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Capitals on the wrong side of the NHL’s Thanksgiving Rankings, fun fact

Thanksgiving and football are inseparable in the United States – from the Lions and the Cowboys to John Madden’s love of turducken.

But Turkey Day could be more important for NHL teams than those in the NFL.

Each year, the last Thursday of November serves as a distinctive benchmark for NHL teams hoping to make the playoffs. Since 2005, according to NHL statistics, 76.3% of teams that earned a playoff berth on Thanksgiving have made it through the postseason.

Capitals fans don’t even have to check the leaderboard to know that Alex Ovechkin & Co. were on the wrong side of this equation when they sat down for Thanksgiving dinner. Washington ranks second to bottom in the Metropolitan Division, with the third-worst goal difference in the Eastern Conference.

“The numbers are probably the numbers. I don’t think they’re made up,” coach Peter Laviolette told reporters when asked about the Thanksgiving benchmark. “We’d rather be well ahead of the .500 chain than below the .500 chain. But it is what it is. Here is our team.”

8-10-3, Laviolette’s squad entered Thursday, four points adrift of the last wildcard spot in the East.

Of course, that’s far from a guarantee that capitals won’t recover. After all, about a quarter of playoff teams weren’t in those spots on Thanksgiving, in stats that exclude the truncated 2012-13, 2019-20, and 2020-21 campaigns.

And given the team’s track record during Ovechkin’s tenure — 14 playoff appearances in the past 15 years, including a recent streak of eight straight seasons — it may be too early to bury the aging Capitals.

“I think we definitely want to be up the standings now,” goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper told reporters on Wednesday. “Obviously it was difficult with a lot of guys outside the line-up. But we feel like we can still find our game and do better. We’re looking for a big boost the rest of the way.”

However, if you dig deeper into the standings — and given the hurdles that hampered the Capitals in the first quarter of the season — the four-point deficit may be harder to break than it seems.

Two of the teams currently not in the Eastern Conference playoffs but still ahead of Washington for 8th place — Pittsburgh and Florida — finished last season ahead of the Capitals overall.

However, Laviolette has been here before. In December 2009, the longtime NHL bench chief took over a struggling Philadelphia team that was out of the playoffs. The Flyers then fought their way back into the final four months of the season to go into the postseason by a point. Philadelphia then ran to the Stanley Cup Finals, eventually losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

“Although the numbers are the numbers, I know teams have made it to the playoffs and played behind the line for the trophy,” Laviolette said.

The biggest hurdle the Capitals face is the injury error that has hampered the aging roster in their first 21 games. No team in the NHL has dealt with the volume of injuries like Washington, which leads the NHL in total injured reserve salary cap.

The Capitals received a crucial boost in their overtime win over Philadelphia on Wednesday. Forward TJ Oshie returned after missing 11 games with a lower body injury and Laviolette said his “energy” was “feelable”.

Several other key players are still hoping to come off the bar, including defender Dmitry Orlov and forwards Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom. But Laviolette said injuries were no “excuse” for the slow start to the season.

“I feel like if we can get some guys back, we can win,” Laviolette said. “We have to write the victories in the column. We can’t just keep looking down the road at a later date.”

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