Happy Thanksgiving week to readers south of the border. In America, this is a week for travel, family and fun. In Canada, it’s a week to go “Wait, why is there football on a Thursday afternoon?” But in either country, it means if you’re not in a playoff spot, you might be in trouble.
There are different theories about just how far out you can be, and just how unlikely a comeback could be. But the most basic version is also the scariest: Teams that are out of a playoff spot on U.S. Thanksgiving are very unlikely to make it, period. We’re told that even coaches buy into it.
The good news, if your team is on the outside looking in, is that we’re a few days early here. The bad news is that some teams have already clinched, in the sense that even if they win the rest of their pre-Thanksgiving games, they’ll still be out in the cold on Thursday morning. Let’s focus on those teams, and try to figure out who’s going to defy the odds.
Bonus Five: Teams with the best shot at shaking the Thanksgiving curse
5. Buffalo Sabres — I’m rooting for them, I really am. But the math is starting to get a bit bleak, even after last night’s win. Maybe this is wishful thinking. Or maybe I’m putting them on the list because if they do make it, I’m going to want to join the bandwagon and I’ll use this as proof that I never gave up hope.
4. Minnesota Wild — The talent is there, but the results haven’t been. We’ll get into more detail on the Wild down below.
Just painful watching the Wild’s supposed best players right now
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) November 19, 2023
3. Ottawa Senators — Getting a pair of wins in Sweden was probably the ideal scenario, as they got away from some of the noise in Ottawa and come home in far better shape. They’ve still got some climbing to do, but my money’s on them catching teams like the Flyers and Wings. The Caps too? We’ll get to them in a bit.
2. Edmonton Oilers — They’re the furthest team out on this list, but this pick is probably still no surprise, at least if you’ve been reading this column all season. I refuse to believe the Oilers will miss the playoffs, and their improved results since Kris Knoblauch took over have me feeling good about that call. You know the argument by now — the team was actually playing well under Jay Woodcroft, but were losing largely because of goaltending and bad luck. The goaltending is still questionable, especially after another weak outing from Stuart Skinner. But whether it comes internally or via trade, I think the Oilers fix their crease issues. And when they do, they’ll be fine. Maybe more.
1. New Jersey Devils — The math was going to get tricky, but the Flyers’ win last night simplifies things. The Devils are three points back with one game left before Thanksgiving, so they’ll be on the outside on the dreaded date. They’re also making the playoffs, meaning I’ll get at least one of these right.
Wait, did that sound too confident? Please don’t blame me if your team collapses, Devils fans.
On to the top five, all of whom appear to be holding down playoff spots …
Road to the Cup
The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
It’s Kyle Connor’s world right now, we’re all just living in it.
5. New York Rangers (12-2-1, +18 true goals differential*) — Sorry Canucks fans, there’s no room for you to squeeze in this week, with all five of last week’s teams staying strong. That includes the Rangers, who’ve now won four straight and 10 of 11. The big story heading into Saturday’s showdown with the Devils was the return of Jack Hughes, and he scored early. But the Rangers pulled off a third-period comeback to take it in regulation, with unlikely hero Jimmy Vesey getting the winner.
4. Colorado Avalanche (11-5-0, +12) — Three games, three wins including one over the Stars, and 19 goals scored. They’d looked wobbly lately, but this week was a flex.
3. Boston Bruins (13-1-2, +23) — Was Patrice Bergeron actually holding them back all these years? MY COLUMN:
2. Dallas Stars (11-4-1, +10) — I’m keeping them at No. 2, even after the loss to the Avs. They’ve got the Rangers tonight in a great matchup, which will either make me look smart for staying patient or have us all wondering whether they’re good enough to beat the very best teams.
1. Vegas Golden Knights (13-4-2, +17) — With losses in three of four and five of seven, the invincibility sheen has worn off. This is their fifth straight week in my top spot, but it could be their last if they can’t turn it around.
*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.
Not ranked: Washington Capitals — I will admit that I am confused.
Like just about everyone, I’ve been waiting to break the glass on the “their window has closed” narrative in Washington for a few years now. After watching them miss the playoffs last year, it seemed like the time had come. And when they started the season with just one shootout win to go with four losses, combined with the end of the Nicklas Backstrom comeback story, well, done deal.
Except the Capitals apparently missed the memo. They won eight of 10 since then, including two over the Devils and one against the Golden Knights.
Maybe the most surprising part is they’re doing it despite an offense that hasn’t looked as threatening as it could. Backstrom is out, Max Pacioretty hasn’t played, Alexander Ovechkin hasn’t warmed up yet, and T.J. Oshie has been missing in action. The power play is hitting at just 7 percent, which seems impossible for an Ovechkin team but here we are. They’re 30th in the league in total goals scored, ahead of only the Sharks and Blackhawks.
But it’s somehow been enough, thanks in part to the goaltending that sits at a .912 save percentage, most of which is driven by veteran backup Charlie Lindgren. The underlying numbers are solid, but not spectacular. Add it all up and they’re 9-4-2 with the second-best points percentage in the Metro, but with a negative goals differential.
So … are they fake?
