Professional sports seasons are lengthy, relatively speaking. Baseball, basketball and hockey all span about half a year for a regular season. With that comes arbitrary markers in which to analyze a team’s season.
In the NHL, that marker is Thanksgiving.
Yes, besides a holiday where Americans gorge themselves on turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie on the eve of what used to be the kickoff to the Christmas season, it’s also a time for puck heads to see what kind of chance their favorite team has of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Not quite two months into the season, teams should have a fairly good idea of where they stand, how they’ve gelled as a 2018-19 team and what improvements they might need to make.
Are they playoff bound?
Are they on the bubble?
Are they playing so poorly that even by the second week of the season they knew it was going to be a rebuilding year?
For Minnesota Wild fans, this Thanksgiving analyzing is a bit of a mixed bag. In the five years since the NHL’s divisional realignment in 2013-14, the Wild have made the playoffs each season. Three times they were in the playoff picture at the fall holiday, and two times they wormed their way back in during the remainder of the season.
- 2017-18: Not in, finished third in Central
- 2016-17: In, finished second in Central
- 2015-16: In, finished as a Wild Card
- 2014-15: Not in, finished as a Wild Card
- 2013-14: In, finished as a Wild Card
Across the NHL in those five seasons, on three occasions three teams who weren’t in the picture at Thanksgiving made the playoffs. It was four teams in 2015-16 and five teams last season.
But the particularly interesting numbers have come from the Western Conference.
The first four seasons of realignment had the playoff field in the West pretty much set by turkey time, with just one team being different come April. Phoenix, Minnesota, Vancouver and Calgary were the lone teams each season that found a way into the Western Conference playoffs.
However, some parity came into play last season when three teams from the West – all with 23 points at Thanksgiving – found a way into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, including the Wild, Colorado and Anaheim. It actually might not be that surprising when seeing that the bottom four Central Division teams all had 23 points at Thanksgiving, with the Wild technically falling in seventh place behind Colorado and Chicago, and ahead of Dallas.
In the Eastern Conference last season, Boston (22 points) and Philadelphia (21 points) made the playoffs after being out of the picture in November. That makes five out of the 16 postseason teams.
The Central Division has consistently been a heavily competitive place to play hockey. In 2015 and 2016, both the wild card slots went to Central teams. As the ever-changing standings looked as of Monday night, Central teams Dallas and Colorado would hold the wild cards; they’re both tied with the Jets sitting at 24 points. (Again, as of Monday night.)
Even if the Wild get bounced out of the playoff bubble come Thursday, they’re still ahead of where they were last season points-wise. The Wild have 26 points with the potential to make it 28 points should they get a victory over Ottawa on Wednesday in St. Paul. Their 26 points through 20 games are tied for the third-most in team history. Again though, the amount of points a team has is all relative to how the other teams are performing in the standings.
Of course, shades of tension might draw close for Wild fans after the home team just dropped three of four games — including two at home — on the heels of a successful 5-2 road trip. The Wild were blown out 5-2 to the defending champion Washington Capitals last week in a typical letdown game after a franchise-long road trip.
That’s understandable. It happens.
They rebounded with a blowout of their own – a 6-2 victory over the young Vancouver Canucks. But it’s the past two games that were a bit more concerning for the Wild, blowing a 2-0 lead against Buffalo and getting down 2-0 in a bad first period in Chicago.
The Wild ran into familiar problems they’ve had in the past of not being able to score.
They peppered 39 shots on goal against the Sabres but couldn’t put them away with a third goal after taking a quick lead in the first period.
They put 40 shots toward Chicago’s Corey Crawford and still only managed one second-period goal.
The bigger concern for the Wild when they host Winnipeg on Friday for the first post-Thanksgiving matchup will probably be focused on getting back to the successful play they found on their last road trip, especially if they also drop the game to Ottawa and find themselves on a three-game losing skid. No matter where the Wild end up in the playoff picture right now, they’ve proven they can make the postseason being on either side.
That said, maybe the parity of last season is trending in another direction where playoff spots are up for grabs. And maybe Thanksgiving can go back to being a holiday about food, family, football and “Friends” episodes.
- Mikael Granlund’s next assist will be No. 200 of his career. He leads the Wild 10 goals and 19 points this season.
- In a stat that makes perfect sense, the Wild are 9-0-1 when allowing two or fewer goals.
- After back-to-back losses to Buffalo and Chicago over the weekend, the Wild lost consecutive games in regulation for the first time this season. They came into Sunday’s game in Chicago as just one of four teams in the league that hadn’t lost twice in a row in regulation. The loss to Chicago also dropped the Wild to 4-1-0 on the second night of back-to-backs.
- The Wild have at least one power-play goal in four straight games (five goals total).
- Mikko Koivu has a season-high four-game point streak going (2-5—7).
- Zach Parise scored a goal each against Buffalo and Chicago. His goal Saturday gave him 341 career goals, making him the all-time leader in NHL goals scored by Minnesota natives. #OneOfUs