Nikita Kucherov

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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.”

What fantasy hockey players should be grateful for

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Ah, Thanksgiving. A time when families come together to overeat, try to ignore the more problematic elements of the holiday’s roots, watch lopsided football games, and get into arguments.

Not great, honestly, but kudos to my family specifically for at least adding pierogies to the mix.

With the American version of the holiday upon us (it’s in October in Canada … weird!), it seems wise to share gratitude for the players who are powering our fantasy hockey teams to greatness, or at least to help us avoid total mockery at the water cooler.*

Going for seconds, thirds

So far, 2017-18 has been The Year of The Top Lines. It can be seen mostly blatantly in noting that Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are battling for the top scoring spot in the NHL, while Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz are also in the top 10.

Much like the satisfaction of eating homemade sides instead of canned vegetables, the real winners have been the less-obvious members of lines who have been incredible values, and some of whom might deliver for a full season.

Schenn is an obvious example, with his 30 points in 22 games (not to mention 20 PIM and +19 rating) making him a blistering steal. His Yahoo pre-season ranking was 85th, and he likely went lower depending upon your given draft.

Sean Couturier might be the most delirious example so far, though. His yahoo ranking was 262, yet he’s ranked 18th by the same standards, as it’s clear that he’s taken the bull by the horns when it comes to getting an increased offensive role with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on his wings. Vladislav Namestnikov has been glorious, and it sure seems likely that’ll he remain with Stamkos and Kucherov as long as he’s healthy.

Micheal Ferland might spell his name in a funny way, but you’ll make fun of him less often if he’s on your team and manages to stay with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan over the long haul.

On that note, there are still some things to sort out. Will Kyle Connor be the guy that gets to play with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele more often than not? Can the Stars get a consistent third player (aside: we need a third [blank] to go with “second banana”) to dunk in opportunities from Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, at least with Alex Radulov seemingly not being the right fit?

[Rotoworld: Breaking down the first quarter]

Really, the questions about duos makes you appreciate stable trios that much more, especially if you have one or both of them on your teams. You don’t see reasonable answers to the glorious combo of the Dany Heatley – Jason Spezza – Daniel Alfredsson very often in the salary cap era, after all.

Hopefully most of those top lines can at least maintain some of this ridiculous energy, as the dog days of the season will probably cause at least some regression. Sorry, didn’t mean to ruin the holiday spirit.

Trading goods

I can’t really go too long without thanking GM David Poile and others for spicing up the season with some trades. Don’t scoff at this being mentioned in fantasy, as trades can make the process more exciting *and* create new gems.

[The Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

In six games with the Nashville Predators, Kyle Turris has five points, but I’m most thankful – and intrigued – to see gains from Kevin Fiala (six points in his past five games) and Craig Smith (six in his past six). Fiala and Smith will probably be more worthy of adds in deeper leagues, but it’s a situation to watch, preferably with popcorn.

Turris could also boost guys like P.K. Subban and Roman Josi in a delightful domino effect, so again, a nod of gratitude to Poile.

Big saves

Quite a few goalies are saving their teams’ bacon (or honey-baked ham, to fit the theme?), with Corey Crawford, John Gibson, and Mike Smith coming to mind, in particular. Imagine where the Anaheim Ducks would be without Gibson?

Also: thanks to Braden Holtby, who’s navigating the Capitals’ struggles to remain the new Henrik Lundqvist as far as reliable fantasy hockey star goalies go.

Avoiding turkeys

Finally, all but one owner in each league can be happy to avoid Brent Burns, an awesome, caveman-looking scoring sensation who’s been on a puzzling scoring slump. Sometimes you have to be lucky to be good, even beyond getting a piece of those red-hot lines.

(And hey, maybe you’ll be thankful when you trade for Burns at a discount rate, only to see him bounce back?)

* – For those who grumble about this being a lame gimmick for a fantasy hockey column, allow me to respond with this hex: I hope your Crazy Uncle shares extra ridiculous, patently offensive theories this time around.

