With last night’s win over the Flyers, the Lightning are again within one point of the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference, and NHL overall. The race between these two teams is likely to determine who has home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Boston will have a chance to extend that lead over the first half of this week as they play the Rangers today and the Oilers on Tuesday. They’ll be heavy favorites in both games. Meanwhile, the Lightning will head on the road for two tough games out west against the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights. Just keeping pace or only dropping a point to the Bruins over these next couple games would be a big accomplishment for the Lightning.
Depending on what happens over the next couple weeks, these two teams could be in a position to settle this themselves at the beginning of March. The Bruins will visit Tampa on March 3rd and then the Lightning will head to Boston on March 7th. Those will be the last two head-to-head meetings for the season and will be important games in deciding which team secures the best positioning for the playoffs.
As of today, the Bruins still hold a slight edge but at less than a half a point, that puts the division at basically a toss up. If we get a second opinion from Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic, he has an identical gap between the teams but the direction is reversed. He’s projecting the Lightning for 114.9 points and the Bruins 114.5. While his projections haven’t updated since Friday, I doubt they would be very different this morning given neither team has lost since then. Dom also provides probabilities on division winners and the 0.4 point gap puts the Lightning at 52% to win, the Bruins at 47%, and everyone else at small fractional percentages. No matter the source, the top of the division is as close as it looks in the standings.
Going back to HockeyViz, Micah provides probabilities on the Presidents’ Trophy. We can already tell from the division projections that the Bruins will be a slight favorite but this graph shows the exact numbers.
At this point, Boston and Tampa are by far the two favorites with more than three times the chance of any other team. As of this morning the chances one of the two teams gets home ice throughout the playoffs is 76%. Unless one of them struggles down the stretch, the race for the top of the Atlantic Division will be the difference between home ice for the whole playoffs and possibly playing on the road in the second round.
In terms of likely first round opponents, the Lightning still have the best chance of facing the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The reason for this is that in the event the Lightning finish second in the division, the Leafs are the most likely opponent by quite a bit according to Micah’s model. The projection also probably includes some scenarios where the Lightning finish first and the Maple Leafs finish in the second wild card position.
But if the Lightning do finish first, the more likely outcome is that they face the fifth place team from the Metropolitan Division. The issue with projecting that is that four teams are currently clustered within three points of each other from third place to sixth place in the division. The team at the bottom of that group, the Carolina Hurricanes, have two games in hand meaning that bunch are even closer than they look based on just standings points.
With 23 games to go in the season, the Lightning and Bruins are locked into a race for the division, conference, and league. If both teams manage to win their first round playoff series, they would meet in the second round. And in that case, whoever wins this race over the rest of the season will be the one with home ice. Usually, being the second best team in the NHL is good enough to secure home ice for the second round. But that’s likely to not be the case this season. And that could result in the Presidents’ trophy holding a little more weight than it typically does as both teams might be willing to push a little harder to avoid having to go on the road so early in a potential playoff run.