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NHL’s Thanksgiving playoffs rule unlikely to fit this season

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Erik Gudbranson looks at the standings almost every day.

Sure, it’s only November, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the playoffs and see which teams are atop the division standings.

”Every single point matters,” the Vancouver Canucks defenseman said. ”You want to stay with that group.”

For more than a decade, the status of that group at Thanksgiving has been a significant indicator of who gets to keep playing beyond mid-April. Since the salary-cap era began in 2005-06, 78.4 percent of teams in playoff position by the fourth Thursday in November have made it. It’s so notable that it is considered the NHL’s unofficial Thanksgiving rule.

In most years, the picture solidifies in mid-November and an average of 12-13 playoff teams are all but set by Thanksgiving.

Not so much this season, where there are 12 teams separated by eight points in the Eastern Conference and 12 teams separated by five points in the West, making the races too close to call at Thanksgiving.

”With the parity that’s in the league nowadays, I don’t know if that rule really applies anymore,” Calgary Flames winger Troy Brouwer said. ”Usually at some point a few teams break away from the pack and the rest of them, because of the three-point games and everybody’s playing so many divisional games, you never really gain a ton of ground on a team or lose a ton of ground on a team unless you’re continuously losing divisional games.”

Led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, the Tampa Bay Lightning are far away the best in the East, while the duo of Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schennhas the St. Louis Blues atop the West. The Toronto Maple Leafs are talented and the Los Angeles Kings are off to a great start, but there aren’t too many teams at the quarter mark that can feel too confident about making the playoffs.

”It’s pretty well a .500 league right now,” Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ”The teams that have a little more depth like Tampa, who is in a good window, and St. Louis and probably L.A. … they’re the only ones that have really pulled away from anybody. The rest of us are right all there.”

A relatively flat salary cap over the past few seasons and the expansion draft that filled the Vegas Golden Knights with the best roster for a first-year franchise in history have served to level the talent discrepancy around hockey.

”There’s not much separation between teams,” Pittsburgh Penguins center Riley Sheahan said. ”The salary cap makes it a tough league to play in.”

But this isn’t just about the cap, which has been around 13 seasons. A lot of inter-conference play early is one theory for so many teams being packed together.

”We haven’t even started playing in conference, in division games,” winger Wayne Simmonds said after he and the Philadelphia Flyers played 17 of their first 22 games against the West. ”I think that’s where things will start to separate. When everyone’s playing the Western Conference or maybe different divisions, the separation you don’t see as much.”

It’s going to be tough going for last-place Buffalo and Arizona to make the playoffs and an uphill climb for should’ve-been contenders Montreal and Edmonton. The Thanksgiving rule may be moot for this year, but a brutal start is tough to dig out from.

”You can’t make the playoffs in November, but you can knock yourself out,” veteran Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It seems like even when you’re down four points at the end of the year, the games get so much tighter and there’s more three-point games, it seems like, toward the end of the year. Teams are playing a lot more defensive and safe. It seems like it’s easier to pile up points now than it is to try to catch up at the end.”

It’s not impossible, though, as the 2007-08 Capitals are one of 38 teams to get it done after looking like they’re cooked. They fired coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day, replaced him with Bruce Boudreau and went from 8-7-6 to a Southeast Division title.

Boudreau, whose Minnesota Wild are 13th in the West but just two points out of a playoff spot, doesn’t think much about the Thanksgiving rule.

”If you look at it as this is a truism and you’re not in at that time, you have a tendency to (think), ‘Aw man, we’re not going make it,’ and I don’t want anybody on our team thinking along those lines,” Boudreau said. ”But it’s going to be close.”

It’s so close that while Sheahan said you can ”start to drive yourself a little crazy” by focusing too much on stats and the schedule, there are no guarantees. Half the playoff teams turned over from 2015-16 to 2016-17, and of the 16 teams in position now, seven didn’t make it last spring and one didn’t even exist.

