The final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference this afternoon are inhabited by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals, with 53 and 52 points, respectively. Both teams sat significantly higher in the standings not all that long ago, and both teams are extremely vulnerable.
Some of that vulnerability is due to the pack of vultures circling just a short distance behind them. Four teams in the East are currently both a) outside the postseason and b) within four points of Washington, and that doesn’t include the Carolina Hurricanes, who have 47 points.
But some of that vulnerability is because there’s a very good case to be made that both the Capitals and Leafs are imposters simply masquerading as playoff teams.
There are a lot of ways to demonstrate that point, but the simplest is this. Imagine that the regular season were played in as close to playoff conditions as was possible—in other words, we remove the shootout from the equation, and all post-overtime games ended in ties. What would the standings look like?
Instantly, a lot of people—and not all of them Leafs and Caps fans—will be tempted to respond with "the shootout is part of NHL hockey, it’s not going away, get over it." The reader should resist that temptation because while that statement is true, it has nothing to do with the two points being made here. What are those?
1. It is extremely difficult to post a good record in the shootout over the long haul. A lot of what happens in the shootout has more to do with luck than skill; the contest is not quite a coin toss, but it is not all that far removed from one either, and that represents a problem for teams like Washington and Toronto because no matter how many times "heads" has come up in the recent past, a streak of "tails" is just around the corner.
No team better exemplifies this than the Maple Leafs. Toronto finished dead last in the shootout last season, with a record of 0-5. Currently, the team has more wins than any other in the NHL. What changed?
Some will say goaltending, but that isn’t really what happened. A year ago, Leafs goalies stopped 15 of 24 shootout attempts against (a 0.625 save percentage); the team is only moderately better in that department this year with 24 saves on 36 shots against (0.667 save percentage). If Toronto’s goalies had made one more save a year ago, those save percentages would be exactly the same.
What has changed is shooting percentage. Mostly the same group of players from last year has gone from scoring just three times on 24 shots (12.5 percent) to tallying 17 goals on 35 shots (48.6 percent), a nearly four-fold increase from 2012-13.
So when some commentators try to pull the old Obi-Wan Kenobi and say there is no such thing as luck, know that they are wrong. That is a big problem for both Washington and Toronto, because their records to date are predicated on winning a bunch of shootouts. They cannot bank on getting those points the rest of the way, which means they will have to make them up somewhere else.
2. There is no shootout in the playoffs. Assuming the Leafs or Capitals or both manage to survive in a playoff spot over the stretch run, there is another problem. Shootout wins have got those two teams this far, and even if both are perfectly average, the rest of the way their playoff record will be built at least in part on first-half shootout success.
That’s a problem, because those skills are worth precisely zero in the postseason. On our graphic above, the right-hand, non-shootout standings do a better job of reflecting how teams perform in the parts of the game that matter in the postseason.
While "anything can happen in the playoffs" is a truism, the Leafs and Capitals simply are not as good at things that win playoff games as a bunch of teams positioned lower in the standings. That means they are considerably more likely than, say, New Jersey or Detroit to be nothing more than first-round speed bumps.
The NHL standings help paper over what is an obvious weakness upon further examination. But it would be a mistake to think that the Capitals and Maple Leafs do not need to improve dramatically the rest of the way if they want to be playoff teams.