ASB Disclosure: we said from before training camp that this remains a team that will fight and scrap for a playoff spot and will get in somewhere in the 6-8 range. No home ice advantage and no clinching until sometime in the early days of April in the final games. The 3-1 start is encouraging and shows us some key strengths, but we still have a tough conference schedule with teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, and Carolina all being solid opponents.
Okay - so we know that 94 points is our magic number to crack the playoff barrier. The last two seasons, 94 gets you in, 93 doesn't guarantee it. Let's approach our study with this variable in place.
Games per month:
October: 12 (only 4 against teams that were in the playoffs last year)
November: 12 (8 against playoff teams)
December: 17 (9 against playoff teams)
January: 15 (13 against playoff teams)
February: 7 (4 against playoff teams)
March: 14 (7 against playoff teams)
April: 5 (1 against a playoff team)
So what does this tell us? December is a critical month. Not just because we want to close out the year with a feel good story and not just because it is our busiest month. It is critical because January could be downright awful. I know we're a good team but nobody can be looking forward to a month when just about every game is against a team that played postseason hockey last spring, including the Bruins three times.
By my estimation, we need to be around the 50 point mark (at a minimum) going into the New Year. That would mean a record of 22-16 or any other combination that includes overtime losses (hard to estimate those so we'll just go with a conservative approach and each OTL is gravy). Given that we're off to a decent start, we have a few games against Eastern bottom feeders (sorry TB and FLA), and a pretty easy December, getting to that 50 point mark would set us up well for 2010. Repeat - October and December have to give us winning records with November being a 50/50 month. Especially important is a stretch around Christmas when we visit the Sabres (we owned them last year), then home to Montreal, Colorado, and the Islanders. We should win all four of those.
I see January being our only month with a losing record. As I said, we're a solid team but we're just facing superior opponents during that stretch. The two weeks in February isn't much of a breather as we'll have Vancouver, Calgary, and Washington coming to town, plus a trip to Detroit. Second barometer: we need to be at 70 points by the Olympic break. First, it would be nice to go out with some momentum before sending players off to Vancouver, hopefully protecting their adductors. Second, it sets us up for a strong March and April to hit that 94 point mark.
We come back and open tough with the Rags and the Canes, then get a token Leafs win before going to Western Canada. Insomniac Sens fans will remember that we typically win the Oilers game and lose the Flames and Canucks games. After that trip, we should rattle off a nice streak as we play Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas, and Montreal. By the end of the month, we should be in the upper 80s and enter the final five games of the year.
More good news - our final five games aren't that tough. We host the Canes, then have the Islanders, Panthers, Lightning, and Sabres to wrap up the year. If we can be in the high 80s going into April, it isn't out of the question that we go 4-1 to end the year and hit the magic number. Like I said earlier, we're good enough for playoff hockey but I don't think we're good enough to get home ice advantage.
So if you want to take down some notes to put into your wallet to remember how many points we need each month to hit 94, here's what I've got:
Points at the end of each month:
October: must have at least 16 points
November: 28 points
December: 50 points
January: 62 points
February: 70 points
March: 86 points
April: 94 points
Again, this is strictly looking at wins and losses, not overtime losses. Those are hard to predict, plus there will be games that we should lose that we end up losing in overtime, just like there are games that we should win and we end up losing in overtime. All we need to remember is 50 points by the end of the year and 70 points by the Olympic break.
In the meantime, let's sit back and enjoy this nice start to the year and see how the boys do against the Cup champs Monday night. It will be a great game to see how our defensive system holds up against a team that has more than one star player.