I find it weird, with how long an NHL season is, that most of it isn’t almost decided by Christmas. This is the time of year where teams can stop surprising you, and can only end up disappointing you.
Teams will move up or down in the standings, but in the last couple of seasons, if a team isn’t in playoff position by the time Christmas rolls around, your team is probably out of luck. This isn’t universal of course, but if your team is in the top eight of the conference right now, you’re in good shape.
Take last season, where only the Dallas Stars and Atlanta Thrashers fell out of playoff position after holding a playoff spot at Christmas. And it’s not like these two teams were barely bubble teams, struggling to hold a spot night after night.
No, Dallas was 2nd in the Western Conference, having a 21-10-4 record, and six points up on 9th place Anaheim, who would eventually replace them in the standings with a hot second half.
Atlanta had a 19-13-5 record, in the Eastern Conference, meant that they were nine points up on the 9th place Carolina Hurricanes, and a full 11 points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who would eventually come back to make the playoffs and give Philadelphia a brief scare in the first round.
The Stars would fail to beat Minnesota on the last day of the season and end up missing the playoffs despite 95 points. Atlanta would completely fall off the wagon in the second half, finishing well behind New Jersey and Toronto who staged second-half runs, only to repeat the process again the next year as Winnipeg.
I can’t help but think, in these boring, hockey-less days when I’m forced to spend time with actual human beings rather than pore over spreadsheets, highlights, and scoreboards every hour, that this may be the year for both Toronto and Florida.
Those two teams have been positively crippled by bad management and are the only ones yet to sniff the playoffs since the lockout. Florida has one of sports all-time great playoff-less runs, have not been over .500 since the year 2000, and haven’t won a playoff game since 1997.
Toronto haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 and haven’t played in the Stanley Cup Finals since the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they actually look kinda good this year. Not good enough for me to buy up tickets at the Air Canada Centre in late April, but they’ve kept in games despite a limited back-end and little forward depth. At 18-13-4, they’re confidently in 6th position in the East.
Florida, to their credit, are 18-11–7, have been one of the absolute surprises on the season, and despite a brutal 8-0 loss to Boston on Friday, are in excellent position, particularly given the bad division they’ve played in. Even though their goaltending has been playing beyond expectation, the Panthers are the 10th best possession team in the league and fully-deserving of their record thus far, even with the comically clumsy contracts that Dale Tallon handed out this offseason. At least these moves have paid off for half a season, and Brian Campbell is really showing he shouldn’t have been counted out.
There’s still a long way to go, but for two tortured franchises, finally being in playoff position at Christmas (for the first time since the lockout for the Panthers, first time since 2006 for the Leafs) has to mean something. At the very least, it’s a good present for their frustrated fans, who may feel like they can finally forgive their favourite hockey franchise in this festive time of the year.