Giving Thanks That There is Still a Chance?
Teams that have a difficult time in the pre-Thanksgiving portion of the schedule face long odds to win a Stanley Cup, but not insurmountable odds. Here is a look at teams that won the Cup and where they stood on Turkey Day.
Soon, we will settle down to give thanks by carving dead poultry into succulent slices and surrounding them with side dishes that never see the light of day the other 364 days of the year (except for those few days following the holiday, when we consume leftovers like a vacuum cleaner). Which brings us to…
THE STANLEY CUP!
Sure, sure… we won’t know who will win the Cup until some time next June, but Thanksgiving looms large in telling us who won’t. And I don’t mean the teams struggling with rebuilds who were never among the favorites to skate with the Cup held high after winning a championship. By Thanksgiving, there are certain minimum requirements that, more often than not, must be met. What might they be? Well, let us take a look at the 16 winners of the Cup since the 2005-2006 season, where they stood on Thanksgiving and where they ended the regular season before embarking on their championship run.
2005-2006: Carolina Hurricanes (record at Thanksgiving: 14-6-1 / conference standing: fourth)
The Hurricanes started their long march to the Stanley Cup slowly, going 3-2-1 in their first six games. But then, the peeled off a nine-game winning streak and won 11 of 12 games before heading into Thanksgiving on a three-game losing streak. But by then, they more or less cemented a playoff-eligible spot in the standings and finished first in the Southeast Division by 20 points over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and finished second in the Eastern Conference before going 16-9 in the postseason to win the Stanley Cup. Of note: the Hurricanes dressed a total of 24 skaters in the 21 games before Thanksgiving, nine of them appearing in all 21 games. They did not have to use a third goalie, Martin Gerber (12 starts) and Cam Ward (nine starts) splitting the work.
2006-2007: Anaheim Ducks (15-2-6 / conference standing: first)
The Ducks exploded out of the gate to start the 2006-2007 season, going 12-0-4 in their first 16 games through November 9th. They settled down to go 3-2-2 in the seven games leading up to the holiday, but by that time they had the best record in the Western Conference, the best scoring offense in the conference, the fourth best scoring defense, the second best power play, the fifth best penalty kill…you get the point. Even though they did not ultimately finish with the best record in the West (Detroit did, three points ahead of the Ducks), they were on a short list of bona fide contenders heading to the playoffs. They then steamrolled their way to the Cup, going 16-5, including a 4-2 series win over the Red Wings to reach the final. Note: the Ducks used 23 skaters in 23 games before Thanksgiving, 15 of them appearing in all 23 games. Only J-S Giguere (17 starts) and Ilya Bryzgalov (six starts) appeared for the Ducks in goal.
2007-2008: Detroit Red Wings (15-6-1 / conference standing: first)
The Red Wings led the Western Conference almost wire to wire in 2007-2008. They stumbled a bit at the start, going 4-2-1 in their first seven games, but they then went off on a nine-game winning streak to get to 13-2-1. They went 2-3-0 going into the holiday, but they were still first in the Western Conference in points, points percentage, and scoring offense; second in scoring defense and second in power play efficiency. They had three winning streaks of five or more games after Thanksgiving, and not even a stretch in which they went 1-8-2 in February could keep them from leading the league in wins, points, points percentage, scoring defense; and leading the conference in scoring offense and power play efficiency. It was enough to win the Presidents Trophy, but they saved the best for last, going 16-6 on their way to a Stanley Cup. They are the only Presidents Trophy-winning team in the post 2005-2006 era to win the Cup. Note: Detroit was uncommonly healthy in the pre-Thanksgiving period. They employed only 21 skaters in 22 games, 11 of them appearing in every game. Chris Osgood (11 starts) and Dominik Hasek (11 starts) split the workload in goal.
