Can the Lightning make the playoffs?
This might be simply an academic exercise, but with the All-Star break over and team's getting ready for the final push, was curious what the chances of the Lightning making the playoffs. I know, the task is huge, and I might not even have brought it up had the team been double digits out of the final spot in the East heading into the break. But since Tampa Bay got it down to nine points with a 9-5-1 run, well, what the heck?
Recall, too, how the Capitals went nuts to finish last season, winning 11 of 12 and their final seven to overcome a seven-point deficit to the Hurricanes and win the Southeast.
So, let's do the math:
The Hurricanes are eighth in the East and, with 51 points, have the conference's final playoff spot. If it goes 17-17 in its final 34 games, it will finish with 85 points. That means Tampa Bay, 12th with 42 points, would have to go 22-13 in its final 35 games to reach 86. And that doesn't even take into consideration what the team between Tampa Bay and Carolina are doing, which means the Lightning might have to do even better.
Quite a daunting task.
But let's give some credit here. Tampa Bay has won five of seven and has bought into coach Rick Tocchet's "play as five" system. Preparation is better and, perhaps most important, the team is playing with confidence. And even though the team's seven home victories are a league low, Tampa Bay is 3-1 at home to start a stretch in which it plays 13 of 17 at the St. Pete Times Forum. So perhaps the stars are aligning a little bit.
We'll know Tuesday night at the Times Forum, where Tampa Bay has a tough test against the Canadiens. A huge game as it sets up Thursday's game at Carolina. A win and that game is even bigger. Lose and, well, maybe the All-Star break took some wind out of their sails. You would hope that would not be the case. You would hope the players understand the position they are in and the opportunity, however remote, they have given themselves.
Tocchet is doing his best. He had an up-tempo practice on Monday and pushed the players who have been off since Wednesday. Even Vinny Lecavalier, given the option to take the day off after returning from the All-Star Game in Montreal, wanted to skate.
Tocchet also spoke of mini goals, cutting the season up into five-, three- or two-game segments and trying to win those in order to keep the focus short term. Take care of that, he said, and the long term will take care of itself.
But he also had a warning.
"The thing the players have to understand," he said, "is that in the second half, everybody pushes harder."
Has Tampa Bay solved its problems? Of course not. Opponents still pin the team in its own end way too much and for way to long. The defense still needs upgrades, secondary scoring still surprises when it shows up and seven home wins in a league low.
The again, "This is what it's all about," goaltender Mike Smith said, "making a push for the playoffs and guys elevating their games to new levels. If everybody does that and worries about themselves and gives great effort, I think you'll see us there in the end."
Let's see what they can do.