track of who the Lightning are likely to face in the first round, we’ll use Micah Blake McCurdy’s wonderful First Round Matchups charts from his website HockeyViz. These charts are updated daily and available to his Patreon subscribers. The probabilities of playing each team are derived from many many simulations of the remaining games in the season.
From this chart, we can see that the Lightning have five teams with a meaningful chance of being their first round opponent. I’m choosing to ignore the 2% chance that Pittsburgh could be the first-round matchup for reasons including:
- 2% is a small chance compared to the other teams
- Playing them in the first round would be wildly unfair
- No one likes the Penguins anyway
At the moment, Toronto is the most likely matchup. This might be surprising but the reason it shakes out this way is because if Tampa did come in second in the Atlantic, they will almost certainly play the Leafs who are pretty well locked into third place.
If the Lightning win the Atlantic, which is the most likely scenario according to the simulations, the possibilities for first-round opponents expands by four more teams. The most likely scenarios are currently that the Bolts would face either the Devils or the Panthers. This is obviously dependent on whether the Panthers can be the fourth team from the Atlantic or whether the Metro gets five teams and one of them crosses over to face the top seed.
The next two teams are both crossovers from the Metro. The Blue Jackets and the Flyers could both conceivably end up as the final wild card team and end up facing the Lighnting. With five teams having between a 25% and a 13% chance of facing the Bolts, expect these numbers to move meaningfully every few days for the rest of the season. A close race at the top of the Atlantic between Tampa and Boston combined with the congestion for the last wild card spot could mean the Lightning won’t know their opponent until the final days of the season.
With not many teams playing tonight, here’s a look at what’s next for each of these teams and what you can watch tonight to keep an eye on the Bolts chances:
What to Watch Tonight:
Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues
Implications: The Lightning currently hold a five point lead on Boston in the Atlantic but Boston has two games in hand. If they win both of those games, that would shrink Tampa’s lead to just one point. The Blues are struggling but maybe they can rediscover some of their form from early in the season and help out the Bolts by not giving Boston any points and erasing one of their games in hand.
Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins
Implications: The implications here are minimal and I’m really just posting this to tell you not to watch this game. The idea of rooting for either of these teams is gross.
They’re off tonight and play next on Thursday against the Predators.
New Jersey Devils
They’re off tonight and play next on Friday against the Penguins.
They’re off tonight and play next on Thursday against the Blue Jacket.
Columbus Blue Jackets
They’re off tonight and play next on Thursday against the Panthers.
They’re off tonight and play next on Thursday against the Rangers.