2008-2009: Pittsburgh Penguins (13-5-3 / conference standing: third)
The Penguins had an unremarkable start to the 2008-2009 season, going 5-4-2 in their first 11 games. They followed with an eight-game points streak (7-0-1) before splitting their last two games before Thanksgiving. The points streak was responsible for the Pens finishing the pre-Thanksgiving schedule second in the Eastern Conference in points, fourth in scoring offense, and sixth in scoring defense; even though their special teams were unimpressive – eighth in power play efficiency in the conference, seventh in penalty killing. This was, however, a unique team in that they went 14-19-2 after Thanksgiving to give them a 27-25-5 record on Valentines Day 2009, 11th in the conference in points and the point at which they fired head coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Dan Bylsma. The Penguins took flight, in a manner of speaking, thereafter, going 18-3-4 over their last 25 games under Bylsma and then 16-8 in the playoffs to avenge the previous year’s loss to the Red Wings in the final, defeating Detroit in seven games to win the Cup. Note: Pittsburgh used 25 skaters in the 21 games before Thanksgiving, nine of them appearing in all of those games. The Pens were the first team of this period among eventual Stanley Cup winners to employ three goalies before Thanksgiving – Marc-Andre Fleury (14 starts), Dany Sabourin (seven starts), and John Curry (one relief appearance).
2009-2010: Chicago Blackhawks (16-5-2 / conference standing: second)
The Blackhawks are another of those teams that did not start the regular season quickly, going 8-5-2 in their first 15 games of the 2009-2010 season. But like other teams that started slowly, they righted themselves with a prolonged pre-Thanksgiving run. In their case, it was an eight-game winning streak that carried the Blackhawks into the holiday break, finishing that portion of the schedule in the Western Conference in points and first in points percentage (first in the league as well). Chicago was third in the West in scoring offense at the break and first in scoring defense (first in the league), while their special teams were uneven – sixth in the conference in power play efficiency but first in penalty killing. The Blackhawks finished the regular season as another team not winning their conference in the regular season but sipping through the playoffs, going 16-6 on their way to the Stanley Cup. Note: Chicago used 25 skaters in 23 games before Thanksgiving, 12 of them appearing in all 25. Cristobal Huet (18 starts) and Antti Niemi (five starts) shared the goaltending duties.
2010-2011: Boston Bruins (12-6-2 / conference standing: sixth)
This edition of the Bruins was reasonably consistent in their record in the pre-Thanksgiving period. They had three winning streaks of three or more games and three times lost consecutive games, including games lost in extra time. Boston was not an especially prolific team on offense before Thanksgiving, averaging 2.90 goals per game, eighth in the Eastern Conference. But their scoring defense was stifling, allowing only 1.85 goals per game, not only lowest in the conference but best in the league. The Bruins’ special teams before Thanksgiving tracked with their scoring for and against, their 17.6 percent power play ranking fifth in the Eastern Conference, but their penalty kill of 90.5 percent leading the entire league. The Bruins would stumble to the close of the regular season, following a seven-game winning streak in late February/early March, going 8-6-4 over their last 16 games, finishing 46-25-11 (tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference in points and points percentage, but a three-seed as a division winner) but would then go on to a 16-9 record in the postseason to win the Cup. Note: Boston was extremely fortunate, health-wise, dressing only 20 skaters in 20 pre-Thanksgiving games. Fifteen of those skaters appearing in all 20 games and only Daniel Paille appearing in fewer than ten (seven). Tim Thomas (14 starts) and Tuukka Rask (six starts) split the goaltending work, and both had save percentages of .935 or better (Thomas: 955; Rask: .935). Thomas had four shutouts in his 14 games.
