Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA TODAY Sports

The end of tonight’s game might get a little weird

As you probably already know, and almost definitely nervously await, the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Air Canada Centre tonight. For the Leafs, there’s a ton on the line here: win the game, and you make the playoffs. Lose it clean, and the race remains interesting. Lose it while getting a point, and it’s a purgatory-like position heading into the weekend.

But, shockingly, not everything is about the Leafs. There are actually four teams in the east whose playoff fates remain undecided: the Leafs, the Lightning, the Ottawa Senators, and the New York Islanders.

Record Season Series Winner
Toronto 79 39 25 15 93 38 11 N/A OTT TOR TBD
Ottawa 79 42 27 10 94 37 -3 OTT N/A OTT TBL
NY Islanders 79 38 29 12 88 36 -8 TOR OTT N/A TBL
Tampa Bay 79 39 30 10 88 35 0 TBD TBL TBL N/A

As luck would have it, all four of these teams play tonight, so there’s a chance at anything from total resolution to complete and utter chaos. The Senators face the recently-clinched Bruins, the Islanders face the recently knocked out Hurricanes, and the Leafs and Bolts face each other.

Toronto has two ways of clinching tonight. They can beat the Lightning and nothing else matters, or they can lose in a shootout, but the Islanders have to lose in some way, shape or form. The Senators can clinch by getting a point in any way; at that point, what the Islanders and Bolts do doesn’t matter to them.

Back to the shootout thing. Why does it have to be a shootout? Why can’t it be overtime? Well, it’s because of the tiebreaker process. It goes as follows.

  1. Points percentage (useless at Game 82)
  2. Regulation + Overtime wins
  3. Season Series
  4. Goal Differential

Now, there’s actually a theoretical situation where the Leafs could end up in a complete deadlock with Tampa at the end of the year. This would involve the Lightning winning in overtime, the Leafs losing their last two games in regulation, the Lightning winning their last two games in regulation, and their goal differential evening up in the process. Theoretically, the league could literally decide the tie with a coin toss, though I’d hope that we’d get a Neutral Site game in Las Vegas or whatever.

The odds of that happening are astronomical, though. They’d be straight up bonkers if the NHL could count goal differential properly (they include shootout wins/losses; Toronto is 19 ahead in real goal differential), but in any event, I wouldn’t count on this scenario happening.

But keeping those tiebreakers in mind, a shootout win for Tampa Bay tonight would give them a maximum ROW of 37. That’s enough to send them to a theoretical third tiebreaker with the Senators, that they would win, but it wouldn’t be enough to catch up to the Leafs in tiebreaker two.

This means that the outcome of Ottawa/Boston may dictate how tonight’s game is played, if it remains close at the end. If the Senators clinch, than the only team that the Lightning could catch up to is the Leafs, meaning they’d have to win in regulation or overtime. What does THAT mean, then?

It means that if Ottawa wins or loses in overtime before the Leafs game is done (they start half an hour earlier, so likely), and Toronto/Tampa Bay goes to overtime, you might see the Lightning pull their goalie, while tied. Leaving room for the Leafs to clinch a playoff spot with an empty net, game-winning goal.

Tampa will only take this risk if Ottawa gets a point and clinches, though. It’s not worth the risk otherwise; the NHL rules state that if the Leafs score an empty net goal in overtime, Tampa will get zero points, which would make it impossible for them to catch up to Ottawa. I also wouldn’t expect this to happen in the Islanders/Hurricanes game, as New York can catch up to Ottawa in ROW still if the Senators lose.

Their goal tonight will be to make to make sure that there’s at least one team for them to leapfrog. So don’t be shocked that, if things go a certain way, the end of this game gets a little absurd.

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  • Stan Smith

    Looking over all the tiebreakers the Leafs are sitting pretty good. They are 1 ROW up on Ottawa, 3 on Tampa and 7 up on The Isles. If it comes to goal differential they are up 11 on Tampa, 14 on Ottawa and 19 on the Isles. I still look for an outright win tonight as a statement the Leafs have arrived and are to be taken seriously.