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Why bother to win when you can’t lose?

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The unusual state of affairs in the Atlantic is making for can’t-lose or can’t-win scenarios, and it seems to be affecting everyone but the Bruins.

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

This is the Atlantic Division this morning:

Atlantic Division January 19, 2018

Team GP W L OT PTS ROW PTS %
Team GP W L OT PTS ROW PTS %
Tampa Bay 45 31 11 3 65 29 0.722
Boston 44 26 10 8 60 23 0.682
Toronto 47 25 17 5 55 21 0.585
Detroit 44 18 19 7 43 15 0.489
Florida 43 18 19 6 42 16 0.488
Montréal 45 18 21 6 42 16 0.467
Ottawa 43 15 19 9 39 14 0.453
Buffalo 45 11 25 9 31 11 0.344

A perfect step down from 65 points to 60 to 55 and then to oblivion. By points percentage, Florida and Detroit are virtually tied.

When we look at the standings and point spreads, we often say things about how it’s hard to make up points, and that’s true. You usually need help. And that means the team ahead of your team needs to play badly at the same time you play better.

Let’s imagine that. Tampa got whomped last night and did interviews eerily similar to the Leafs’ own scrums about accountability and leadership. However, if Tampa keep on at their points percentage of .722, they’ll have 118 points at the end of the season. But what if they tail off an only play like Boston at .682? Then Tampa would end up with 115 points. That is such a small difference, so it is hard to see how Boston can make up a five-point spread.

Boston can do it, but they need to finish like Tampa has played before now while Tampa finishes worse. If Boston plays at Tampa’s percentage for the rest of the year, they’ll also have, if you round up, 115 points. Boston, by the way, plays their make-up game for the one cancelled due to weather on the day after their season was to end.

Boston equaling Tampa in points is very unlikely. Not impossible, obviously, and things like the injury to Victor Hedman help make it less impossible, but the chance is very, very slim that Boston catches Tampa by the end of the season.

What about the Leafs, though? Boston can and likely will cool off a little. No team streaks forever. If they keep on, they’ll have 112 points. If they tail off now and play out the season at the Leafs’ percentage, they’ll have 104 points. And if the Leafs figure out how to put the pedal down and win like Boston wins? 103 points.

So again, it’s not totally impossible for these teams to flip positions, but it’s really unlikely.

What about Detroit/Florida? Can they catch the Leafs? If they carry on as they are, they’ll finish with 80 points, and that won’t get you a sniff of a wildcard spot. The Leafs are on pace for 96 points, but if they swapped points percentages, the Leafs would have 89 points, and Detroit/Florida would have 87. So given how unlikely even that is to happen, the Leafs are in a very secure spot.

The most likely outcome, by far, for the Atlantic is that it finishes exactly as it is now: three teams in the playoffs in the order they’re in now. If you look at probabilities that take into account team strengths, you’ll see that even more clearly. Toronto has an 80% chance right now of making the playoffs according to more than one probability model. Boston and Tampa are as close to locks as you can have in January.

I don’t think hockey players are any more or less likely to be good at math or to understand how probabilities work than you or I, but they can tell by experience that those points gaps are too big to make up without some sort of very rare and catastrophic occurrence befalling a team. I think both the Lightning and the Leafs players know they are where they’ll likely finish.

No one seems to have told Boston that they can’t catch that speeding car they’re chasing, and that’s fine, let them work themselves to the breaking point trying.

It’s the Leafs that have to ask themselves what they’re in it for with 35 games yet to play.

Frederik Andersen thinks the Leafs aren’t putting in a full effort, and that they need to figure out if they want to play meaningful hockey later.

In other words, you can’t sit on 2-0 and be happy with it, as Andersen says, but you also can’t respond to two quick goals against, like this:

When Frederik Gauthier and Matt Martin are outplaying you, you aren’t playing. And while the fourth line last night had a good time because their competition was weaker, two of the three are not very good NHL players, but they sure played all their minutes.

Shots on Goal, Individual Corsi For, and Scoring Chances

Player TOI SOG iCF iSCF iHDCF
Player TOI SOG iCF iSCF iHDCF
James van Riemsdyk 13:21 3 6 5 1
Jake Gardiner 22:46 2 5 1 0
Auston Matthews 15:22 2 4 2 1
Leo Komarov 14:10 3 4 4 1
Connor Brown 10:43 2 3 3 2
Connor Carrick 17:27 0 3 0 0
Matt Martin 7:19 1 3 1 1
Nazem Kadri 14:10 2 3 2 0
Patrick Marleau 13:28 3 3 3 2
Tyler Bozak 13:55 3 3 2 1
Zach Hyman 17:16 2 3 2 0
Frederik Gauthier 9:22 2 2 2 1
Morgan Rielly 16:13 0 2 0 0
Roman Polak 16:19 1 2 0 0
Ron Hainsey 17:45 0 2 0 0
Mitchell Marner 14:22 0 1 0 0
Travis Dermott 12:22 0 0 0 0
William Nylander 10:58 0 0 0 0

You don’t ever want to be down with the defencemen on a list sorted by individual Corsi For. You don’t want to be below the fourth line, who played less than ten minutes. You don’t want to be below the king of all pass-first players, Tyler Bozak.

For what seems like the eleventy billionth time, Leo Komarov is shooting more than anyone else on his line.

Connor Carrick and Jake Gardiner, who played behind the Bozak and Kadri line most of the game, the two lines who just rolled the Flyers in Corsi For percentage, shot the puck a lot, and they did that because the offensive play was ringing around the outside. It seems the pass back to the point was all any forward, other than Komarov, thought to do.

The Leafs used to, as in for the first 25 games, drench the goalmouth and slot with shots. They never shot from the point, and even the top of the circles was too far away for them. They were in the goalie’s face, and they were scoring goals. And now they pass around the perimeter, which is understandable against the Blues, but not at all okay when you’re rolling over the Flyers.

So what should the Leafs do with their no-lose scenario for 35 games?

Partly, they’re doing it. As much as I grind my teeth over Gauthier in the lineup, why not try him out and find his level? And this is absolutely the right time to play Travis Dermott and Andreas Borgman more minutes. If the next back-to-back can feature Garret Sparks or Calvin Pickard, that’s a good play too. Kasperi Kapanen needs to be in the lineup, but that means either ending the Gauthier experiment or doing something about Nikita Soshnikov or Josh Leivo, which is more difficult.

All that is great, but you can’t go too far and plunge the team into chaos and tank by accident. On the other hand, fussing over overtime or power plays seems a bit fruitless as well, considering the Leafs are preparing for a playoff round where there is no three-on-three and few power play opportunities.

But that also means playing for a tie is pointless. That horrible third period performance gets you beat in the playoffs. It’s not how many all-situations minutes Komarov played in the first period when Zach Hyman took a penalty, it’s not your shooting percentage, it’s not your third-pairing defender, it’s not who played less when Connor Brown got some more minutes. None of that kicks you to the curb in the post-season. It’s playing like the entire team did in the third period. It’s playing like most of the team has been for weeks.

Maybe the Leafs should take a lesson from Boston. Play like you are chasing a pot of gold and the hell hounds are on your heels. Make a habit of it. The alternative is a habit of losing.