Traditionally, the American Thanksgiving holiday has held special significance in the context of the NHL. Analyzing data from over eight full seasons since the 2013-14 campaign, an intriguing pattern emerges – a staggering 75% of teams occupying playoff spots on Thanksgiving ultimately went on to clinch postseason berths.
As the holiday has just come and gone this year, the spotlight turns to four teams that faced playoff absence last season but currently find themselves in a promising position for the ongoing season. This shift in fortune prompts a closer examination of each team’s trajectory, strategies, and key players as they aim to rewrite their playoff narratives this time around. Let’s delve into these four teams as they strive for a coveted spot in the postseason.
4 Surprising NHL Playoff Hopeful Teams
The Washington Capitals
A mere month ago, the Washington Capitals seemed to be on the brink of collapse, suffering four losses in their initial five games with a discouraging combined score of 19-6. Surprisingly, Washington has undergone a remarkable turnaround since then, clinching a victory in nine out of their last eleven matches (9-1-1), despite a challenging 2-for-29 performance on the power play during this stretch. Notably, the resurgence cannot be solely attributed to Alex Ovechkin, whose meager five goals mark the lowest tally through 17 games in his career.
The pivotal factor behind this resurgence lies in the Capitals’ goaltending prowess, which has saved an unparalleled 11.3 extra goals since October 25, coinciding with the onset of their impressive streak. Notably, career backup Charlie Lindgren has been delivering the performance of a lifetime, stopping 8.25 goals above the anticipated count in his last four starts.
Despite a lackluster overall offensive display over the past month, ranking 17th in actual goals per game (3.18) and 21st in expected goals per game (3.09), the Capitals have managed to secure their standing. However, the fragility of their position is evident, and any dip in goaltending form could jeopardize their current status. John Carlson stands out as an assist maestro, leading the team with ten assists, while Dylan Strome has emerged as the offensive catalyst, topping the team with eight goals. Although Ovechkin maintains his leadership in points with 12, there’s an expectation that his scoring consistency will improve at some point, and his shots will start falling.
With a commendable 10-5-2 record, the Capitals find themselves in the second spot in the Metropolitan Division. The division, excluding the front-running New York Rangers, is wide open, adding an extra layer of intrigue to Washington’s playoff prospects.
The Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings, who have endured a seven-year playoff drought, haven’t been recognized as an offensive force for quite some time. However, this season presents a striking departure from that narrative as they currently top the league with 47 goals at 5-on-5.
Some element of luck comes into play; Detroit has netted 9.73 goals above the expected count at 5-on-5, the second-highest in the league, trailing only the Ottawa Senators (11.1). Notably, the Red Wings have also recorded a league-leading 13 goals from positions outside the slot. However, the sustainability of these lower-percentage shots finding the net remains in question, emphasizing the need for Detroit to enhance their offensive output from more strategically advantageous areas of the ice.
Despite this, individual performances have shined brightly, with Alex DeBrincat exhibiting exceptional form, boasting 12 goals, eight assists, and 20 points in the initial 19 games. Dylan Larkin, alongside DeBrincat in a new linemate pairing, has also excelled with seven goals, 12 assists, and 19 points. J.T. Compher and Lucas Raymond have contributed double-digit points, while defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Moritz Seider have formed one of the league’s most formidable defensive pairings.
Situated as the fifth seed in the fiercely competitive Atlantic Division, the Red Wings find themselves just one game behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and two games behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. This positioning signifies ample opportunity to ascend in the rankings and secure a coveted playoff spot this season.
The St. Louis Blues
At first glance, the St. Louis Blues don’t excel in any particular aspect. Their offensive output is limited, ranking 28th in total goals (52) and dead last on the power play with a meager 7.3 percent success rate. Defensively, they fall into the middle of the pack, sitting 17th in expected goals against per game at 3.17. The combined efforts of Jordan Binnington and Joel Hofer have saved 5.79 goals above expected, a solid but not exceptional performance.
In essence, the Blues don’t pose a significant threat, highlighted by a recent 5-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks, widely regarded as one of the worst teams in the league.
However, standout performances by Robert Thomas, boasting eight goals, 12 assists, and 20 points in the initial 19 games, and Pavel Buchnevich, contributing with seven goals and six assists, have been crucial. To secure their playoff spot, the Blues require greater consistency from the rest of the team. Jordan Kyrou, anticipated for a breakout year, has tallied just four goals and eight assists, Kasperi Kapanen, expected to be a valuable addition, has registered only three goals and five assists, and the defensive lineup, with the exception of Justin Faulk leading in assists with 10, has shown limited offensive contributions.
Presently occupying the fourth spot in the Central Division behind the Stars, Jets, and Avalanche, the Blues hold a precarious position, with a mere two-game lead over the Nashville Predators. Among the teams discussed, the Blues are currently at higher risk of missing the playoffs. Still, their surprising performance has captured attention, and they are determined to defy expectations and stay in the postseason contention.
The Vancouver Canucks
In the offseason, the Vancouver Canucks were widely regarded as a fringe playoff team, anticipated to contend in the crowded bottom ranks of the NHL playoff race. However, as the team completes 20 games, the looming question revolves around whether their initially modest expectations will give way to a more formidable reality.
The Canucks have emerged as one of the most surprising teams in the league during the initial quarter, boasting an impressive record of 14-7-1 that significantly surpasses all prognostications. They currently lead the NHL in scoring with an average of four goals per game, rank fifth in goals against at 2.55, and hold the best goals differential at an impressive plus-32. Spearheaded by the exceptional performances of Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, J.T. Miller, and Elias Pettersson, the team has surpassed expectations, and all four players would likely be contenders for major awards if voting were conducted today.
Noteworthy is the fact that the Canucks feature three players within the top ten point-getters across the league. Quinn Hughes stands out, leading all defensemen with 33 points and sharing the highest number of assists (25) with Cale Makar. Miller and Pettersson have formed a dynamic duo, accumulating 33 and 29 points, respectively. Boeser has been a pleasant surprise and is currently on track to achieving a career-high of 66 points and 39 goals.
At their current 82-game pace, the Canucks are on course for 111 points, marking the franchise’s best performance since their consecutive Presidents’ Trophy wins in 2012. Positioned as the second team in the Pacific Division, trailing the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Vegas Golden Knights by a mere point, the Canucks have plenty of time to overtake that first spot in the Pacific. And when their shots are falling, and the puck movement is clicking, Vancouver appears poised to do just that.