It’s a fairly common belief in hockey circles that if you’re in the playoffs by American Thanksgiving, chances are you’re going to be in the post-season dance five months later.
So how does that notion hold up to scrutiny? Not badly, actually. But it would be very, very dangerous for the 16 teams that are in the playoffs to think they can basically put in on autopilot for the rest of the season. According to numbers crunched by thn.com over the past 10 years when they’ve actually been playing hockey on American Thanksgiving – something they didn’t do in 2004 and 2012 – teams that are currently in the playoffs have a 77 percent chance of keeping their spots in the top eight.
When you remove the two seasons from the past 10 that did not include the extra point for a shootout win, the probability of making the playoffs goes up to 78.9 percent.
So the bottom line is it looks pretty good at the moment for Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, Washington, Boston and Toronto in the Eastern Conference and Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Anaheim, Vancouver, Calgary, Los Angeles and Winnipeg in the Western Conference, since those were the teams in the top eight after play Wednesday night.
But it’s not 100 percent and a lot can happen between now and the end of the season. And it usually does. In fact, of all the playoff races since the 2002-03 season, only in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09 were the teams that were the top eight seeds at American Thanksgiving still intact at the end of the regular season. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who are currently holding down the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, might want to not feel too comfortable. Four times since 2005-06 - including the past two seasons where there has been hockey at American Thanksgiving - they were in a playoff spot on turkey day, only to flounder and fall out of the race by the end of the season.
Here’s how things have shaken down each of the past 10 seasons there has been hockey on American Thanksgiving, and how things changed between then and the end of the season:
Eastern Conference: Toronto and Washington were in and Columbus and Philadelphia were out.
Western Conference: Phoenix was in and Dallas was out.
The skinny: The Maple Leafs were holding down a playoff spot, but were sunk by their 9-15-5 record on the road the rest of the way.
Eastern Conference: Toronto and Buffalo were in and New Jersey and Ottawa were out.
Western Conference: Dallas was in and Vancouver was out.
The skinny: Remember the 18-wheeler going off the cliff? The Leafs were leading the Northeast Division on Nov. 24, but finished 13th in the east after going 23-29-8 the rest of the way.
Eastern Conference: Ottawa was in and New Jersey was out.
Western Conference: Colorado, St. Louis and Columbus were in and Anaheim, Nashville and San Jose were out.
The skinny: Columbus was leading the Central and Colorado was the top team in the Northwest, but both ended up missing the playoffs.
Eastern Conference: New York Rangers were in and Montreal was out.
Western Conference: Calgary and Dallas were in and Vancouver and Detroit were out.
The skinny: Calgary was eight games over .500, but played only .500 hockey the rest of the season and missed the playoffs by five points.
Eastern Conference: All teams that were in the top eight made the playoffs.
Western Conference: Minnesota and Nashville were in and St. Louis and Columbus were out.
The skinny: The Blues were a .500 team until Thanksgiving, but were 10 games over .500 the rest of the way.
Eastern Conference: Carolina, Philadelphia and Atlanta were in and Pittsburgh, Washington and New Jersey were out.
Western Conference: Vancouver and Chicago were in and Calgary and Nashville were out.
The skinny: Carolina was leading the Southeast Division and Pittsburgh was in 13th place in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 22, but by the end of the season the Hurricanes were out and the Penguins were leading the Atlantic Division. They went on to play in the Stanley Cup final.
Eastern Conference: Toronto, Montreal and Carolina were in and Ottawa, Pittsburgh and New York Islanders were out.
Western Conference: Edmonton was in and Calgary was out.
The skinny: The Senators were mired in 12th place in the east with a 10-11-1 record and a goal differential of plus-11, then compiled a 38-14-8 mark the rest of the way and tied for the league lead in goal differential at plus-66 before advancing to the Stanley Cup final.
Eastern Conference: Toronto was in and New Jersey was out.
Western Conference: Los Angeles and Vancouver were in and San Jose and Anaheim were out.
The skinny: The Kings were leading the Pacific Division and the Canucks were the top team in the Northwest, but both tumbled out of the playoff picture.
Eastern Conference: Buffalo, Atlanta and New York Rangers were in and Ottawa, Montreal and New York Islanders were out.
Western Conference: Edmonton, Anaheim and Los Angeles were in and San Jose, Calgary and Nashville were out.
The skinny: This was the last season before teams were awarded an extra point for winning in a shootout, which made every game tied after regulation a three-point game, so it’s no surprise there was more volatility in the standings.
Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh, Carolina and Montreal were in and Toronto, Washington and New York Islanders were out.
Western Conference: Los Angeles was in and Anaheim was out.
The skinny: The Penguins were firmly in a playoff spot on Nov. 28, but flamed out the rest of the way, going 17-39-5 to finish 14th in the Eastern Conference. The swoon cost Rick Kehoe his only NHL head-coaching job.