Center Brian Boyle put a sobering spin on one of the Lightning's best stretches of the season.
'"We're winning just to stay where we're at," he said.
And Tampa Bay's unlikely climb into a playoff spot only gets more daunting.
Despite winning three of its last four games, the Lightning (25-24-7) remains six points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and seven points behind Boston for third in the Atlantic Division (with two games in hand).
Six teams separate Tampa Bay and the last wild card. Most have an easier path to the playoffs, according to a Tampa Bay Times schedule analysis.
Starting this weekend, the Lightning will have five sets of back-to-back games on the road, more than any wild-card contender. The Hurricanes and Devils have zero. Toronto and Carolina have one. The Lightning's six remaining back-to-backs total are second only to Buffalo (eight). The Islanders have a tough slate with the most road games left (18), but just one back to back where both are away from Barclays Center.
Tampa Bay's record in back-to-backs: 8-7-6. That's not a promising picture for a team that needs 38 points in its final 26 games — the equivalent of a 19-7 run — to reach 95 points, which the lowest-qualifying Eastern Conference playoff team averaged the past three seasons. That's a lot to ask for a Tampa Bay team that has won back-to-back games just twice since late November.
Can the Lightning pull it off? Yes. It has 15 home games left, and two matchups apiece with Boston and Toronto, among the teams it's chasing. This might come down to the final road trip, when Tampa Bay faces the Maple Leafs, Bruins and Canadiens. But there's a reason Tampa Bay's odds are 13.4 percent to make the playoffs, according to hockeyreference.com's projections.
Now that's sobering.
The favorites for the last wild card and Atlantic playoff spots
* Maple Leafs: The young Leafs have stumbled, going 3-5-2 in their last 10. But all it would take is a 16-10 finish to get to 95 points. Toronto has 21 of its final 27 games against Eastern Conference teams. Six are against Detroit, Buffalo and Florida, against which Toronto is a combined 7-1.
* Bruins: Boston is rolling, having won three straight after the firing of coach Claude Julien (who has since taken over as Canadiens coach). The Bruins are a combined 13-0 against divisional foes Lightning, Sabres, Panthers and Red Wings. Boston does have the always tough West Coast and Western Canada trips remaining.
The playoff-race wild cards
* Islanders: They've gotten hot under new coach Doug Weight, winning nine of their past 14. The problem? Eighteen of the Islanders' final 26 games are on the road, where they're 7-12-4 this season.
* Panthers: Finally healthy, with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov back, the Panthers are pushing, going 5-1-1 in their last seven entering Friday, including an impressive overtime win Wednesday against the Sharks to open a West Coast trip. Eighteen of Florida's final 27 games come against teams currently in a playoff spot.
* Hurricanes: Carolina entered Friday with 17 of its final 29 games at home, where it is really good (17-6-1). And the Hurricanes' schedule includes just 13 matchups against teams currently in a playoff spot. Zero of Carolina's five back-to-backs feature both games on the road.
The road ahead
Here's a breakdown of the remaining schedules entering Friday for the teams battling with the Lightning for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot, currently in the possession of the Toronto Maple Leafs with 63 points. The past three seasons, the lowest-qualifying playoff team in the Eastern Conference averaged 95 points. Here's how each team gets there:
|Category||Lightning||Flyers||Maple Leafs||Islanders||Panthers||Bruins||Sabres||Devils||Hurricanes||Red Wings|
|Points needed||38 in 26 games||34 in 24 games||32 in 26 games||33 in 26 games||35 in 27 games||31 in 24 games||35 in 24 games||37 in 25 games||40 in 29 games||41 in 25 games|
|How to get there||19-7, 18-6-2, 17-5-4||17-7, 16-7-1, 15-5-4||16-10, 15-9-2, 14-8-4||17-9, 16-9-1, 15-8-3||18-9, 17-9-1, 16-8-3||16-8, 15-8-1, 14-7-3||18-6, 17-6-1, 16-5-3||19-6, 18-6-1, 17-5-3||20-9, 19-8-2, 18-7-4||21-4, 20-4-1, 19-3-3|
|Home games left||15||11||14||8||14||13||13||15||17||12|
|Road games left||11||13||12||18||13||11||11||11||12||13|
|Games vs. Eastern Conf.||18||19||21||17||17||13||15||21||19||18|
|Games vs. current playoff teams||15||13||14||12||18||12||14||13||13||13|