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North Division standings and can Auston Matthews get to 50 goals?

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What will the Leafs and Matthews have to do in the final 38 games to finish where they want to be?

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Time for a quick look at the standings. About six games ago, I looked at where the teams in the North sat and discovered that, this early in the season, Vancouver was out of contention for a playoff spot. That hasn’t changed, and has gotten worse for them. The Leafs have now made it to one-third of the season played, and in ten games will be at the halfway point. That makes it timely to take a quick look again at who can do what with their remaining games — barring miracles.

First, the other divisions. With game postponements in all three American divisions, the picture is much more complex. There are seven US teams that have more games played than Montreal, the North team that has played the least. The rest have missed varying amounts with Dallas and New Jersey at 12 and 11 games played and facing a dreadful run to the middle of May to get in the rest of their games. Making the playoffs for them is harder than for everyone else.

Central

The cut-off for a playoff spot right now is .611 and the fourth place is held by the Chicago Blackhawks, driven by a hot goalie and the collapse of Nashville. Neither Nashville nor Detroit can reasonably make up ground and challenge, but the sixth-place Columbus Blue Jackets are at .556, and that would get them in most years. It would in the North. There’s going to be a lot of games played before the fourth spot in that division is set, but Florida, Tampa and Carolina are in that comfortable spot of having won enough now they would need to implode to fall out of a playoff seat.

East

The fourth-place team in the East, Washington, is at .633, making this division even tougher to make the grade in. Buffalo and the Rangers at the bottom of the pile are out already, but like in the Central, there is a fight for spots with everyone else. Boston and Philadelphia likely can’t be overtaken, but New Jersey (small number of games alert), the Capitals, the Islanders and Pittsburgh can all contest for the final two spots. If I gambled, I’d put my money on the Penguins to make a run since they’re the team that realizes they need to do something to improve.

West

The West has more poorly performing teams than any other division, so their cut-off is .538 at fourth, the place held by the Minnesota Wild. No one below them is really good enough to catch them, except maybe Arizona, and no one above is going to drop much. This division might finish exactly as they are right now with Vegas, Colorado and St. Louis the contenders.

North

Now we come to the North, a division more like the West than the tangled-up East and Central. Last time, when I looked at these numbers, I set an arbitrary points percentage based on what usually gets a team in the playoffs. This time, with more games played, I’m using the actual percentage of the fourth-place team, Edmonton, which is .556.

Path to the Playoffs in the North

Team P% P% to get to .556 GP Games Left
Team P% P% to get to .556 GP Games Left
Toronto 0.778 0.451 18 38
Montréal 0.667 0.516 15 41
Winnipeg 0.594 0.541 16 40
Edmonton 0.556 0.556 18 38
Calgary 0.531 0.566 16 40
Vancouver 0.425 0.629 20 36
Ottawa 0.237 0.720 19 37

Beginning at the bottom, Ottawa got a little better in that they’ve won (you’re welcome) but the short runway left makes the job to get to where Edmonton is tougher, and it’s not happening. Ditto for Vancouver. Their points % has risen a tiny amount, but they’d need that miracle to get to a playoff spot.

One thing to consider about this season is that the remaining games played are in the realm of the number of games in which a team can make an epic run or a mega-collapse. The improbable cases are a little farther from impossible than they would be at one-third of a normal NHL season.

Vaulting to the top of the standings, both the Leafs and the Canadiens dropped a little from last time, and that’s to be expected. At 12 games played, the Leafs were leading with .792, and that’s not going to be sustainable. Not even in an easy division like the North. The current .778 is still more likely to go down than up. But a very weak .451 is all that’s required to hit the spot Edmonton is in now. For the Canadiens it’s .516. These two teams are in the playoffs, and expectations now have to turn to their quality of play for the post-season. The chances are very high they would meet each other in the second round.

Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary are, as projected by almost everyone, contending for the final two playoff spots and any two are capable of taking them. Calgary is a little behind, but it’s not enough to matter. This fight won’t be decided quickly.

While I’m here calculating the rate required to obtain a goal....

Auston Matthews has 16 goals in 17 games, out of 18 that he could have played in. There are 38 more for him to get to 50 goals. Can he? He would need to score at a goals per game rate of .895 to do that. His rate so far is .941. On the season 50 in 55 games (the most he can play) is .909.

It is easier to score at a high rate over a smaller number of games, so it’s actually not impossible to imagine Matthews could maintain this torrid pace for a short time. It’s not been done very often, though. For players who had most of a modern season, or 60 games played or more, this is the list:

  1. Mario Lemieux - 60 GP - 1.15 GPG - 1992-1993
  2. Lemieux - 70 GP - .986 - 1996-1996
  3. Jari Kurri - 73 GP - . 972 - 1984-1985
  4. Brett Hull - 73 GP - .959 - 1991-1992
  5. Lemieux - 77 GP - .909 - 1987-1988
  6. Bernie Nicholls - 79 GP - .886 - 1988-1989

For 50 - 60 games played, the list is very short. Maurice Richard scored 50 in 50 in 1944-1945, and that’s it. Pat LaFontaine hit 46 in 57 games once, and Lemieux got 45 in 59.

I’m telling you there is a chance, but a slim one, that Matthews could do, not quite what the Rocket did, but he could top Bernie Nicholls’ Gretzky-fuelled run. Gretzky had 114 assists in 78 games while Nicholls was scoring those goals. And he scored 54 himself!

The truly remarkable thing about the feat, should Matthews pull it off, would be that no one has come close to this goal-scoring pace in the 21st century. Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin have hit .65 to .67 but that’s a long way from the torrid pace possible by the very gifted in the 80s and 90s.

Matthews is having a record-setting season for modern hockey so far. Now he just needs to keep doing it.