2011-2012: Los Angeles Kings (11-7-4 / conference standing: fifth)
The 2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings were among the least impressive post-2005-2006 teams in their pre-Thanksgiving performance. But for a four-game winning streak in late October, they were a mediocre team at best, evidenced by a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) that came shortly after their four-game winning streak. Seven of their 22 games went to extra time (3-4 record). They wrapped up their pre-Thanksgiving portion of the schedule with 26 points, good for fifth in the Western Conference and seventh in points percentage. The Kings found scoring a tough chore, their 2.41 points per game ranking 11th in the West, but their 2.32 goals allowed per game ranked a more respectable fifth. Their special teams were slightly above average over the period, the 18.3 percent power play ranking sixth of 15 teams in the West, while the 83.2 percent penalty kill ranked seventh. The Kings ended the regular season with a 9-2-3 record over their last 14 games, including a six-game points streak to end the season (3-0-3) before rolling over opponents with a 16-4-0 record to win the championship. Note: Los Angeles dressed 24 skaters over the 22 games played before Thanksgiving. Eleven of them appeared in all 22 games.
2012-2013: No games before Thanksgiving this season (work stoppage)
2013-2014: Los Angeles Kings (16-6-4 / conference standing: fifth)
When the NHL resumed a normal schedule following the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, there were the Kings once more, the eventual Stanley Cup winners. Their pre-Thanksgiving record was better than that of the 2011-2012 season, fifth in the conference in both standings points at the holiday break and in points percentage. And they went into the holiday on a successful run, putting together an 11-game points streak (7-0-4), although they started to wobble at the end, the last four games heading into Thanksgiving settled in extra time with a 1-3 record. Scoring was not a big feature of the Kings’ attack in the pre-Thanksgiving period, their 2.50 goals per game ranking 20th in scoring offense, but their scoring defense was superb, allowing only 2.08 goals per game, third in scoring defense at the break. Their special teams, though, were not particularly special. The 19.8 percent power play ranked ninth in the Western Conference, while the 83.0 percent penalty kill ranked sixth – good, but not great. Los Angeles stumbled into the postseason, going 2-3-2 in their last seven regular season games, but they went through the playoffs with a 16-10 record to take home the Cup. Note: The Kings used 23 skaters before Thanksgiving, nine of them playing in all 26 games. Jonathan Quick (16 starts) and Ben Scrivens (ten starts) handled the goaltending duties.
2014-2015: Chicago Blackhawks (13-8-1 / conference standing: seventh)
The Chicago Blackhawks were one of the weaker teams in the pre-Thanksgiving period of seasons. In 22 games before the holiday, the Blackhawks had only one winning streak of as many as three games, although they did manage to avoid any losing streaks of equal or longer duration. Their scoring offense was good, if not great (2.89 goals per game/ninth at the break), but their scoring defense was quite good, allowing only 2.09 goals per game (third lowest in the league). It was a team that resembled the previous season’s Los Angeles Kings in this scoring profile. Chicago’s special teams tracked with their scoring, the power play a decent, if not great 20.7 percent (ninth), while the penalty kill was excellent at 90.6 percent, best in the league at Thanksgiving. While the Blackhawks did struggle overall in the pre-Thanksgiving portion of the 2014-2015 season, they did go into the holiday with a 6-2-0 record in their last eight games before the break, including that three-game winning streak. The Blackhawks ended their season in streaky fashion, a four-game winning streak followed by a four-game losing streak to end regular season play. But then they went 16-7 in the postseason to win the Cup. Note: The Blackhawks used 24 skaters in the pre-holiday schedule, 12 of them appearing in all 22 games. Chicago used three goalies – Corey Crawford (16 starts), Scott Darling (three starts) and Antti Raanta (three starts).
