Sunday night's Panthers loss to the Anaheim Ducks, combined with the Jets 5-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche has put the Jets over the Capitals and one point short of Florida for the division lead. The top three teams in the Southeast Division are now each one point apart from the next team down, with the Lightning not far behind. This tight seeding along with the tightness between seventh and tenth place in the Eastern Conference has made leading the division paramount for Southeast teams.
As of this morning, the Panthers still lead the division by one point. The Capitals can tie that points lead tonight, but the Panthers would still hold the division lead on the games played tiebreaker. The price for entry to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference appears to be about 92 to 94 points. While the division leader would get in no matter how few points they hold, none of these teams can count on none of the others hitting at least 92. The real question is: what records do these teams need down the stretch to lead the division?
The site Sports Club Stats simulates the remainder of the season every day and shows the likeliest positions of each team at the end of the season. The table below shows the current standings by points and the percentage chance that each team makes the playoffs. The GP column notes the number of games in hand each team has on the team that's played the most games, in this case the Winnipeg Jets.
The table shows over a 95% chance for the top five teams, which are the Boston Bruins and every Atlantic Division team save the New York Islanders. What this means in a practical sense is that each one of these teams can finish the season out with a losing record and still make the playoffs. As an example, the Devils can go 10-15 in their last 25 games and still finish with 92 points. In short, these five teams have close to a lock for five of the top six spots in the Conference, leaving number three for the Southeast Division leader and seven and eight for whichever two Northeast or Southeast Division teams come out on top of who's left. We'll look at the records each team needs to make 92 points, starting with the Southeast.
The Panthers hold the Southeast lead by only one point, with 24 games remaining. While they don't have a lock on the top spot, they are virtually certain to make the playoffs with 92 points. If they finish with 92, they have a 61% chance of holding the top spot in the division, with only two more points needed for an 80% likelihood of holding the three seed in the east. The Panthers will need to win 13 of those remaining games with one overtime loss to hit 92 points, or the equivalent thereof (13-10-1, 12-9-3, etc.). This is just over .562 in points, or 11.25 points per game. The Panthers have been averaging 11.20 over the season, so only need a slight improvement to hit this target. They're even (5-5-0) in their last ten, though, so need to pick up the pace from their recent play if they think they're making the post-season.
The Capitals are the biggest challenge to the Panthers for the division title. The Jets are one point ahead of the Caps, but both teams have 3 games in hand. The Caps will need a slightly better pace than the Cats: 13-8-3 or equivalent (14-9-1), .604 or 12.08 points per ten games. This is well over their season record of 10.86 points per ten and their last ten (3-5-2). The Caps need to seriously pick up their pace starting tonight if they want in.
The Jets have worked their way up to second in the division and ninth in the conference, but still have a way to go to qualify for the playoffs. They'll need 14 wins or equivalent to hit 92 points, which is an overtime loss less than the Capitals. However, they have three fewer games in which to get those wins. The Jets will need a 14-7, 13-6-2 or 12-5-4 to make it, .666 in points or 13.33 points per ten games. Their last ten (6-4-0) is respectable, but not quite the pace they'll need. They are, however, closer to the pace they need than the Capitals.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are far enough back they need a serious win streak to make 92 points: 17-7 or 16-6-2, which is 14.16 points per ten games for a team that's hitting 12 in ten right now. It's not unattainable, and they have the slight hope that the teams ahead of them are bad enough down the stretch that the price of entry drops to 90 or 91 points.
The Senators need the lowest pace of the remaining teams in the east: 10.90 in ten, or a 12-10, 11-9-2, 10-8-4 record. They don't have much of a chance of taking their division, at least not without a serious Bruins losing streak. The only problem for the Sens is that their last ten pace is as bad as the Capitals': 3-5-2. If they don't start winning some games, they'll find the teams behind catching up.
The Panthers may have set a record for consecutive seasons without making the playoffs, but the Leafs could match it this season if they can't hold eighth place. They'll need the same 28 points as the Jets to reach 92, but with two more games: 14-9, 13-8-2, or 12-6-4. This is an 11.66 points per ten pace, or about 2.5 more than their last ten games.
So, what does this all mean? In short, while the Panthers need to play a little better and win some more games, they're still in the best shape of the contending teams that haven't virtually guaranteed themselves a spot. Even if the Cats lose their division lead, they still have a good chance of making it in as the seventh or eighth seed and breaking the playoff drought. Dale Tallon is in a pretty good position. While it would be nice to add some scoring at the deadline, this team can probably make it with just their injured players returning soon. And while the hockey world continues to talk about a weak Southeast Division, the Northeast isn't much better and a lot of people could be surprised by the Winnipeg Jets making the playoffs over the Senators and Capitals.