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The Leafs are in a playoff spot: How secure is it?

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Just 13 games ago, this moment seemed unlikely. Now that we’re here, how thick is the ice under our feet?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The Leafs are in a playoff spot, so all we need to do is believe they will stay on their winning streak forever, and games in hand are for haters, right, so why bother looking at the standings?

You may have noticed that sometimes team performance is volatile, and things change. The Atlantic might look all sorted out in a way that’s satisfying, but we need to at least look at the simple math to see if that’s likely to stay that way.

The last time we had a look at this situation, when the Leafs had played 30 games, they had lost a lot of them, and no one in the division beyond the Bruins seemed to be playing winning hockey. One of the things that was obvious then is that the Bruins were not going to roll along at almost 1.6 points per game for the simple reason that no one does. They’ve backed off that torrid pace, and you may have noticed that the Leafs have won a lot of games in the last 13.

I’m going to use 98 points as the arbitrary benchmark because that almost always is enough to get in via divisional seed. The Wild Card is still going to be hard for an Atlantic team to capture.

Atlantic Division as of Jan 5

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
Boston 43 59 1.372 1.000
Toronto 43 53 1.233 1.154
Tampa Bay 40 50 1.250 1.143
Florida 41 47 1.146 1.244
Buffalo 43 45 1.047 1.359
Montréal 42 43 1.024 1.375
Ottawa 42 37 0.881 1.525
Detroit 42 23 0.548 1.875
Not including Sunday’s games.

The Bruins are now playing at the pace of an ordinary very good team. All that early percentage-fuelled points pace was, in fact, made of spun suger. They have enough points banked that they just have to play league average hockey and they’ll be in the playoffs, however. Chances are high they can play well enough to hold onto the top spot in the Atlantic. But that’s a lot less carved in stone than in looked ten games ago.

At the other end of the scale, the Detroit Red Wings are setting records for losing.

At 30 games in, the Senators looked like a team that could stage a big push, even if that was very unlikely. Now, it’s virtually impossible to imagine that the Sens could suddenly enjoy a points pace the equivalent of what the Bruins did for the first 30.

Montréal has dropped down the standings, but they haven’t really gotten worse. Their points pace has gone from 1.034 to 1.024, and both Tampa and Toronto have streaked by them. They now need a much tougher points pace to make it in than they required after 30 games. That’s gone up from 1.283 to 1.375 because they have less time to do it in. That’s still not in impossible to imagine territory, it’s just very unlikely. You can’t write the Canadiens off, but they are now much more likely to outpace some Metro teams for a Wild Card than to factor into the Atlantic top three.

Buffalo has also dropped two places in the division ranking since the 30-game mark. They’ve also barely gotten worse, going from 1.069 to 1.047 points per game. They’re in exactly the same boat as Montréal, not improving, and now requiring a near-elite second half to make it in.

Florida sits in between Buffalo and Tampa in the standings, and they straddle this divide between possible, but not probable, and plausible chance. They only need a 1.244 points pace for the rest of the season to hit that 98 point mark, and they have played less than all the other teams except Tampa. That’s a pace I’d call good, not even very good, and certainly not elite. And just like last time, their hopes have to rest on the performance of their goalies. Florida is now at 1.146 and they were at 1.148 points per game, so they have absolutely not changed, and have dropped two places in the standings solely because the blue and white twins are surging.

So let’s look at Toronto and Tampa, the two teams most likely to take the other two playoff spots after Boston. Remember last summer when everyone predicted that? Funny how these things work out over time.

Toronto has a total points pace of 1.233 and Tampa has 1.250. Toronto is only ahead in the standings because they’ve played three more games. All these two teams have to do is maintain their overall pace of winning and Toronto will finish third and Tampa second. For both of them, the points pace required to stay at 98 points by the end of the season is really modest, and if they can’t do it, they should each be firing someone.

But, I hear you say: We now start the Toronto season at November 20 and extrapolate just from there! You may. I don’t. There is no reason to think the points pace over the recent streak will continue. Boston’s didn’t, and so a more realistic question is this: Can Toronto outpace Tampa enough to hold second place? The answer is clearly yes, but it needs Tampa to continue to underperform, particularly in net. Their current points standings aren’t just a factor of their games in hand. They have a good goal differential and a decent number of regulation wins. In fact they have the same number as Toronto in both categories. The teams are fifth and sixth league-wide in regulation wins, so both teams are very good overall.

But Tampa has more chances to turn that into points than Toronto does, so for now, Tampa in second and Toronto in third is likely, but so is the reverse. You have to dig deep into team strengths, remaining schedule difficulty and a whole host of factors to really come up with real odds, but for our purposes today, these two teams are really and legitimately neck-and-neck.

Now what about Boston? Are they catchable? Never say never, and this season, Boston is not actually playing all that well, and their goalie tandem is merely okay. Their power play and their top line has fuelled their early run, so it would take some extreme event for them to play at a pace slow enough that the Leafs and Tampa can overtake them.

Let’s pick some numbers to illustrate that. An ultra-elite pace is 1.5 points per game. The last time a team managed that for a whole season was last year. (Guess who was the only team to do it?) Just elite is 1.4 points per game, and top teams more often keep that up for long sections of a season. Let’s pretend Tampa and Toronto both manage that. Tampa would have 109 points (rounded off) and Toronto would have 108. For Boston to best that with 110, they’d have to play at 1.3 points per game for the rest of the season, and that is absolutely possible.

Boston is, technically, catchable. It’s really not very likely, and it’s easier for Tampa to do than the Leafs. Boston would need to help out by losing a decent amount. But I am telling you there is a chance.

There is also a chance that Florida surges and throws a wrench in all of our plans.

Toronto no longer needs every point just to survive. They sorted that all out in 13 games that involved a lot of winning. What they do need to do is to get their roster stabilized and to weather whatever inevitable setbacks come when the wins stop coming quite so easily. They are, for all intents and purposes, just coming out of their second training camp, and they have a very short season to play in their new configuration. Second place in the Atlantic is a very legitimate and attainable goal. Not only that, failing to achieve at least third would be a legitimate failure of team performance that would need to be addressed.

Which you all predicted back in the comments to this post:

What I’m telling you is that not only is there a chance, but you can’t just wave away this season in a haze of happiness over the new coach and call it all done now. There is something real at stake here, and you actually can get your heart broken again in the spring. That’s the price of cheering for a good team.