Game 35 has come and gone, and here the Leafs are back in second place after a very short trip down the standings into fourth or so. The standings are a lot tighter at the top than they were, however. Not the very top — that’s where Tampa is, the first team to get to 50 points, and the runaway Presidents’ Trophy favourite before we’ve even hit the halfway point of the season. Below Tampa there is a crunch of teams.

Last 5 Games

The Leafs are second with 48 points, which is 1.37 points per game. The Jets are in the same spot, Calgary has 47 points after losing to Tampa last night. Nashville has 46, and the surprising Sabres have cooled off a little and have 45 points. If you do the subtraction, that fifth-place team, Nashville, is 10 points back of Tampa. The 20th place team, Minnesota, is ten points back of the Predators. Anybody below the Wild is likely already out of contention, but the non-Tampa portion of the standings is very tight.

Welcome to parity in the NHL, when the difference between first and a bubble team is as little as five points in some divisions.

With seven points in this latest five-game stretch, the Leafs continue to never go below six points. Much more importantly, they’ve never dipped below four points in any given set of five games. They’ve had neither a big losing streak, nor a big winning streak.

The Hockey Reference chart is one of my favourite ways to visualize a season:

Check out the streaky Sabres, to see the difference between a consistent team and one that is a little more volatile. Is consistency better? On the one hand, they don’t take away the points you’ve already got, so who cares? On the other hand, the real thing to look for is wins or losses in one-goal games.

Last time in the five-game process, I talked about PDO and how people see that as luck and assume it will regress on a schedule they can predict like the weather. As soon as you start talking about things like variance and random chance, hockey fans turn into Vegas regulars wearing their lucky shirt at the craps table and imagining chance is something you control. But the reality is there are particular areas of hockey were randomness (luck) holds more sway.

Close games are often decided by luck.  If a team wins or loses a lot in shootouts, overtime or one-goal regulation wins, the results could be very lucky or unlucky and not reflective at all of their quality. The Leafs are second in ROW while the Sabres are 11th in the league right now, so the Sabres have got more points from overtime losses. They’ve had more one-goal wins too, with nine wins in their 10-game streak coming in one-goal games.

No matter how you slice it, the Leafs are winning a lot, and have a very firm grip on a standings spot near the top of the league.

Last year the Leafs didn’t get to 48 points until game 39, so we now have real separation in the year-over-year results. For all the talk on the TV broadcasts about how the Leafs have been struggling, or the other teams have figured out the power play or any of the other stories woven around ordinary variance in results, it’s all been pretty steady.

Toronto is now in ninth place in the league in score and venue adjusted five-on-five Corsi with 51.47 per cent. If we combine the last two seasons with this one for all teams, they’re in 14th place with 50.87.  Let’s round those numbers off, and you get 51 both times. Parity in the NHL means that the number of teams at 50 to 51 per cent shot share is usually 10 and they comprise the middle third of the league. Assigning meaning to rankings within that clump of teams that you need tenths and hundreds of a percentage point to achieve is not going to help you understand which team is better than the others.

At this point in the season, however, we can safely say the Leafs are very likely to finish up with a 51 per cent Corsi.

Next 5 Games

The next five games take a long time to play with the holiday breaks, but also include two sets of back-to-backs.

The first two are a back-to-back set tomorrow and Sunday at home. First come the Rangers, the team with the least ROW, even though they are 11th from the bottom in points. Next comes the Red Wings, who are tied in points with the Rangers, but win more games on merit.

After Christmas the Leafs play Columbus on December 28, and I have to wonder if we’ll be tired of Nutcracker Cannon Doll jokes by then. That’s another back-to-back, this time with travel home to play the Islanders on Saturday night in Toronto.

There is then another long break as the Leafs don’t play outdoors on New Year’s Day (yay!), but rather they sit and wait for the Wild to show up for a 2 p.m. game on January 3. The SBA is expected to be full of school kids like last year’s daytime game against Carolina. It should be fun and loud, but too bad for you if you’re at work that day.

So that five game set has some games against very poor opponents, and two good ones. It’s still five winnable games, even if the schedule is a bit strange. All games are winnable for the Leafs.

We’ll check back in on the process in January, and see how the holiday season treated the Leafs.