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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.”

Sadly, Capitals aren’t selling this collection of Christmas songs

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Let’s be honest, virtually any time a team gets its players to embrace a holiday theme, it’s in the name of goofiness. And bless NHL teams for this.

When it comes to Movember, you get the fantastic combination of mustaches and charitable contributions.

The holidays are rapidly approaching (hey, I see that Amazon tab open), so we’ll start to see various New Year’s/Christmas/Festivus/etc.-themed fun. Even with that in mind, the Washington Capitals will be tough to top with their collection of Christmas tunes.

Sadly, there’s no Volume 1:

Question: which performance stood out to you the most? While Braden Holtby was fantastic (with a Tomas Plekanec-level turtleneck game), the simple entertainment of watching Alex Ovechkin sing is tough to top.

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.

 

Video: Michael Grabner totally meant to do this for Rangers

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Depending upon how things go for each team, the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins may very well grapple for a wild-card spot in the East.

Thankfully, it won’t come down to Michael Grabner‘s deeply weird, memorable, and fun goal against Tuukka Rask, a “bank” goal that Grabner totally meant to do. Right?

(Watch that goal in the video above this post’s headline.)

That was Grabner’s 16th goal of 2017-18, which isn’t half-bad for a guy carrying a $1.65 million cap hit this season. Prediction: the speedy winger will cost quite a bit more than that in 2018-19.

As you can see in this video, Alain Vigneault points to Grabner gathering steam in his second season with the Rangers as part of the reason this team is turning things around:

J.T. Miller added a beauty of a goal to make it 2-0, but the Bruins dug deep to tie it 2-2, so we’ll see how the rest of that game goes.

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.

WATCH NHL 100 CLASSIC LIVE: Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators

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PROJECTED LINES

Montreal Canadiens

Forwards

Pacioretty – Danault – Byron

Galchenyuk – Drouin – Shaw

Hudon – Plekanec – Gallagher

Deslauriers – Froese/de la Rose – Carr

Defense

Alzner – Petry

Benn – Weber

Schlemko – Jerabek/Morrow

Starting Goalie: Carey Price

[NHL On NBCSN: Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators Meet In NHL 100 Classic]

Ottawa Senators

Forwards

Ryan – Duchene – Stone

Dzingel – Brassard – Hoffman

Smith – Pageau – Pyatt

Burrows – Thompson – Dumont

Defense

Oduya – Karlsson

Phaneuf – Ceci

Claesson – Chabot

Starting goalie: Craig Anderson

 

 

Eugene Melnyk’s Senators are kind of a mess right now

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As the Ottawa Senators prepare to head into their outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night it is really difficult to imagine this is the same organization that was one game away from winning the entire Eastern Conference just seven months ago.

It’s taken a less than a year for all of the goodwill that improbable playoff run created among the team’s fan base to be almost completely wiped away.

And it’s not just because the product on the ice has badly regressed.

Actually, that is probably the least of their concerns at this point.

On a day that is supposed to be a celebration and a highlight of the team’s season — a home outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens!– the fan base is instead staging a social media rebellion against team owner Eugene Melnyk with the #melnykout hashtag on Twitter.

[NHL On NBCSN: Senators, Canadiens Meet In NHL 100 Classic]

Pretty much every reply to every Tweet from the Senators’ social media team is being bombarded with that hashtag as fans voice their displeasure. On Saturday afternoon #melynkout was one of the top trending topics in all of Canada.

Just a quick recap of everything that has gone wrong in recent weeks to help get things to this boiling point.

  • Erik Karlsson, the team’s best player, a generational talent, and a superstar that has played the past few seasons on a below market contract made some comments that indicated he would not be willing to take another hometown discount when his contract expires after next season. Given the team’s financials it is pretty clear that he already has one foot out the door.
  • The team, struggling on the ice and apparently desperate to make a move, is reportedly fielding calls on every player on the roster, including Karlsson.
  • Kyle Turris, traded as part of the Matt Duchene trade, suggested the team’s front office wanted to re-sign him but ownership did not. Turris and his new team, the Nashville Predators, have been unstoppable since the trade while Duchene and the Senators have been stuck in neutral.
  • General manager Pierre Dorion denied that claim and said all hockey moves go through him, not the owner. That press conference from Dorion included the anecdote that Dorion’s own son said the team’s “level of suckage is high.”
  • Then, on Friday night, on the night before the team’s outdoor game, Melnyk poured a bucket of gasoline on the tire fire that is his team and made some ominous comments about the team’s financial situation and future in Ottawa.

Melnyk is no stranger to bringing some less than desirable attention to his team. The whole forensic investigation surrounding the Matt Cooke and Erik Karlsson incident; the way he lost his mind in the wake of the Sidney Crosby/Marc Methot incident. But to make comments like the ones he made on Friday, on the eve of a major NHL and team event, and given everything else surrounding the team and his ownership at the moment, is astonishing even for him.

Oh, and the team itself is still seven points out of a playoff spot and sitting in 15th place in the Eastern Conference.

Given all of that it is really difficult to imagine a bleaker long-term outlook for any fan base in the NHL. Which situation can possibly be worse?

The only one that really comes close at this point from is probably the Detroit Red Wings, and that is strictly from a hockey standpoint. The Red Wings are a sub-par team saddled with a ton of long-term contracts, little in the way of young, impact talent and are in dire need of a rebuild but seem reluctant to actually go through with it. It might be a long time before the Red Wings are a factor in the Eastern Conference again, but at least they are not in danger of moving (or at least having that threat thrown out there). They don’t have an owner that fans are openly revolting against.

Even the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes have some reason to be hopeful from a hockey standpoint (Jack Eichel in Buffalo; Arizona is struggling, but they have a ton of young talent).

But the Senators? What is the reason for optimism here?

They have a generational superstar that might be one of the finest players to ever play his position and it is only a matter of when, and not if, he is playing for another team.

The owner, seemingly unwilling to sell the team, doesn’t seem to respect his own fan base and doesn’t seem to have the funds to consistently put a competitive product on the ice.

If you are Senators fan, what can you possibly have to look forward to right now, whether it be for the rest of this season or beyond?

It is a grim situation to be sure.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.