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NHL contenders beware: Being in a playoff spot on Thanksgiving is critical

NHL contenders beware: Being in a playoff spot on Thanksgiving is critical

ARLINGTON, Va. — Call it the NHL version of early voting.  By the time American Thanksgiving hits in late November – in an international sport like hockey you have to distinguish these things – teams that are in a playoff spot have a huge advantage. The season is only about a quarter over, but trends are already in place that will carry over for the next 60 games. 

According to the NHL, over the past five seasons 62 of 80 teams in a playoff spot on Thanksgiving Day have gone on to clinch a playoff berth (77.5 percent).  That’s good news for the Capitals, who had a short summer after winning the Stanley Cup, a few tough road trips already and some injuries that have tested their depth.

Yet 21 games into the season Washington is 11-7-3 with 25 standings points and sits in third place in the Metropolitan Division. 

“It’s the quarter of the way through mark and we’ve had to work for it,” Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “But going through that is not a bad thing in the long run. If everything comes easy for you all the year then sometimes that can set you up for failure later on. So we’re working through it and still racking up enough points.” 

That’s a playoff spot – albeit a precarious one. The Caps are only two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (10-8-3, 23 points), who are the first team out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. But it’s better than the alternative.   There is a theory that Thanksgiving is no longer the barometer it once was given the parity in the NHL. Last season five teams outside of a playoff spot at the quarter pole (Boston, Philadelphia, San Jose, Minnesota, Colorado) all recovered to make it anyway. 

Twelve teams remain within five points of a playoff position through 317 games in 2018-19, continuing a recent trend. In each of the past two seasons, at least 12 teams were within five points of a playoff spot as of U.S. Thanksgiving. At least three teams have clinched a postseason berth after being outside the bracket on U.S. Thanksgiving in each of the past eight applicable seasons. But all of that still bucks historical norms. Five teams breaking the Thanksgiving curse has only happened a few times since the turn of the century. It also happened in 2000-01, 2003-04 and 2007-08. 

The Capitals are the quintessential turnaround story.

The Rock the Red era began during that 2007-08 season when they fired coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day and hired Bruce Boudreau. It took a while, but Washington eventually caught fire, went from dead last in the conference to clinch the Southeast Division title and a playoff berth on a memorable final day of the regular season. But they had to win 11 of their final 12 games to do it. Spending the whole season chasing is no way to go through life. It’s exhausting.  

And that’s the reason Thanksgiving remains a good barometer. The Florida Panthers just missed the playoffs in 2017-18 and with a young roster stacked with talent were considered a contender. But on Thanksgiving Day they sit last in the Atlantic Division at 8-8-3 with 19 points in 19 games. Florida is already seven points out of an Eastern Conference wild card spot and 11 points behind third-place Buffalo (14-6-2, 30 points). It gets late quick.    

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy the previous two years, the Caps spent last fall trying to acclimate to big roster changes and getting over the grief of back-to-back second-round playoff exits. It took a while and they hit bottom on Nov. 16 with a 6-2 loss to Colorado and were out of a playoff spot 20 games into the season. But Washington won two of its first three games on a pre-Thanksgiving homestand and held the final Eastern Conference wild card berth on the holiday at 12-10-1 (25 points).  Then the Caps beat Tampa Bay at home 3-1 the day after Thanksgiving.

No one knew at the time that was a preview of the conference final, which Washington won in seven games.  “I think it was a little harder to believe last year,” Niskanen said. “To believe that you could come through it and be better. This year I think at least stats wise we’re on as similar path and we know that we have the potential to get better and do something at the right time of year because we just did it.” 

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Tom Wilson puts on a show in his hometown to lead Capitals over Toronto

Tom Wilson puts on a show in his hometown to lead Capitals over Toronto

Tom Wilson's two-point night including the shorthanded game-winner as the Capitals held on for a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday. The win was Washington's third on their six-game road trip, which concludes Saturday in Buffalo.