And, if *you* are in the crazy uncle role, I hope that a know-it-all nephew totally schools you, to the point that even like-minded family members are giggling at your stammering responses.

Yeah, that’s right. I went there. Maybe all the gravy is making me edgy.

Enjoy the holiday, hockey fans.

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.

Point gets Lightning extra point against Kane, Blackhawks

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The Tampa Bay Lightning edged the Chicago Blackhawks – barely – on Wednesday to leapfrog back over the St. Louis Blues for the top record in the NHL.

The Bolts capitalized on a power-play opportunity in overtime, with Brayden Point scoring the decisive goal in a 3-2 OT win. It was an exciting overtime period, with Point being stopped all in alone earlier in the OT, and the same happening to Patrick Kane on a breakaway.

Kane had been getting the best of the Lightning earlier in the game, scoring the first two goals of the contest in the first period. Not a lot of players can make plays like this off the rush:

Then again, few teams can score a goal this pretty, especially while shorthanded:

Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov collected assists on Wednesday, but the top line (including Nikita Kucherov) failed to score a goal, though they created quite a few chances. The best – at least in regulation – came when Stamkos seized an opportunity against the Blackhawks, but Corey Crawford was game:

Wow.

Again, both goalies made some big stops. Here’s that Kane miss in OT, with Andrei Vasilevskiy depriving number 88 from a hat trick:

So, with that, the Lightning hold a one-point standings edge (34 to 33) over the Blues in the early race for the Presidents’ Trophy, and most importantly, gives them a five-point edge in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay’s impressive start to 2017-18 is especially notable since they’ve played one fewer game than St. Louis and two fewer than the Toronto Maple Leafs (the second-ranked team in the up-and-down Atlantic).

Check out the logjam at second-to-last in the competitive Central for Chicago, as of this writing, with these three teams all at 21 games played:

Dallas Stars: 11-9-1, 23 points
Blackhawks: 10-8-3, 23 points
Minnesota Wild: 10-8-3, 23 points

It has to be a little frustrating for the Blackhawks to see a two-goal lead dissolve, but plenty of teams would struggle to secure such an edge against the powerhouse Lightning. Maybe the Blackhawks will gain some confidence in merely sticking with them (and grabbing a point for their troubles).

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 LIVE: Blackhawks – Lightning, Wednesday Night Rivalry

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The latest edition of “Wednesday Night Rivalry” features a rematch of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks.

During that competitive series, the Blackhawks were the favorites. The tide has turned now, however, as the dynamite duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have propelled the Bolts to the upper crust of the NHL. Chicago, meanwhile, strains to remain a contender.

But it’s worth noting that the Blackhawks cannot be taken lightly. They still feature Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Corey Crawford, so tonight should provide plenty of entertainment.

Along with watching on NBCSN, you can also check the action out on online and via the NBC Sports App.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

NHL awards: Handing out hardware at the season’s quarter mark

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Almost every NHL team has hit the 20-game mark, which means it’s time to look back at the first month and a half of the season and see who’s ahead of the pack for some of the league’s top hardware.

A lot will change between now and June, but certainly some of the players named below will still be in the mix come awards season while others will tail off after hot starts.

HART TROPHY

Who is the most valuable to their team? That’s a tough choice as you look at some of the performances so far this season. Nikita Kucherov (17-16—33) can’t stop scoring and Steven Stamkos (10-25—35) is averaging 1.75 points per night for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Jaden Schwartz (10-16—26) is powering the St. Louis Blues. Johnny Gaudreau (10-21—31) is leading the Calgary Flames. Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky it tops among all goaltenders with a .941 even strength save percentage.

There are a number of strong candidates for the Hart at the quarter mark. If voting took place now, how many votes would Kucherov and Stamkos split? And would that allow Bobrovsky to sneak in and steal it? Or does Bob have enough love right now to surpass the Lightning duo?

