- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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American Thanksgiving gives us a chance to pause and examine where the NHL season has gone and where it's headed. For some teams, perhaps, it's already too late to dream of the playoffs.
Thanks to the website Sports Club Stats, let's have some fun with this.
The skinny: The Senators rallied for a big win in Washington on Wednesday night, improving their postseason chances overnight by 5 percent, according to Sports Club Stats; the Sens now have a 32.8 percent chance of making it. Let's write off Florida and Buffalo; they're goners. Ottawa is six points behind Toronto and Montreal and faces both teams again a few times this season (the Habs four times, the Leafs three). I still think the Sens can make it into the playoff race and am not ready to write them off. What's interesting, though, is that fifth-place Toronto is given a 79 percent chance of making the playoffs by Sports Club (Montreal is at 93.2 percent), which suggests the current prediction is for both playoff wild-card entries to come from the Atlantic and only the top three from the weaker Metropolitan to make it in. The Leafs have hit hard times of late, winning only four games in November and having outshot the opposition only three times in 25 games. Unless Toronto finds a way to strengthen defensively, perhaps the Leafs are Ottawa's best bet to reel in. Tampa Bay is another potential target, given the prolonged absence of Steven Stamkos. The Bolts have gone 4-3-1 without the world's best goal scorer, very much outplaying the Flyers on Wednesday night and showing terrific team structure under coach Jon Cooper. I know Stamkos is a huge absence, but I like the way the Lighting play as a team too much to see them drop too far.
The skinny: Perhaps telling of how mediocre this division has been this season, the second-place Rangers stand only a 54.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Sports Club, meaning this whole division is wide open after Pittsburgh. The last-place Islanders have been given only a 6.5 percent chance as of Thursday morning, sitting seven points back of the assured No. 3 playoff spot in the division. I'm ready to write off the Isles unless they acquire a goalie and a defenseman in the very near future. Hard to write off any other team in this division, given that only five points separate third from seventh as of Thursday morning, but if I had to bet, I'd bank on the current top three to be the same top three come April, holding my nose all the while.
7. Dallas Stars
The skinny: The Wild have seen their stock drop on Sports Club Stats; in fact, it dropped 12.5 percent overnight after a 3-1 loss to Phoenix on Wednesday night. The Wild are still seen as having a 61.4 percent chance of making it, but when I look at not only the Central Division picture but the Western Conference picture as a whole, I would have to single out Minnesota as the team most vulnerable among those currently in a playoff spot. The Predators and Stars have a better chance in my mind of trying to reel in Minnesota than Winnipeg. I'm ready to count out the Jets at this point, given a 9 percent chance to make it by Sports Club. Truth be told, I think there’s a better chance of five teams from the Pacific getting in and only three from the Central.
The skinny: The Canucks have the highest percentage of probability of the current nonplayoff teams in the conference at 35.3, and that stands to reason. They're five points behind the Wild, Coyotes and Avalanche, but that's not insurmountable. I still think a veteran Vancouver team, which has made the playoffs five straight seasons, has enough left in the tank to give it another run. The Flames and Oilers are almost surely done -- expected in Calgary, hard to digest in Edmonton. The Kings bear watching. Shootout losers in San Jose on Wednesday night, they picked up yet another point as they continue to survive impressively without Jonathan Quick. But he's expected out at least another four weeks, if not longer. Can they keep it up without him? I say yes.
Of the teams not sitting in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving, my picks are Ottawa and Vancouver to have the best chance to get back into the picture by season's end. The teams currently in a playoff spot that I feel are most vulnerable -- doesn't mean they won't make it -- are Minnesota and Washington. The Capitals remain incredibly inconsistent; you just don't know what you're going to get from them night to night. If I had to wager, I'd say they still get in, but I'm not very confident of it.