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Can the Leafs win the line brawl for playoff spots in the Atlantic?

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The Bruins can’t hold down all three spots, so two teams will win out in the end.

NHL: DEC 28 Canadiens at Lightning Photo by Tim Larson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Atlantic Division belongs to the Boston Bruins, and even if when they regress in shooting, they will still own the division. They’ve got too many points in the bank already to blow this, and they’re only a little meh at five-on-five. Oh, and they have two goalies at the top of the goalie charts, so they’d need a plague to fall out of a playoff spot. Their biggest problem now is making sure they don’t get bored.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Four Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

At the other end of the division is the Detroit Red Wings, who are legitimately the worst team in the NHL. They are so bad, and are underperforming in all ways to such an epic degree, that the Ottawa Senators would need to play with no goalie the rest of the season to tank below them.

In between is six teams with six points separating them, and yes, I’m including the Ottawa Senators. They’re an unlikely choice, but not an impossible one to rise above the crowd.

This is the standings as of December 6 before that day’s games were played:

Atlantic Division as of December 6

Atlantic GP W L OT PTS Points % RW RW % ROW GF GA DIFF
Atlantic GP W L OT PTS Points % RW RW % ROW GF GA DIFF
1 Boston 29 20 3 6 46 0.7931 18 0.621 20 104 69 35
2 Florida 27 13 9 5 31 0.5741 8 0.296 10 96 97 -1
3 Buffalo 29 13 11 5 31 0.5345 10 0.345 12 88 87 1
4 Montréal 29 12 11 6 30 0.5172 9 0.310 10 95 101 -6
5 Toronto 30 13 13 4 30 0.5000 9 0.300 12 95 101 -6
6 Tampa Bay 26 13 10 3 29 0.5577 10 0.385 12 95 86 9
7 Ottawa 29 12 16 1 25 0.4310 10 0.345 12 76 91 -15
8 Detroit 30 7 20 3 17 0.2833 6 0.200 7 63 119 -56

I’m ignoring the wild card totally, because at the moment, the New York Rangers (who are terrible with good goalies) have 31 points, and they’re in sixth place in the Metro. Barring a lot of change, which is possible to be sure, both wild card spots will go to Metro teams as the Atlantic tears itself to pieces. The goal here is to be one of the two biggest pieces left.

Lacking any real certainty on how many points will be enough to make the playoffs, I’m going with the old standby of 98. It’s not just six points in five games, it’s also the cutoff for the Atlantic in HockeyViz’s latest prediction, so good enough.

For our six contestants on Battle of the Atlantic (this time with no submarines), this is the points pace they’d need to hit 98 points on the last day:

Points pace to get to 98 points

Atlantic GP PTS Points Pace so far Points pace required to get to 98 points
Atlantic GP PTS Points Pace so far Points pace required to get to 98 points
1 Boston 29 46 1.586 0.981
2 Florida 27 31 1.148 1.218
3 Buffalo 29 31 1.069 1.264
4 Montréal 29 30 1.034 1.283
5 Toronto 30 30 1.000 1.308
6 Tampa Bay 26 29 1.115 1.232
7 Ottawa 29 25 0.862 1.377
8 Detroit 30 17 0.567 1.558

Just in case it wasn’t obvious yet, the Leafs are actually behind the Lightning because the Bolts went to Sweden and still have four games in hand.

This illustrates handily that the Bruins can basically play even shittier than the Leafs have, to the point they can almost hit Senators levels of bad, and still make the playoffs.

Florida has the best chance on paper of the rest of the bunch. They’re a legitimately average team. They have had some shooting luck, but that’s been balanced by hideously bad goaltending from the notorious Sergei Bobrovsky. If he pulls it together, and I think we can all remember the last time he did that, the Panthers are in.

Tampa Bay is next most likely to get in there and grab a spot. They’ve got more games to do it with, and they are a legitimately excellent team. They, like Florida, have to just be good to finish in a playoff spot, not great. And a look at their goal differential shows that they’ve been a bit unlucky in the way the goals have shaken out, and they don’t even have to improve to get a better points pace in the future.

Montréal have the third best chance, even if the points numbers don’t agree. I’d love to tell you they’re horrible, but they aren’t. They have an extremely strong team at five-on-five, so strong, that their less than great power play won’t hold them back. They have one very expensive problem, and that’s Carey Price. If he can just get to good enough, they will rocket up the standings. If they don’t, they’ll be deep in the trenches with the rest of us fighting it out until the last day. Guess who they play on the last day?

Next up if Buffalo, not because they’re all that good, but because they’ve banked points. The Sabres are actually bad overall. Their goaltenders either drag wins out of the opponents or they don’t. Their power play is bad, their shooting is average, and they’re playing a Trotz-lite style of low-event hockey that actively nerfs some of their best offensive players. The thing is that low-event, ride the goalie schemes can actually work. Up to a point. They only need to play well, not great, to make it.

Ottawa would need a shooting spree like that had the last time they made the playoffs, and they’d need vintage Craig Anderson too. It’s really unlikely, but not yet impossible.

And that leaves the Leafs.

They’re in between Buffalo and oblivion. They are, as of now, a mediocre team at five-on-five, where their very good Corsi % and attendant zone time is totally eroded by poor quality at both ends of the ice. Their pace of play has increased, but they’ve actually gotten worse at defensively quality at at least the same pace as they’ve improved the offence. They’re maximum mediocre over their last 10 games.

Five-on-five Corsi vs Expected Goals from Moneypuck

While Boston doesn’t show up great (to say the least) at five-on-five, they have value added from their goaltending and special teams as well as that very exciting shooting bender. The Leafs have nothing in the optional extras category in their favour other than their starting goalie.

The Leafs power play is not a difference maker, the penalty kill is sometimes actively terrible, and the PK goaltending even from Andersen is not pretty. He was one of the worst starters on the PK last year, too. There’s been no shooting luck, and it’s now at the point where you can legitimately question if the shooting percentage is as reflective of who is shooting and from where as it is ordinary variance. I’d list their Expected Shooting % and compare it to career norms, but this article is depressing enough.

The Leafs need to actively improve at five-on-five at both ends of the ice and in special teams to get the league-leading points pace they need just to make it. They have to be a great team, not just a good one. And they have to keep it up for 50 games.

And that’s the size of it. The Leafs could get some help if the Habs and the Panthers implode and the Sabres get frustrated playing boring hockey and revolt. I don’t see Tampa lending their big brother a hand. It’s us vs everyone right now, and it’s the toughest fight this team has had since the last time they tried to hold a lead through the third period.