2015-2016: Pittsburgh Penguins (13-8-0 / conference standing: fifth)
The Pens have been, if not unique (and we will get to that), then an outlier in the parade of teams under this review, this team being the second Penguin team that changed coaches in mid-stream and still go on to win the Stanley Cup. Mike Johnston started this season as head coach and led the Penguins to a 13-8-0 record before Thanksgiving. It would have been hard to see the change coming being obvious with the start they had. Despite stumbling out of the gate, perhaps a harbinger of things to come, the Pens went on a 10-2-0 run before they next lost consecutive games. They came back to earth with a 3-3-0 record in the immediate run up to the holiday. There were signs of trouble, though. At the break, the Penguins ranked 25th in the league in scoring offense (2.29 goals per game). They were being held together by a scoring defense that allowed just 2.33 goals per game (sixth). And as you might expect, special teams tracked right along with the general scoring numbers, the Penguins with little to give thanks for on their power play (15.3 percent/26th in the league) but with a much better penalty kill (83.6 percent/ninth). What saved the Pens in their pre-Thanksgiving schedule was one-goal games. They were 10-3-0, their .769 winning percentage ranking second in the league at the time. The Pens came out of the break poorly, posting a 2-2-3 record in seven games before Johnston was relieved in favor of Mike Sullivan. The Pens flourished under the new coach, going 33-16-5 under Sullivan to finish the regular season, then going 16-8 to complete the comeback and win the Cup. Note: Pittsburgh dressed 23 skaters before Thanksgiving, 11 of them in all 21 games. Marc-Andre Fleury (18 starts) and Jeff Zatkoff (three starts) tended goal.
2016-2017: Pittsburgh Penguins (12-5-3 / conference standing: fourth)
The Penguins would become the first team since the 1997-1998 Detroit Red Wings to win consecutive Stanley Cups, but their path to the championship this year was a bit different than in 2015-2016. The Penguins did not dominate by virtue of a long winning streak in the pre-Thanksgiving schedule (a four-game winning streak was their longest), but they avoided losing streaks. They did not suffer consecutive games without a point before the holiday. Their scoring offense before Thanksgiving was an improvement over the same period in the previous year – 2.95 goals per game (eighth in the league), but on the other side their scoring defense was not as stout (2.75 goals allowed per game/21st). Their 22.4 percent power play ranked sixth in the league at the break, while the 80.8 percent penalty kill ranked 19th. Pittsburgh was still winning more than they lost in one-goal games, but not with the frequency of the previous season. Then again, they did not lose a one-goal game in regulation before Thanksgiving (7-0-3), one of two teams with that achievement (Tampa Bay was the other). The Pens closed with a rush, going 12-5-3 over their last 20 regular season games, and then they went 16-9 to win their second consecutive Cup. Note: the repeat champions used 23 skaters once more, and again, 11 skaters dressed for all the scheduled games. In goal, Fleury (13 starts), Matt Murray (seven starts) and Mike Condon (one relief appearance) saw action.
2017-2018: Washington Capitals (12-10-1 / conference standing: sixth)
The 2017-2018 Caps were among the weaker pre-Thanksgiving performers who went on to win the Cup. It was not that they were bad, just inconsistent, dancing the win-loss two step over their first 21 games. Three instances in which they won at least two consecutive games (a three-game streak being their longest) and four instances of two consecutive losses in regulation. The strangest part of their performance in that period was on the road, where they alternated wins and losses faithfully until the Caps lost three straight (all by multi-goal margins) before Thanksgiving. The Caps were not a run-and-gun team before the holiday, scoring 2.83 goals per game (19th in scoring offense). But if anything, their scoring defense was worse, allowing 3.13 goals per game (22nd in scoring defense). The Caps were getting beaten in the shots category, allowing 3.6 more shots per game (32.7) than they were recording (29.1, second-fewest in the league). Special teams were not all that special in this early-season phase, the Caps’ power play of 21.1 percent ranking 13th in the league and their 77.4 percent penalty kill ranking 24th. What helped their record was gaining the extra point in extra time games, going 4-1 when playing past 60 minutes and winning both games that went to shootouts. What the Caps were able to do was finish well, going 14-5-0 in their last 19 games of the regular season. They then went to the playoffs, losing their first two games in overtime before winning in double overtime in Game 3 against Columbus. The Caps were much better after that, winning 16 of their last 22 postseason games to win their first Stanley Cup. Note: Washington employed 25 skaters in the 23 games before Thanksgiving, eight of them dressing for every game. The Caps split the goaltending responsibilities between Braden Holtby (17 starts) and Philipp Grubauer (six starts).
