Thanksgiving and football are inextricably linked in the United States — from the Lions and the Cowboys to John Madden’s love for turducken.
But Turkey Day may be more important for NHL teams than it is for those in the NFL.
Every year, the last Thursday in November serves as an unmistakable measuring stick for NHL teams hoping to make the playoffs. Since 2005, 76.3% of teams that were in a playoff spot on Thanksgiving ended up making the postseason, according to NHL Stats.
Capitals fans don’t even have to double check the standings to know that Alex Ovechkin & Co. found themselves on the wrong side of that equation as they sat down for Thanksgiving dinner. Washington is in second-to-last place in the Metropolitan Division, with the third-worst goal differential in the Eastern Conference.
“The numbers are probably the numbers. I don’t think that they’re made up,” coach Peter Laviolette told reporters when asked about the Thanksgiving benchmark. “We would rather be way ahead of the .500 chain than underneath the .500 chain. But it is what it is. This is where our team’s at.”
At 8-10-3, Laviolette’s squad entered Thursday four points back of the final wild card spot in the East.
Of course, it’s far from a guarantee that the Capitals won’t bounce back. About one-fourth of playoff teams weren’t in those spots on Thanksgiving, after all, in the statistic that excludes the shortened 2012-13, 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns.
And given the team’s track record during Ovechkin’s tenure — 14 playoff appearances in the last 15 years, including a current streak of eight straight seasons — it still may be too early to bury the aging Capitals.
“I think we definitely wish we were higher up in the standings right now,” goalie Darcy Kuemper told reporters Wednesday. “Obviously, it’s been tough with a lot of guys out of the lineup. But we feel like we’re still finding our game and we can do better. We’re looking for a big push the rest of the way.”
However, digging deeper into the standings — and considering the hurdles that have hampered the Capitals through the first quarter of the season — the four-point deficit may be harder to overcome than it seems.
Two of the teams currently outside the Eastern Conference playoffs but still ahead of Washington for that 8th spot — Pittsburgh and Florida — finished ahead of the Capitals in the standings last season.
Laviolette’s been here before, though. In December 2009, the longtime NHL bench boss took over a struggling Philadelphia team that was out of the playoff picture. The Flyers then battled back over the final four months of the season to squeak into the postseason by one point. Philadelphia then went on a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, eventually losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
“Even though the numbers are the numbers, I know teams have made it to the playoffs and played for Cups from behind the line,” Laviolette said.
The biggest hurdle the Capitals must overcome is the injury bug that’s hampered the aging squad through its first 21 games. No team in the NHL has dealt with the amount of injuries as Washington, which leads in the NHL in total salary cap on injured reserve.
The Capitals received a crucial reinforcement Wednesday in their overtime win over Philadelphia. Forward T.J. Oshie returned after missing 11 games with a lower body injury, and Laviolette said his “energy” was “noticeable.”
Several other key players are still hoping to come off the shelf, including defender Dmitry Orlov and forwards Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom. But Laviolette said injuries aren’t an “excuse” for the slow start to the season.
“I feel like we’re capable of winning when we get some guys back,” Laviolette said. “We’ve got to put the wins in the column. We can’t just keep looking down the road at a later date.”
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