NHL contenders beware: Being in a playoff spot on Thanksgiving is critical

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NHL contenders beware: Being in a playoff spot on Thanksgiving is critical originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com

ARLINGTON, Va. - Call it the NHL version of early voting.  By the time American Thanksgiving hits in late November – in an international sport like hockey you have to distinguish these things – teams that are in a playoff spot have a huge advantage. The season is only about a quarter over, but trends are already in place that will carry over for the next 60 games. 

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According to the NHL, over the past five seasons 62 of 80 teams in a playoff spot on Thanksgiving Day have gone on to clinch a playoff berth (77.5 percent).  That's good news for the Capitals, who had a short summer after winning the Stanley Cup, a few tough road trips already and some injuries that have tested their depth.

Yet 21 games into the season Washington is 11-7-3 with 25 standings points and sits in third place in the Metropolitan Division. 

"It's the quarter of the way through mark and we've had to work for it," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "But going through that is not a bad thing in the long run. If everything comes easy for you all the year then sometimes that can set you up for failure later on. So we're working through it and still racking up enough points." 

That's a playoff spot – albeit a precarious one. The Caps are only two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (10-8-3, 23 points), who are the first team out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. But it's better than the alternative.   There is a theory that Thanksgiving is no longer the barometer it once was given the parity in the NHL. Last season five teams outside of a playoff spot at the quarter pole (Boston, Philadelphia, San Jose, Minnesota, Colorado) all recovered to make it anyway. 

Twelve teams remain within five points of a playoff position through 317 games in 2018-19, continuing a recent trend. In each of the past two seasons, at least 12 teams were within five points of a playoff spot as of U.S. Thanksgiving. At least three teams have clinched a postseason berth after being outside the bracket on U.S. Thanksgiving in each of the past eight applicable seasons. But all of that still bucks historical norms. Five teams breaking the Thanksgiving curse has only happened a few times since the turn of the century. It also happened in 2000-01, 2003-04 and 2007-08. 

The Capitals are the quintessential turnaround story.

The Rock the Red era began during that 2007-08 season when they fired coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day and hired Bruce Boudreau. It took a while, but Washington eventually caught fire, went from dead last in the conference to clinch the Southeast Division title and a playoff berth on a memorable final day of the regular season. But they had to win 11 of their final 12 games to do it. Spending the whole season chasing is no way to go through life. It's exhausting.  

And that's the reason Thanksgiving remains a good barometer. The Florida Panthers just missed the playoffs in 2017-18 and with a young roster stacked with talent were considered a contender. But on Thanksgiving Day they sit last in the Atlantic Division at 8-8-3 with 19 points in 19 games. Florida is already seven points out of an Eastern Conference wild card spot and 11 points behind third-place Buffalo (14-6-2, 30 points). It gets late quick.    

After winning the Presidents' Trophy the previous two years, the Caps spent last fall trying to acclimate to big roster changes and getting over the grief of back-to-back second-round playoff exits. It took a while and they hit bottom on Nov. 16 with a 6-2 loss to Colorado and were out of a playoff spot 20 games into the season. But Washington won two of its first three games on a pre-Thanksgiving homestand and held the final Eastern Conference wild card berth on the holiday at 12-10-1 (25 points).  Then the Caps beat Tampa Bay at home 3-1 the day after Thanksgiving.

No one knew at the time that was a preview of the conference final, which Washington won in seven games.  "I think it was a little harder to believe last year," Niskanen said. "To believe that you could come through it and be better. This year I think at least stats wise we're on as similar path and we know that we have the potential to get better and do something at the right time of year because we just did it." 

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