2018-2019: St. Louis Blues (7-10-3 / conference standing: 14th)
This club had the worst pre-Thanksgiving record of any team to go on to win the Cup in the 2005-2006-to-present era. The Blues were another instance of a team that changed coaches in-season in an effort to jump start their season. Mike Yeo started the season as the Blues’ bench boss, but he was relieved after the penultimate game of the pre-Thanksgiving schedule after posting a 7-9-3 record. He was replaced by Craig Berube, who did not get off on the best of starts with a 4-1 loss to Nashville heading into the holiday. It was the fifth loss by three or more goals (of ten regulation losses) before the holiday. The Blues might not have been quite as bad, statistically, as their record would suggest, but they were not good. The 2.85 goals per game ranked 23 in scoring offense, while the 3.15 goals allowed per game were tied for 20th in scoring defense. The power play was decent enough at 22.9 percent (11th in the league), and the penalty kill was better (82.0 percent/sixth). The flip side of that, though, was that the 36 goals St. Louis scored at 5-on-5 were tied for 25th in the league, and the 44 goals allowed at fives were tied for seventh-most in the league. St. Louis was a team that established no winning momentum before Thanksgiving, winning no more than two consecutive games, which they did twice. They had three two-game losing streaks and two three-gamers in that span. They were better after the break, even putting together an 11-game winning streak in late-January and early-February and ending the regular season on a 9-1-2 run. They then went 18-10 to win the Stanley Cup after what was a poor start to their season. Note: The Blues used 27 skaters in the pre-Thanksgiving period, six of them appearing in all 20 games. Jake Allen (15 starts) and Chad Johnson (five starts) were the goaltending tandem.
2019-2020: Tampa Bay Lightning (12-8-2 / conference standing: tenth)
Before the Tampa Bay Lightning would become the dominant team they have been over the last three seasons, they had to endure a difficult start to their 2019-2020 season. At the break they had only the 20th-best point total in the league (tied with the New York Rangers), although their points percentage did rank 13th. Like many other teams under our review, the Lightning had a hard time establishing winning momentum, although they started to climb out of their funk as the holiday approached. After going 6-5-2 in their first 13 games, they recorded a pair of three-game winning streaks in the nine games leading up to the break. Tampa Bay had no trouble scoring, their 3.73 goals per game leading the league in scoring offense on Thanksgiving. But they allowed 3.27 goals per game, 22nd in scoring defense. Similarly, their power play was very good (31.9 percent, third in the league and just one-tenth of a percentage point behind Edmonton and Boston), but their penalty kill was less effective (80.3 percent/20th). Tampa tore through the last 50 games of their regular season, posting a ten-game winning streak and then an 11-game winning streak. They carried it over the postseason, going 16-7 to win the championship. Note: The Lightning used 24 skaters before Thanksgiving, eight of them appearing in all 22 games. Andrej Vasilevskiy (16 starts) and Curtis McElhinney (six starts) were the goalies.
2020-2021: No games before Thanksgiving this season (COVID-related)
2021-2022: Colorado Avalanche (10-5-1 / conference standing: tenth)
After the Tampa Bay Lightning won a second straight Cup in a COVID-abbreviated schedule in 2020-2021, it was back to the normal 82-game slate in 2021-2022. It was sign of how strong the west was that the Colorado Avalanche were tenth in the Western Conference at the Thanksgiving break, although they were fourth in the conference in points percentage. No team played fewer games before Thanksgiving than did the Avalanche. Colorado was another team that had no problems in the offensive end, their 4.06 goals per game leading the league in scoring offense by almost a quarter goal per game (Florida: 3.84). It hardly seemed to matter than the 3.19 goals allowed per game ranked 24th in scoring defense, the Avs still with almost a full goal per game differential in scoring. Their special teams, however, were less impressive, the power play ranking tenth (21.2 percent) and the penalty kill ranking 27th (75.0 percent). The Avs rolled into the break on a six-game winning streak after going 4-5-1 in their first ten games. They were almost as hot coming out of the break, going 30-5-3 in 38 games after Thanksgiving, although strangely enough, four of the five losses in regulation were by three or more goals. After a 1-3-1 stumble in March, the Avs closed the regular season going 15-6-2, then steamrolling their way through the playoffs with a 16-4 record to win the latest Stanley Cup. Note: The Avalanche used 28 skaters in the lead up to the holiday, only five of them in all 16 games. Darcy Kuemper (14 starts) and Jonas Johansson (two starts) manned the nets for Colorado.