Our vote:
1. Bobrovsky

2. Kucherov
3. Schwartz

NORRIS TROPHY

Alex Pietrangelo and John Klingberg are all tied for the scoring lead among blue liners with 19 points, but lookie here, it’s Erik Karlsson, he of five games missed this season, lurking behind them at 17. He also has the best Corsi (56 percent, via Corsica) out of the top scoring defensemen and is averaging 1.21 points per game. Victor Hedman is also just behind with 15 points and 25:18 of ice time a night.

Our vote:
1. Karlsson

2. Pietrangelo
3. Hedman

VEZINA TROPHY

Outside of Bob, you have Andrei Vasilievskiy’s play helping the Lightning to a ridiculous start. He has a .931 ESSV and has played the seventh-most minutes (1,024:24). There’s also Connor Hellebuyck (.938) and Corey Crawford (.932) to consider; both have been key reasons for why their teams currently reside in playoff positions.

But in the end it’s hard to top what Bobrovsky is doing in Columbus. And it goes to show, as we’ve seen the last few years, just how good he is when healthy.

Our vote:
1. Bobrovsky

2. Hellebuyck
3. Crawford

CALDER TROPHY

In October, Clayton Keller (11-9—20) of the Arizona Coyotes appeared to have one hand on the rookie of the year award. But then a few other names entered the picture, like Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders, who sits second in rookie scoring with 4 goals and 19 points. Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks (7-10—17) is a bright ray of hope for the franchise. New Jersey Devils blue liner Will Butcher has been an assist machine with 14 of his 16 points recorded as helpers.

Speaking of rookie defensemen, Charlie McAvoy has 10 points for the Boston Bruins, but just as impressive is the fact that he’s averaging 23:16 a night next to Zdeno Chara. No other freshman skater is over 20 minutes a night.

One goaltender of note is Charlie Lindgren (.929), who has played well filling in for Carey Price. But that’s not going to last once the Montreal Canadiens get their franchise goaltender back from injury very soon.

Our vote:
1. Keller

2. Barzal
3. McAvoy

JACK ADAMS AWARD

Who had the Vegas Golden Knights sitting in a playoff spot and not a lottery spot this season? Well, through the quarter mark, Gerard Gallant’s men have used a strong home record (8-1-0) to get off to an historic start.

There’s also plenty of praise for the jobs that Jon Cooper and Mike Yeo are doing in Tampa and St. Louis, respectively, but typically this award ends up going to a team that exceeded expectations or made a huge turnaround from either the current season or previous year. That’s why if they keep up the pace, John Hynes of the New Jersey Devils and Paul Maurice of the Winnipeg Jets will find themselves getting some coach of the year love in June.

Our vote:
1. Gallant

2. Cooper
3. Hynes

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BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – TEAM

The Edmonton Oilers were a trendy Stanley Cup pick before the season after a nice playoff run last spring. But it’s all come crashing back down to earth as they sit out of the Western Conference playoff picture and three points ahead of the league-worst Arizona Coyotes. The Montreal Canadiens have been an interesting mess and we’re waiting on the Philadelphia Flyers to take that next step with some exciting young players. The Dallas Stars seem to have issues living up expectations, while Bruce Boudreau’s penchant for winning division titles could take a hit for a second straight season with the Minnesota Wild.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – PLAYER

It took until game No. 18 for Ryan Johansen, owner of a new $8 million cap hit, to score his first goal of the season for the Nashville Predators. Steve Mason (.879 ESSV) was handed a nice $8.2 million deal over the summer but has watched as Hellebuyck has taken the No. 1 job for the Jets. Martin Hanzal was given a three-year, $14.25 million deal by the Stars and has one goal through 17 games. Ben Bishop also hasn’t quite lit it up for the Stars with a .904 ESSV. Carey Price is injured, but sure wasn’t playing like his old self before he left the Canadiens lineup. His .877 ESSV is downright ugly.

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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.