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The Optimist vs. Pessimist's Take On: Making the Playoffs

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Three games to go with one against 9th place Tampa tonight. Clear eyes; full heart; for the love of god, please don't lose.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

NARRATOR: At the time of this dialogue, the Leafs sit in a playoff spot with 93 points, five ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders. A win against the Lightning tonight would clinch a playoff spot, while a loss would create a nervous final weekend of the regular season. Overall, the Lightning and Islanders need perfection to qualify, while the Leafs need absolute imperfection; most mathematical sites set their current odds of clinching a playoff berth at 98%.

OPTIMIST: 98%! Well, that's pretty decent! I'd take a 98% chance of just about anything. Imagine if you bought a lottery ticket knowing you'd be 98% likely to win something; you'd buy that ticket.

PESSIMIST: That's a 2% chance of missing the postseason, and given that the Leafs have had several collapses that defy all forms of mathematical probability, it may as well be 200%! We're screwed.

OPTIMIST: Granted, 98% isn't 100%; things could still go very wrong. What 98% means, however, is that the odds are definitively against that. What that number means is that of the various permutations and combinations of outcomes in the remaining games in the season, the Leafs end up clinching a playoff berth 98% of the time. For every 50 scenarios you could plot out in your mind, the Leafs would make the postseason in 49 of them. That's a far better position than Tampa, who has a 2% chance; they need perfection and help along the way.

PESSIMIST: You know who needed help along the way? The Boston Bruins, when they had a 4-1 deficit with 10 minutes to play! Or the teams trailing the Leafs that caught up after the 18-wheelers in 2012 and 2014! 2% is nothing! It's extremely likely the Leafs blow this, particularly if they come out flat against the Lightning tomorrow.

OPTIMIST: I understand the tenseness; I do. Nothing is an absolute certainty until the standings have an "x" affixed next to the Leafs' name. But, past failures are not indicative of the present team or its future performance. Look at the Leafs roster between 2012 and 2014 compared to now; few of the names there remain with the team today. More importantly, it's conventional logic that, by the numbers, all of those teams were paper tigers with abysmal possession numbers being upheld by timely shooting and decent goaltending. This team isn't that; it's got scoring and goaltending, but it doesn't spend 95% of the game pinned in its own zone, either.

PESSIMIST: Well, what about last night? The Leafs looked terrible! Couldn't buy a goal until they finally got a PPG in garbage time! That doesn't bode well for the remaining stretch of games!

OPTIMIST: On the second half of a back-to-back. With their backup in net. Against a rested Washington Capitals team that will surely win the President's Trophy and will be a favourite to win the Cup. It's not like they laid an egg to the Sabres or Panthers again. We should have reasonably expected them to have no chance to win that game.

PESSIMIST: A good team from the Metro? Oh good, Leafs only play....[sarcastically counting on fingers]....TWO more of those in their remaining three games!

OPTIMIST: Sure, but this is the time of year where performance can be dictated by having something to play for.  The Caps still had winning the division within their sights. The Pens are limping through injuries to their blueline and Evgeni Malkin, and need only a win over the lowly New Jersey Devils to all but secure home ice against the Blue Jackets. Both teams should be locked into that matchup by the weekend, and both teams will be looking ahead to one another and playing into May. These games will have no meaning to these teams. I would expect either team to rest players, or at least play at about 60-70% effort. If the Leafs come out hard, there's no reason to believe they can't win either, or both, games.

PESSIMIST: You know who else has nothing to play for? Montreal! They've won the division and their first round matchup is set! If Tampa beats us, then they'll probably beat Montreal too, and then all that's left is lowly Buffalo! The Lightning are a lock for 94 points if they beat us, while we get 93! We're doomed!

OPTIMIST: You have to look at it the same way. If Pittsburgh and Columbus are good enough teams that we should be very worried about them despite having nothing left to play for, would the same not ring true with Montreal? Keep in mind, even with a loss to Tampa, we'd only need to do so much as win one of those games; Tampa cannot lose another game for the rest of the season. Finally, Tampa will be playing that game on a back-to-back, and given their mini-rivalry that came from playoff matchups in 2014 and 2015, I'd have to imagine Montreal would get some glee in being the team to eliminate the Lightning if it were to come to that.

PESSIMIST: Well, what about the Islanders?

OPTIMIST: What about them? They too have to win out, and their schedule only seems easy on its face. Carolina may be eliminated, but they've been playing decent hockey as of late. Ottawa is in the same dogfight we are. They also have no room for error, and given their play of late, they do make errors.

PESSIMIST: But, I can see Tampa beating us and then winning out while we lose all three games because-

OPTIMIST: Because they're the Leafs? I agree; this team has made the unthinkable happen in the past. But, this is a different team. If the Leafs seemed prone to choke out of a playoff spot, they wouldn't have gone on a 11-3-1 tear over the past month. The Leafs haven't made it to this point by idling down the stretch and hoping for outside help; they've taken matters into their own hands. If anything, they're here despite the out-of-town scoreboard, not because of it.

PESSIMIST: Yeah, an 11-3-1 tear in which their PDO has been high and they've been routinely outshot! I can math too, smart guy!

OPTIMIST: Sure, their shooting percentage and goaltending has been a bit better than normal, but the odds of regression or of these stats even mattering dwindles with each passing game. Three games is a small enough sample that the underlying numbers will mean little down this stretch. What's more, their possession game is fine; the beating they take on the shot clock is because they've spent so much time leading and are prone to score effects. If you crunch the numbers, their score-adjusted CF% comes to an even 50%. That's hardly reminiscent of the Carlyle-era Leafs. In any event, their 5v5 metrics don't account for special teams, which is a strength of the Leafs on both sides of the puck.

PESSIMIST: [breathes heavily into paper bag]

OPTIMIST: okay, man?

PESSIMIST: [holds breath]

OPTIMIST: ......

PESSIMIST: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY DIDN'T THE BLACKHAWKS JUST CLOSE OUT THAT STUPID 4-1 GAME IN TAMPA THEN WE WOULDN'T BE IN THIS STUPID MESS HOLY HELL [EDITOR'S NOTE: the remainder of this portion was a series of intelligible, but largely vulgar-sounding, words].

OPTIMIST: It's painful, I know; no one said that clinching a playoff spot was easy. They need one win to make it, and that's always going to feel like the hardest win. It's like the fourth win of a playoff series; it's the most important, so in our minds, it's the most difficult. Maybe the Leafs make it in; maybe they don't. The odds favour the former scenario. The Leafs control their own destiny, so it's really up to them to punch their ticket; it's a better position to be in than Tampa's, even if it doesn't feel that way.


OPTIMIST: I know; but they have three kicks at the can to win a single game, all of which are on home ice. The Leafs have a 20-11-7 record at the ACC; that's a .618 points percentage. They have beaten all of these teams this season, so there is no reason to believe they can't do it again. What's more, they've been a strong bounce back team; in games immediately following a loss 3+ goals (excluding empty netters), the Leafs are 7-2-1.


OPTIMIST: Just win today.

PESSIMIST: What if they don't?

OPTIMIST: [hyperventilating into paper bag] I'm sorry; what was the question?