The standings are packed, so much that one victory or one loss can shuffle them like a deck of cards.

”It gives you that extra incentive to be ready every single night,” Gudbranson said. ”You have to be when you can gain one extra point and jump from 10th in the West to a solid wild-card spot – and vice-versa, it can go the other way.”

The Buzzer: Marchessault leads Golden Knights; Boeser injures foot

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Player of the Night: Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

Marchessault took over the Vegas scoring lead with a big night during a 5-2 win over his old team, the Florida Panthers. The Golden Knights scored four unanswered goals after falling behind 2-0 early in the first period, and Marchessault played a big part by assisting on the tying and go-ahead goals and then potting the empty-netter to seal things. He now has 29 points on the season.

Reilly Smith, another ex-Panther, chipped in a pair of assists, including one on Marchessault’s goal to ice things for Gerard Gallant’s side. Vegas is now 13-2-1 at home.

Highlight of the Night:

Patrik Laine scored his team-leading 16th of the season for the Winnipeg Jets, and it was beautiful.

MISC:

Patrick Kane scored twice and Corey Crawford made 27 saves as the Chicago Blackhawks downed the Minnesota Wild 4-1 for their fifth win in a row. Kane now has seven points in his last four games. He’s one goal away from 300 for his career and now sits fifth all-time in Blackhawks history.

• Connor Hellebuyck stopped all 24 shots he faced and recorded his eighth career shutout during a 4-0 win over the St. Louis Blues. Adam Lowry, Laine, Mark Scheifele and Josh Morrissey provided the goals as the Jets split their home-and-home with the Blues.

Sam Bennett had four points and Mark Jankowski recorded three as the Calgary Flames drubbed the Vancouver Canucks 6-1. Mark Giordano added a pair of goals and David Rittich stopped 16 of 17 shots he faced for his third career NHL victory.

• The Canucks and Panthers weren’t too fond of the third period Sunday night. Vancouver was outshot 19-4 while Florida mustered only two shots on goal while allowing 18 over the final 20 minutes.

• Oh no. Brock Boeser left the game early in the second period after blocking a Mark Giordano shot. Canucks head coach Travis Green did not have an update after the game. This is not good.

Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche will miss two games after being suspended for boarding Vladislav Namestnikov of the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night.

• Congrats, Erik Karlsson. It’s a boy!

Our hearts exploded with that puck. We can’t wait to meet you baby BOY 💙

A post shared by Melinda Karlsson (@mel.karlsson) on

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Winnipeg 4, St. Louis 0
Chicago 4, Minnesota 1
Calgary 6, Vancouver 1
Vegas 5, Florida 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy

Canucks’ Brock Boeser suffers foot injury after blocking shot (Video)

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As the Vancouver Canucks transition their roster and let the kids take over, Brock Boeser has been a real bright spot this season. Well, right now fans are holding their collective breaths hoping that the Calder Trophy candidate isn’t too seriously hurt after blocking a Mark Giordano shot early in the second period Sunday night.

Did you catch that Jim Benning reaction?

Sportsnet

Yup, us too, Jim.

Boeser, who leads the Canucks and all NHL rookies in scoring with 17 goals and 30 points, was ruled out for the rest of the night a short while later with a foot injury.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s all three members of the Canucks’ BBB line that are currently injured. Bo Horvat is out until January with a foot injury and Sven Baertschi has a similar timeline after fracturing his jaw.

Depending on the severity of the injury could also impact some of Boeser’s potential bonuses in his rookie season. Ryan Biech of The Athletic had a great breakdown on Friday about how much the Vancouver stands to earn this season should he hit certain totals in specific categories. Hopefully this doesn’t keep him out long. The Calder race is better with him a part of it.

UPDATE: Canucks head coach didn’t have an update on Boeser after the game.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Erik Johnson to sit two games for Avalanche after suspension

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It was pretty clear that after receving a slashing minor, boarding major and game misconduct all in the span of about three seconds, Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche still had some punishment coming to him.

