A 68-Game NHL Season for 2019-20: Eastern Conference Playoffs

In the first part of this series, I suggested that the NHL end the 2019-20 season after the 68th game (the number of games played by every team at the time of The Great Pause of 2020.) Any games played beyond that would be disregarded, as would any points in the standings earned in those games.

In this column, we’ll explore how truncating the season to 68 games would affect the Eastern Conference playoff picture. (The Western Conference playoffs will be explored in the next part of this series.)

NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

At the time of The Pause, the Eastern Conference playoff standings look like this:

Atlantic Division

  • Boston Bruins (70 games/100 points)
  • Tampa Bay Lightning (70 games/92 points)
  • Toronto Maple Leafs (70 games/81 points)

Metropolitan Division

  • Washington Capitals (69 games/90 points)
  • Philadelphia Flyers (69 games/89 points)
  • Pittsburgh Penguins (69 games/86 points)

Current Wild Card Positioning

  • Carolina Hurricanes (68 games/81 points)
  • Columbus Blue Jackets (70 games/81 points)
  • New York Islanders (68 games/80 points)
  • New York Rangers (70 games/79 points)
  • Florida Panthers (69 games/78 points)

The teams with a reasonable chance of earning a wild-card spot have played a different numbers of games. Six teams (including the Maple Leafs) are within three points of each other, but the number of games played ranges from 68 to 70.

If you need a refresher on the NHL’s playoff format, take a look here: Stanley Cup Playoffs format, qualification system. If you want to geek out on clinching an NHL playoff spot, take a deep breath and look at this scholarly paper from Professors Tyrel Russell and Peter van Week of the University of Waterloo: Mathematically Clinching a Playoff Spot in the NHL and the Effect of Scoring Systems.

Standings After a 68-Game Schedule

NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs
  • Boston Bruins: The Bruins’ last two games are eliminated (a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and a win over the Philadelphia Flyers), a loss of two points in the standings from 100 to 98 points.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning also drops two games (a shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings and a regulation loss to Toronto), losing only one point from 92 to 91.
  • Washington Capitals: The Capitals trim one game from their schedule (a shootout loss to Boston), to drop from 90 to 89 points.
  • Philadelphia Flyers: Only the Flyers’ final loss (to Boston) is dropped, so the team’s stays at 89 points.
  • Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens’ 69th game was a win over the Devils, and slicing that from the schedule drops them from 86 to 84 points.
  • Carolina Hurricanes: Here’s one of the “baseline” teams that played only 68 games, so their record is unchanged and they remain at 81 points.
  • Toronto Maple Leafs: Two games are cut, a loss to the Anaheim Ducks and a win over the Lightning, so the Maple Leafs drop from 81 to 79 points.
  • Columbus Blue Jackets: Again a pair of games go away (a loss to the Edmonton Oilers and a win over the Vancouver Canucks), so this team also drops from 81 to 79 points.
  • New York Islanders: Our other “baseline” team, with only 68 games played, remains at 80 points.
  • New York Rangers: Here’s a big “Ouch!” The last two games were a win (over the Dallas Stars) and an overtime loss (to the Colorado Avalanche), so they lose three points, from 79 to 76, well out of wild-card contention.
  • Florida Panthers: The last game for the Panthers (number 69) was a win over the St. Louis Blues. Removing those two points drops the team from 78 to 76 points.

Related: NHL’s Playoff Format Needs Restructuring

The Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit had played 71 games at the time of The Pause, but they were so far from playoff contention we don’t need to consider how removing three games would affect their standing.

1st Round Matchups After a 68-Game Regular Season: Eastern Conference

Boston (1st Atlantic & 1st Eastern Conference) vs. NY Islanders (2nd wild card)

Washington* (1st Metropolitan & 2nd Conference) vs. Carolina (1st wild card)

Tampa Bay (2nd Atlantic) vs. Toronto (3rd Atlantic)

Philadelphia* (2nd Metropolitan) vs. Pittsburgh (3rd Metropolitan)

* The Capitals and Flyers would both finish with 89 points. They also both have 41 regulation wins (W), the first tiebreak, however, Washington edges Philadelphia in the second tiebreak, ROW (regulation and overtime wins), 37 to 36.

Giroux Flyers Ovechkin Capitals
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers and Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Mar. 18, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Change (And It’s Big):

Changing the standings from “All Games Played” to “68 Games Played” produces only one change in the first-round playoff matchups, but it’s huge: Columbus loses two points when their 70th game is removed, so they fall behind the Islanders for the last wild-card spot. The Blue Jackets’ magic season ends with a thud.

Related: Blue Jackets Face Tough End of 2019

Do you remember Nov. 30, 2019, when the Islanders beat Columbus 2-0? Reverse that score and the Blue Jackets would be in last wild-card slot.

New York Islanders Mathew Barzal
New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal celebrates. (AP Photo/Jim McIsaac)

Zero wins in four shootouts didn’t help, nor did their league-leading 15 overtime losses. How many one-goal (or one-goal-and-an-empty-netter) games did they play? Lots! How about 49 games.

The team’s record in those games was 23-10-16, earning 62 of a possible 98 points. That rate (just under .633) would produce 102 points over an 82-game season. A whopping 70% Blue Jackets games were decided by one goal (or a one goal and an empty-net goal), in overtime, or in a shootout. When we trim their season to 68 games, a single one-goal game is subtracted, which is 48 of 68 games, slightly above 70%.

The Islanders spent nearly as much time sweating bullets as the Blue Jackets. Of 68 games, 42 were decided in regulation by one goal (or a goal and an empty-net goal), in overtime, or in a shootout. The Islanders’ record in those games was a tidy 23-10-10, for 56 of 86 possible points. That .651 percentage equates to just under 107 points in an 82-game season.

Related: Islanders’ Remaining Schedule an Uphill Battle

Since the Islanders played only 68 games this season, their points don’t change in a truncated season. Perhaps the difference between the Islanders and the Blue Jackets in the race for the final wild-card playoff slot comes down to the six fewer overtime/shootout losses.

New York Islanders
New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A couple of additional points for the Islanders in the standings would overtake the Hurricanes for the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and a first-round matchup with the Capitals instead of Bruins. The Islanders would have needed five additional points to overtake the Penguins for third place in the Metropolitan Division (meeting the Flyers in the first round). The point here is that in the 68-game regular season, the Islanders are in the playoffs!

No Playoffs, but Columbus Still Exceeded Expectations

Few people expected the Blue Jackets to bounce back after losing three major players to free agency at the end of last season. Then the injuries started piling up, and continued to pile up. Yet they persevered and scratched and clawed their way into playoff contention.

Unfortunately, my proposal to truncate the regular season pulls the rug out from under it all. Sorry, Blue Jackets. Sorry, John Tortorella (but I still think you deserve the Jack Adams Award, as does my colleague Domenic Lunardo).

Up next, I’ll look at how truncating the NHL 2019-20 season affects the Western Conference playoff picture.