What, if anything, does it mean for the Caps?
1. The record. The best the Capitals can do heading into the break is an 8-10-3 record. If you are looking at this and thinking, “they’re cooked,” there is the 2018-2019 experience of the St. Louis Blues to calm your fears. Then again, that was a team that changed coaches just before the Thanksgiving break. It is not evident at the moment that head coach Peter Laviolette is in danger of being relieved. And, the Blues are the only team going into the holiday break with a losing record to go on to win the Cup. Not a good sign.
2. Scoring. Top end scoring is nice, but it was not a necessary element in the clubs identified here that went on to win the Stanley Cup. Seven of the 15 teams averaged more than 3.00 goals per game, eight averaged less, three of them averaging 2.50 goals per game or less.
3. Scoring Defense. This matters somewhat more. Few teams allowed more than three goals per game, but it is worth noting that of the five that did average 3.00 or more goals per game, the last four Cup winners in this review did so. It is worth noting that there were two instances in which teams allowed more goals per game than they scored at the holiday break, including the 2017-2018 Stanley Cup winning Capitals.
4. Power Play. Only the 2019-2020 Tampa Bay Lightning can be said to have an outstanding power play at the Thanksgiving break (31.9 percent). In fact, they were the only one of the 15 teams to have a power play over 23 percent. That is not to say a team can afford to be poor on the man advantage. Six of the 15 teams were under 20 percent, but none were under 15 percent.
5. Penalty Kill. As with scoring, the defense seems to matter a bit more on special teams. Two teams – the 2010-2011 Bruins and the 2014-2015 Blackhawks – were over 90 percent on the penalty kill, and seven other teams were at 82.0 percent or better. Only three teams were under 80 percent, including those 2017-2018 Capitals.
6. Positioning. Being playoff eligible in November matters. While only two teams led their conference standings at the Thanksgiving break (the 2006-2007 Anaheim Ducks and the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings), 13 of the 15 teams were in the top eight of their respective conferences at the break. Only St. Louis, in 2018-2019, appeared out of contention before mounting a big comeback to qualify for the postseason and go on to win the Cup.
7. Skaters skating. Teams generally used a number of skaters in the low to mid-20’s in the pre-Thanksgiving portion of the season. They were not generally decimated by injuries, but they had, for the most part, about half of the skaters they did use dressing for all the games played, but they did spread some of the experience around.
You cannot win the Stanley Cup in November, but you can lose it by falling so far out of touch with playoff eligible teams that a comeback with 60 or so games remaining is difficult, especially with “three-point games” a feature in which a club can bank points with losses in extra time.
So, for the Caps, the situation appears daunting, but it is not insurmountable in an historical context. While it would not be the way to bet, their statistical profile through Sunday’s games resembles that of the 2018-2019 St. Louis Blues, and it is not altogether different from the very profile they displayed when they won the Cup in 2017-2018. For the Blues in 2018-2019, there was a coaching change that seemed to jump start the club in the post-Thanksgiving period.
As far as the skating rotation has gone for the Caps, they used 26 skaters through Sunday’s games, a number at the high end (but not most) of the range of skaters used. There does seem to be a qualitative difference in that the missing personnel are integral components at five-on-five and on power plays.
What Caps fans will be hoping for is that the return of Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and T.J. Oshie from injury will have the effect of jump starting the team into some winning momentum after the break.