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Photo Credit: Aaron Doster / USA TODAY Sports

That 2.33 Percent

The Leafs learned a hard lesson last night in the form of a lopsided home regulation loss to the Capitals, a result that put their playoff clinching scenario on hold, at least for the time being. But being on a back-to-back against the best team in the league, a lot of us expected that game to be the toughest.

On the out-of-town scoreboard, Toronto did get some help though, with their main pursuer to this point, the Lightning, getting dropped by the Bruins. That kept Tampa at five points back of the final wildcard spot, and brings the Leafs’ magic number to two – any loss of two points by the Lightning or gain of two by the Leafs would seal things up.

But with the Lightning visiting the ACC tomorrow night, they can still do a lot to keep their playoff chances alive with a regulation win, and make things a bit uneasy going into the weekend, where Toronto has a pair of difficult games to close out the season. To add to all of this, the Islanders apparently refuse to go away, and find themselves in a very similar situation to that of Tampa, and pose the same threat.

Until the “x-” shows up next to Toronto on the standings page, the path remains open for the Leafs to fall out of this thing. And with the Isles sticking around, there are potentially two paths.

Here’s how things shape up with 78 games played by each of four teams vying for two available spots. Odds are from MoneyPuck.com.

Points Playoff Odds Reg/OT wins (ROW)
Toronto 93 97.67% 38
Ottawa 94 97.56% 37
NY Islanders 88 2.74% 36
Tampa Bay 88 2.03% 35

At a glance it obviously looks like the Islanders and Lightning are essentially finished. And really, they are…or at least should be. But a few months removed from the U.S. election and the Falcons Super Bowl collapse, we know that longshot 2-3% can quickly turn into something very real. Looked at another way, if you run this scenario 100 times, the Leafs miss the playoffs twice. I guess we just have to hope we’re not in the part of the multiverse where they do.

But seriously, how could this unravel for Toronto here, in real life? Simply, the Islanders or Lightning have to win all three of their remaining games, and Toronto will need to lose all of theirs. Considering the Leafs will play all of those at home, this seems unlikely, but again, there is a door open for Tampa or New York as of right now. It isn’t closed until it’s closed.

If the Lightning can put away Toronto tomorrow night in regulation or overtime, panic could creep in going into the weekend. Tampa will have games remaining in Montreal – against a team with the division locked up – and at home against the lowly Sabres. The Leafs, on the other hand, host two teams – Columbus and Pittsburgh – who will likely still be jostling for 2nd in the Metro and home ice in the opening round. Good teams with something to play for. And don’t forget about the Isles, who have games left against the Hurricanes, Devils, and Senators. They have a path to take out Ottawa, but also making up three ROW on Toronto would put them in with 39, even if they tied at 94 points.

Going back to our Tampa and Toronto scenario, what would happen in the event of a tie in points? Let’s say Toronto gets a single point in these last three games but the Lightning win out (again, all in ROW) and both finish at 94 with 38 ROW. Unless that point comes against Lightning, Toronto would fall out of the playoffs. The NHL tiebreaker goes ROW first, then head-to-head points. As things stand, Toronto has 4 points against the Lightning to their 3, and Tampa could go up 5-4 tomorrow with a ROW.

Now, what about a Leafs OT loss tomorrow, which sets up a potential tie in points, ROW, and 5 points apiece head-to-head? Then we go to goal differential, where things could get weird.

Schedule breakdown via IneffectiveMath

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a piece intended to be negative or predict the Leafs crumbling here in the next few days (though I’m sure we’ll all be nervous until they get that ‘x’). They’re a good team and I expect them to take care of business. Two points in any form is all they need. And if they don’t get them, those teams chasing them still need a lot to break their way – one blip and they’re out. This is really more of a quick guide on who to cheer for over the weekend (Carolina, NJ, Montreal, and Buffalo) if Toronto falters tomorrow evening and things tighten up.

Still, with all that said, you can see how, even with the odds heavily stacked in their favour, the Leafs (and Sens) still have a not-so-farfetched road to potential collapse in these last few days of the season.