Coach Peter Laviolette smiled and joked when asked about the team’s playoff outlook as of Thanksgiving after Wednesday's win and just 20 games into the season.
“Are we in?” Laviolette cracked.
But as ridiculous as it may seem to begin pondering in late November about a team’s playoff chances in May, there’s fairly strong statistical evidence that correlates to a team’s postseason opportunity come Thanksgiving.
With a 6-3 win over the Canadiens, the Capitals are in second place in the Metropolitan Division and firmly entrenched in a playoff spot at the quarter-mark of their season. And that’s without some of their top players ever gracing the lineup.
“These guys getting called up here, we're not hiding them,” Laviolette said. “They're playing minutes and they're playing important minutes and they're doing a really good job for us. it's a substantial number of forwards that are out of the lineup and we've got to keep moving forward. We've got to keep the train moving down the track and these guys have come up and done an excellent job, there's no doubt about it.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, as of the the last full 82-game regular season in 2018-19, 76 percent of teams in a playoff spot at (American) Thanksgiving have ended up clinching a playoff berth since the introduction to the league’s salary cap in 2005.
That the Capitals have a 12-3-5 record through 20 games, with points in 17 of those matchups, is impressive on its own. But throw in that Nicklas Backstrom (hip) has not yet played a game, T.J. Oshie (lower-body) has played in just eight and Anthony Mantha (shoulder) has played in just 10, the Capitals are making a case as one of the league’s best teams without some of their best players.
“Well I think the different guys stepping up, playing hard and obviously the situation, we don’t have any choices,” Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s a good thing for future, if something happens we can bring extra guy and he going to be fine and our lineup is going to play well.”
Ovechkin and the top line has carried the team so far this season, as he’s got 33 points (and 15 goals) in the team’s first 20 games. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have each added seven goals, as the top line has helped make up for the Capitals being down an entire top six unit.
The team’s defense, which has remained intact for the entirety of the season thus far, will face a test if Justin Schultz, who left Wednesday’s game with an upper-body injury, cannot return to the lineup in short time.
Still, that defensive group has helped carry the Capitals to where they are now.
“I just think taking care of the puck, I think we’ve been good about our system and the details within it. I think everybody is kind of executing them real well and I think the coaches bring it in a great way to us and show us what happens when we do take care of it and when we don’t. As players, you obviously feel it."
But despite the good feelings, the “Thanksgiving Test” isn’t full-proof by any means, though.
The Penguins have battled injuries all year and still haven’t had Evgeni Malkin enter the lineup. The New York Islanders have been hit hard by COVID-19 early in the season and haven’t been able to put a full team on the ice of late. Those teams figure to improve as the season moves along.
And of course, there are famous examples of turnarounds — like Bruce Boudreau taking over a 6-14-1 Capitals team on Thanksgiving Day in 2007 and leading them to the playoffs, or the St. Louis Blues going from last place in the NHL on Jan. 2, 2019, to hoisting the Stanley Cup a few months later.
But that the Capitals have stacked up the points so early in the season, despite the injuries they’ve suffered, is certainly something to take note of as the holiday season commences.