One early-season goal for NHL teams is to be in a playoff spot at U.S. Thanksgiving.
Players, coaches and executives have all talked about this important benchmark over the years, including Boston Bruins president Cam Neely.
“There’s a lot to be said for being in the playoff picture by U.S. Thanksgiving," Neely told 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Felger & Mazz" show in 2013.
Why is it important to be in a playoff spot by this time in the calendar?
Well, teams in the salary cap era (2005-06 to the present) that find themselves in one of the 16 playoff berths at Thanksgiving end up making the postseason more than 75 percent of the time.
Here's the exact stat:
The Bruins currently sit outside of a playoff berth with Thursday's holiday looming. They are seven points behind the third and final playoff spot from the Atlantic Division and two points behind both wild card slots.
However, there are a few important caveats to note. The Bruins have played only 15 games due to a weird schedule that has seen them go three-plus days without playing three times. The season also started about a week-and-a-half later than what we typically see in an 82-game schedule.
So, while there aren't any major reasons for Bruins fans to panic, there are a few areas of concern for the Original Six franchise.
One is that the Bruins have struggled mightily against quality opponents. They are 1-5-0 versus teams currently occupying a playoff spot, and seven of their next 11 games are against those teams. Another concern is Boston's play away from TD Garden. The B's have a 3-4-0 road record, which is a bit disappointing, especially for a team that's won 20 or more road matchups in each of the last five seasons where 70-plus games were played (2015-16 through 2019-20).
The Bruins also rank 29th in 5-on-5 save percentage (.906) and 26th in 5-on-5 shooting percentage (6.43), per Natural Stat Trick. Not a great combo, to say the least.
That said, there are plenty of positive stats and trends to suggest the Bruins will make the playoffs despite an Eastern Conference that appears more competitive than in recent years.
The B's rank in the top 10 in several of the key puck possession, shot and goal metrics, including shot attempt percentage, shots on net percentage and scoring chance percentage. Teams with strong underlying numbers like these make the playoffs far more often than not.
One optimistic stat is expected goals against (xGA). Natural Stat Trick's models say the Bruins should have allowed 22.85 goals against at 5-on-5 this season. The actual number is 31. One reason for the discrepancy is the goaltending not being as strong as expected through 15 games. Linus Ullmark's save percentage on high-danger attempts at 5-on-5 is .692, which ranks 60th among the 60 goalies with 150 or more 5-on-5 minutes.
We shouldn't expect Ullmark to struggle for much longer on these chances. Why is that? His high-danger save percentage over the last three years is .857, and he should steadily inch closer to that number as he gets more comfortable in the Bruins' system.
The Bruins also aren't giving up much in their own zone. They are allowing the third-fewest shots on net (28.5) in all situations, as well as the fewest high-danger attempts (98) during 5-on-5 action. Teams that give up so few shots and quality chances typically make the playoffs.
So, while it's a little surprising to see the Bruins sitting in fifth place in the division at Thanksgiving, there are several indicators to suggest they will be fine and ultimately secure a postseason berth. The goaltending will be better. Goals will come when players like Craig Smith and David Pastrnak recover from shooting percentages that currently are about half their career average.
The Bruins are a good team. There is plenty of room for improvement, but the results so far aren't too bad when you consider how many new players were added to the roster this season, including a complete overhaul of the goaltending.