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Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Is second place in the Atlantic actually the NHL’s biggest regular season prize?

American Thanksgiving has been and gone so we can now all focus on the important things in life – the NHL playoff race. Currently, the Leafs are just three points outside of first place in the division, conference, and league, behind one heck of a great Tampa Bay Lightning team.

But is it that wild to suggest the should the Leafs aim to finish second in the Atlantic instead of first?

Hear me out.

Last season’s Atlantic Division winners – the Montreal Canadiens – faced off against the best of the wildcard sides – the New York Rangers.  That was their prize for winning the division. But as we all remember, the Ottawa Senators, who finished second in the Atlantic faced off against the Boston Bruins – finished with seven fewer points than the Rangers.

So the division winners faced off against a side with 102 points and the team who finished second faced off against a team with 95 points. Pretty good playoff format NHL – I raise my hat to you Gary Bettman.

This season, the Atlantic looks even weaker than the last, with the Lightning and Leafs looking like locks for a playoff spots already. The other six teams in the division have a negative goal differential. Though many projections had Tampa and Toronto in the 1-2 slots, it’s almost impressive how awful the rest of the division has been.

If the season finished tomorrow, the Leafs would be drawn with the Boston Bruins, the ninth placed team in the Eastern Conference by point totals, but third in the Atlantic. The hypothetical division-winning Tampa Bay Lightning would be drawn with – wait for it – the current Stanley Cup champions Pittsburgh.

The season doesn’t end in late November of course, and the high-powered Penguins probably get into the top three slots in the Metro division.

But even if it’s Washington, Pittsburgh, New York, the other New York, or Carolina (heck, why not name the whole division? Columbus, Philadelphia, what’s up?), the Leafs would pretty much guarantee having the easiest first round playoff game if they finished second in the Atlantic.

The Leafs would likely play either Boston, Detroit, Montreal or Ottawa in the first round if they finished in second place. Unless those teams drastically strengthen their roster for a playoff push, it isn’t hard to put just about the entire Metropolitan Division – sans maybe Philadelphia- as stronger opponents to face over a seven-game series. 

It’s never the mindset you want to have in professional sport to finish anything first, but for the second year in a row, the NHL’s goofy playoff format comes with an incentive to be the Eastern Conference runner-up.

It sounds crazy saying it, but the best case scenario for the Leafs this season really could be to play hard down the stretch, lock second place down and then give the big boys a bit of rest before a deep playoff run.

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  • Matmarwill

    It’s too long of a season, and you have to try to win every game, for this idea to have any real possibility to consider. And if Boston keeps playing better, and/or price gets back into MVP shape, they maybe no less dangerous than the rangers et al in the playoffs. The need to horde points to ensure playoff contention would also eliminate a team from thinking this way. Perhaps if in the last few games of the season, in a tight race, a coach might choose who plays with this logic in mind, but that wouldn’t likely be for many games. This also runs a risk of sending the wrong message to the players. So, don’t ponder this strategy too long, it’s a waste of time.