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Halfway into the NHL season, the most likely playoff matchup is Lightning versus Leafs

I know it’s early but hear me out.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

If it seems early to start speculating about playoff matchups, that’s because it is. The season is only half over but the way things have gone in the Atlantic Division combined with the NHL’s point system have combined to set up a second half where the Lightning and Leafs have a 29% chance of facing each other in the first round.

Considering that both teams still have a greater than 10% chance of missing the playoffs altogether, that 29% represents a sizable share of their potential first round opponents. And among all NHL teams, those are the highest odds for any individual matchup. For context, the second most likely is the Avalanche and Stars at 23%.

The reason the Leafs and Lightning have such a high probability starts with the Boston Bruins. They’ve pulled out so far ahead in the Atlantic that they’re the clear favorites. Even with their less than stellar results lately, they still have a six point lead on the Leafs and a seven point lead on the Lightning. The Bolts do have two games in hand but that’s not enough to make them favored to climb beyond second place in the division.

If we look below the Lightning and Leafs, we see a mishmash of teams that don’t look particularly threatening. However you evaluate teams, Tampa and Toronto are pretty clearly better than the bottom five teams in the division.

Add all that together and it’s a recipe for a first round series between the Lightning and the Leafs. It seems almost certain that Boston, Toronto, and Tampa will be the top three teams from the Atlantic. And probably the only playoff teams with the Metro being the much better Eastern Conference division so far. So unless the Leafs or Lightning can overtake the Bruins in the second half of the season, get ready for an all blue and white first round.

Lightning Org News

The Lightning defeated the Carolina Hurricanes last night to move within a point of the Leafs for second place in the division with two games in hand. The win extended the win streak to seven in a row. Hardev has the recap. The Bolts have an off day today but will return to action on Tuesday back at home against the Canucks.

The team announced that Ryan McDonagh has an upped body injury. Head coach Jon Cooper did not have an update on his status after the game.

Prospect Nolan Foote followed in his brother Cal’s foot(e)steps by winning a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. Look for Lauren’s in depth recap later this morning.

The Crunch were off last night but the Solar Bears were in action in the ECHL and lost 7-3 to the Brampton Beast. Tracey will have the full Orlando update later today.

Hockey News

The Panthers beat the Penguins 4-1 to stay within three points of the Lightning for third place in the division but the Lightning still have a game in hand on them. The only other Atlantic team to play was the Red Wings who lost to Chicago.

The Caps beat the sharks after allowing an empty net goal. Yes, you read that right. They allowed an empty net goal, which put them down by two. They then proceeded to score two goals to tie the game before the end of regulation and the game winner in overtime. The Sharks have found lots of ways to lose games this season but that’s a particularly impressive one.