That seems like the easy answer — that this is a mediocre team that temporarily hit a stretch where they got all the bounces. They earned the points and they’ll take them, but they’re not legitimate playoff contenders, and this first month is just delaying the inevitable. That makes a certain kind of sense, right up until you remember how cold the veteran shooters have been. That makes you wonder what all this looks like if the goaltending holds and Ovechkin and friends start finding the net.
I guess we’ll see. Until then, the team is banking points and Spencer Carbery is probably banking a few Jack Adams votes. They’ve got an interesting week ahead with the Sabres, Oilers and Sharks, three of the league’s weaker teams according to the standings. Let’s see where this goes. But for now, that glass case will live another day.
The bottom five
The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Macklin Celebrini.
If the bottom five section was a play, it would be a defenseman belly-flopping to set up a two-on-zero break that results in … well, nobody knows, because the referee forgets that it’s his job to signal that sort of thing.
Just like you draw it up.
5. Nashville Predators (6-10-0, -6) — Once again, we’ve got four teams that should pretty clearly be in the bottom five in some order, and then a rotating cast of contenders for the last slot. Last week we dropped the Flames in, and they responded by collecting five of six points. Maybe we can work the same magic on the Predators. They did win over the weekend, but it was against the Hawks, so it can’t move our needle all that much. They get those Flames on Wednesday, so maybe that’s the game that decides next week’s spot.
4. Chicago Blackhawks (5-11-0, -16) — They put up their 11th loss of the season last night, the most of any team that has yet to be visited by the loser point fairy. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your perspective on what the Hawks should be trying to accomplish this season, but just remember: The loser point makes the playoff races closer, except all the times it doesn’t.
3. Montreal Canadiens (7-9-2, -13) — I’ll be honest, I hadn’t noticed it until Arpon pointed it out, but the Canadiens have only won two games in regulation this year. And we’re quickly approaching the one-month anniversary of the most recent one, which came back on Oct. 23; they’re 4-9 since then, but all four wins have come in overtime or a shootout. Those two regulation wins are dead last in the league, trailing even the Sharks.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets (4-11-4, -18) — Nine straight losses, and 13 of 14. Eight straight losses in which they’d had a lead. We’re legitimately close to having a controversy at the top of this list, folks.
The bigger news last night was Patrik Laine being a healthy scratch. We’ll see whether it works, but the Blue Jackets have to be open to trying whatever they can to get their $8.7 million man playing at a star level. The shift to center hasn’t worked. Not much has so far this year, so we’ll see if some time in the press box can spark anything.
1. San Jose Sharks (3-13-1, -46) — They won again on Thursday, presumably because they were inspired by reading this.
That 5-1 win over the Blues was the first time all year they’d scored more than three goals, and only the second time they’ve given up less than two. I’ll tell you what, you do both of those things in the same game, you’re going to win more than you lose.
Not ranked: Minnesota Wild — I think it’s time to worry.
Minnesota fans seem to have already been there for a while now, but fans can sometimes jump the gun, overreacting to what turns out to be a blip. I wonder if that’s what we were seeing when the Wild were losing four straight at the end of October. This had been a consistent 100-point team for three years now, so a short losing streak wasn’t anything to panic about.
Now? I think I was sleeping on the warning signs. The Wild headed to Sweden for their two-game trip riding a stretch where they were just 2-7-0 with only one regulation win. Their last game in North America was an 8-3 loss to the Stars, which was already the third time this year they’ve given up seven or more in a game. It’s fair to say it put an end to any talk of the Sweden trip being some sort of fun team activity. It wasn’t much fun on the ice either, as the Wild dropped both games.
They picked up two points along the way, so it wasn’t a total write-off. Both games featured something they could build on — a solid defensive effort against Ottawa and a nice third-period comeback against Toronto — but just not enough to put a win on the board. Oh, and Colorado is next.
So, what’s been going wrong? We can start with Kirill Kaprizov, who hasn’t looked right all year and doesn’t seem healthy. The goaltending is a mess, with Filip Gustavsson looking nothing like the breakout star he’d seemed like after last year and Marc-Andre Fleury looking like a 39-year-old. Matt Boldy, who you hoped would take another big step forward after last year’s 30-goal season, has instead had a slow start. The power play is bad, and the penalty kill is laughably worse — Russo’s exaggerating when he calls it the “world’s worst,” but only a little.
Lots of frustration on the ice as the Wild destroy yet another power play. Hartman just annihilated the glass going to the bench. They are so soft on pucks it’s unreal
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) November 19, 2023
Add it all up, and the Wild have dug themselves a hole. A team that had hoped to stay in the mix with the Stars and Avalanche in the Central are instead looking up at the Blues and Coyotes. The Oilers are right there with them, and they just fired their coach.
Maybe that’s the next step in Minnesota too, although it still feels like it’s too early for that. According to Dom’s model, their playoff chances are down to coin-flip territory, which might seem flattering given how they’ve looked early on. But the underlying numbers are solid, and you could make a case that once Kaprizov gets healthy, the penalty kill stops giving up five a night, and at least one of the goalies starts making a few saves, this team will be OK. If so, the question becomes whether they’ve dug too deep a hole.
(Top photos of Kirill Kaprizov and Alex Ovechkin: Mark Blinch and John McCreary / NHLI via Getty Images)