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The Maple Leafs have 20 games to secure a playoff spot

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After the win against Pittsburgh, the recipe is now: Go Back Jack and Do it Again.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The stomping of Pittsburgh Thursday night was game 62, so that means there are 20 games left. It’s time to take the temperature of the Leafs points pace and playoff hopes.

Last time things looked bleak because the Leafs had slipped behind the Panthers and out of third spot, tumbling below the wild card teams from the Metro.

I said that time around that:

This is a crisis that can be washed away by some improved team play, and we should all expect improvement. The Leafs are not supposed to be a 1.16 points per game team. They should be better than this.

Of course there was another way for the Leafs to get back in third place. The Panthers could have gotten worse, and that is exactly what happened. The Leafs have the identical points pace today (Friday’s games are not included in the tables below) as they did in that bleak moment in late January.

Here are the numbers:

Atlantic Division on Friday, February 21

Atlantic GP PTS RW ROW GF GA DIFF
Atlantic GP PTS RW ROW GF GA DIFF
1 Boston 61 88 33 38 201 147 54
2 Tampa Bay 61 85 32 38 218 164 54
3 Toronto 62 72 24 31 217 204 13
4 Florida 61 70 27 29 214 207 7
5 Montréal 63 64 17 24 191 195 -4
6 Buffalo 60 62 20 26 175 190 -15
7 Ottawa 61 53 16 21 164 209 -45
8 Detroit 62 34 12 13 127 232 -105

Points Pace

Atlantic GP PTS PTS% % needed for 98 PTS
Atlantic GP PTS PTS% % needed for 98 PTS
Boston 61 88 1.44 0.48
Tampa Bay 61 85 1.39 0.62
Toronto 62 72 1.16 1.30
Florida 61 70 1.15 1.33
Montréal 63 64 1.02 1.79
Buffalo 60 62 1.03 1.64

I included Montréal and Buffalo just for fun here. If either team wants to pretend they can make the playoffs, that’s up to them, and while they aren’t in impossible range yet, they also aren’t going to hit the 1.5 points per game or more needed to leap over everyone to get in. They are at almost the same points pace as they were at the end of January as well.

Meanwhile the picture for the Panthers is now worse, while the Leafs held steady at a rate that’s not very good. If 98 points is indeed the threshold to get third in the Atlantic, I will be very surprised. In reality, it’s a winner takes all scenario for that last spot, and the two teams in contention are so close right now that whoever plays better — or let’s face it, less worse — gets in.

This is the schedule remaining for each team, and note that Florida has one game in hand:

Remaining Schedule

Game # Florida Toronto
Game # Florida Toronto
62 Vegas Win in Pittsburgh
63 Arizona Carolina
64 Toronto Tampa Bay
65 Chicago Florida
66 Calgary Vancouver
67 Boston San Jose
68 Montreal Los Angeles
69 St. Louis Anaheim
70 Dallas Tampa Bay
71 New Jersey Nashville
72 Detroit Boston
73 Winnipeg New Jersey
74 Buffalo Islanders
75 St. Louis Columbus
76 Toronto Florida
77 Ottawa Tampa Bay
78 Montreal Carolina
79 Boston Ottawa
80 Rangers Washington
81 Ottawa Detroit
82 Washington Montreal

The game in hand is gone by the time the teams play each other.

Three games against Tampa while they gun for the Presidents’ Trophy on a PDO bender the likes of which only they have ever seen before — that’s not ideal. The Panthers get St. Louis twice and finish against a Washington team that might not have anything to play for, while the Leafs play teams who hate them three of the final four games.

I used a highly scientific method to judge the schedules. Ignoring home/away, I just counted up the really hard teams, the mediocre teams and the bad teams, and I tried to judge it on how the team is playing now, at the full team level, including their goaltending, and not if they’re a playoff team or not.

I get bad teams 6-5 for Florida, mediocre teams 9-8 and good teams 6-7. Using this very rough measure, the Leafs have a tougher schedule, but not by much, and anything can happen on any given night, particularly in the last 10 or so games of the season when some teams have been depleted, others beefed up, while still others are coasting and resting for the playoffs. It can be a whole new league. Either way, Tampa three times is going to be tough.

The wild card spot is there as a potential consolation prize for whichever of the Leafs and Panthers loses the race, but there are three Metro teams ahead of Florida right now, and the Rangers just don’t want to quit either. It’s still most likely that the two wild cards will go to Metro teams at more points that the third place Atlantic team has.

It’s not all that encouraging that even with a new backup goalie, and some other roster moves, the Leafs only managed to stay at the points pace they were already on for the season. But it does show you how hard it is to make up points, and 20 games is no time to be doing it in.

Since we’re now at this point of the season, and the Leafs and Panthers are essentially tied, we should touch on the tie-breaking procedure. If you want the long form, it’s on the NHL.com Standings page, but all we need to know is that the first tie breaker is RW, and the Panthers have a lead of three right now.

It’s not impossible for the two teams to end up tied in points but with the Leafs having made that gap up, it’s just really unlikely. However the second tie breaker is ROW, which the Leafs are leading in. This is the first year of the switch to RW as the first tie breaker and it would be very Leafy to get caught by it. The solution is obvious: get more points.

A higher points pace than the Panthers. That’s the only goal now. The first meeting is Thursday, the second is in late March. Winning both of those games could be what it takes.

One thing is clear, playing more like the Leafs did Thursday will help the cause.