Here are four reasons Washington won.

1. Braden Holtby’s first period

After the first period, it looked like we were going to have a goalie duel. Frederik Andersen looked absolutely brilliant to start and the Caps needed Holtby to be equally brilliant to keep Washington in it. He was.

Holtby made 12 of his 40 saves in the opening frame, including an absolute beauty to rob Patrick Marleau. Andersen robbed Michal Kempny and Nicklas Backstrom on one end of the ice and Toronto picked up the puck off the rebound for a quick 2-on-1 counter. Kasperi Kapanen fed Marleau beautifully, but Holtby stretched out to make the spectacular save with the blocker. A few minutes later, Holtby made a quick pad save on a William Nylander backhand, then recovered just in time to deny Connor Brown on the rebound attempt.

Because of Holtby’s efforts, both teams went to the locker room locked in a 0-0 tie.

2. Alex Ovechkin draws a penalty, scores the power play goal

Morgan Rielly does not take many penalties. Heading into Thursday’s game, Rielly had taken only two minor penalties all season, which is pretty remarkable when you think about a top defenseman averaging 22:43 of ice time per game.

In the second period, however, Ovechkin managed to draw a hold on Rielly. When you get a team’s top defenseman in the box, you need to take advantage. The Caps did just that off a quick play off a faceoff.

T.J. Oshie won the draw back to John Carlson. As soon as the draw was taken, Ovechkin backed away towards the top of the opposite faceoff circle. Toronto was slow to setup the defense, so when Carlson fed Ovechkin for the one-timer, he had an open shooting lane on net. Ovechkin delivered a fadeaway one-timer from above the circle and beat Andersen glove side.

3. A key forecheck by Tom Wilson

Brett Connolly made a nice play in front of the net to deke around the stretched pad of Andersen and backhand the puck into the open goal. Wilson made that play happen, however, with a great forecheck.

Jake Gardiner went to recover the puck behind the goal line in the defensive zone, but Wilson came streaking in like a freight train and knocked Gardiner off the puck. Lars Eller pounced on the loose puck and fed Connolly in front of the net. He did the rest.

4. The Tom Wilson shorthanded exclamation point

Washington carried a 2-0 lead into the third period and looked to be the better team, but a goal form Andreas Johnsson put the Maple Leafs right back in it. The ice was definitely tilting in Toronto’s favor and less than 90 seconds after Johnsson scored, John Carlson took a hooking penalty.

With the game on the line, however, the penalty kill delivered.

Holtby made a kick-out save and two Leafs went after the rebound, but Brooks Orpik made a key stick lift on Mitch Marner and Eller beat Johnsson to the puck and had a lane for the breakout. Wilson turned on the jets and hustled out of the zone to try to catch up with Eller for the 2-on-1. He got there just in time and Eller delivered the pass to him just past the blue line. Wilson took aim and fired a wrister past Andersen to end any hopes for a comeback.

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Capitals fan finishes late wife's dream of watching DC at every NHL arena

Capitals fan finishes late wife's dream of watching DC at every NHL arena

To watch the entire video, click "play" in the video player above.

Capitals fan Greg Christian and his late wife, Dona, made a plan to watch their favorite team at every NHL arena. Greg finally achieved that goal.

Gred attended the Caps' tilt with the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 23, taking with him a picture of Dona sporting a Hockey Fights Cancer jersey.

Greg and his wife were long-time Caps fans, and spent road trips talking about hockey and sports. They were soon inspired to follow the Caps on the road and make it to every possible venue to watch them play.

However, those plans would be interrupted in April 2017, when Dona was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The two made it to 34 NHL venues together before she passed away in November, last taking in a Caps game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, according to the Washington Post.

The two have now seen Washington play at 36 venues, including two past arenas and three stadiums. And once Seattle gets an NHL franchise, Greg told WUSA9 he plans to be in attendance.

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