And so on Sunday night the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced a two-game ban for the veteran defenseman after he boarded Vladislav Namestnikov Saturday night in Colorado.

As detailed in the video, Johnson knows that Namestnikov has already fired his shot on goal and the Tampa Bay Lightning forward isn’t expecting to be shoved like that after his scoring attempt. That, and how far he was from the boards make it all especially dangerous. Fortunately, Namestnikov was able to remain in the game.

“Dangerous play. You just hold your breath on those. Got a little fortunate with Vladdy, obviously didn’t get as fortunate with Callahan,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, referring to Ryan Callahan‘s injury after an awkward collision with Oliver Ekman-Larsson last week.

Johnson will lose out on $64,516.12, which goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Is Alex Ovechkin clutch?

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If you get into a bar argument with a sports fan about Alex Ovechkin, there’s a strong chance that at least one person will argue that the Washington Capitals superstar is “not clutch.”

It’s easy to compile such an argument, whether it’s fair or not. The Capitals won three Presidents’ Trophies in the Ovechkin era, yet they’ve never gotten to a third round with him on their roster. His Olympic struggles are both dramatic and well-documented.

That said, if you extract team successes and failures from the picture – which is difficult for many to do, that’s true – it gets tougher to deny that there’s some “clutchness” there, unless you just start to wrestle with whether “clutch” is even a real thing or not.

(Allow me to not open that pandora’s box.)

Last night, Alex Ovechkin scored his 21st overtime goal, adding to an NHL record he already owned. In the process, he came that much closer to 100 career game-winners in the regular season.

Here’s the goal itself:

As you can see, Ovechkin is one GWG away from joining a club of players who’ve scored at least 100; he’d be the eighth person to do so. It might not take him long to pass Jarome Iginla, and depending upon how his twilight years go, Patrick Marleau.

It’s plausible that Ovechkin may finish his career on the top of that list, though he might fall short of passing kindred spirit/guy he once clobbered in initial play Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr is a kindred spirit because, while he’s currently in the Teemu Selanne phase of his career as an ageless wonder loved by just about any fan interested in the game, number 68 was once a frequent scapegoat in his own right. Plenty of people questioned his character and work ethic, at times to the point of things getting cartoonish. Sometimes stars like these need to go through that period before people embrace them like they always should have.

And the more you look into things, it’s clear that a lot of fans should drop the disdain and enjoy just how special Ovechkin is.

Consider this: Ovechkin is just 32, yet Hockey Reference’s listings show that he’s been in the top-10 in game-winning goals in 10 seasons. Ovechkin led the league in that category three times and was in the top five on seven occasions.

For a guy who takes a beating for not lifting the Stanley Cup (yet?), Ovechkin shows up in the playoffs, too.

During his career, Ovechkin has scored 46 goals and 90 points in 97 career postseason games, close to a point-per-contest. Just about every player sees a dip in regular season versus playoff numbers – it’s the nature of the beast with checking tighter and every goal mattering much more – so being able to generate offense that often sure indicates some “clutchness” to me.

At some point, you just have to tip your cap to a great player, and maybe stop frowning and enjoy his boisterous celebrations and once-in-a-lifetime scoring skills. You might get a chance to do that again soon, as Ovechkin sits at 581 goals. He might just hit the 600 mark in 2017-18, joining 19 other NHL players to cross that barrier.

This post isn’t meant to imply that Ovechkin is totally flawless and it’s unlikely that a mountain of milestones will move his harshest critics.

Then again, if listing some of these resounding accomplishments helps even a few extra hockey fans enjoy a rare talent, it’s well worth it. At 32, Ovechkin could really rack up numbers for a long time, but his window could close as a true goal-scoring phenom.

It wouldn’t be very clutch to come around to Ovechkin once his best days are all behind him, now would it?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.