Like most of its fans, the National Hockey League is off for the Christmas holidays. The 14 teams that reached the holiday not holding a playoff berth may want to use the time to regroup -- because history shows that while making the playoffs when you're outside the top eight in your conference on Christmas isn't impossible, it's certainly not easy.
Of the 16 teams that held a playoff berth one year ago, 13 still owned one when the season ended on April 10. That's just about the average during the past 10 seasons -- since the NHL expanded to 30 teams for the 2000-01 season, 128 of 160 teams (80 percent) that were in the top eight when the season broke for Christmas were still there at the end of the season. In addition, 12 of the 32 teams that were on the outside looking in were two points or less out of the top eight when they reached the holidays -- several had the same number of points but were below the top eight on tiebreakers, and others had better winning percentages but had played fewer games.
But if you favorite team has dug itself a big hole, keep the faith -- big comebacks aren't easy, but they can happen. The Buffalo Sabres
were eight points outside a playoff berth last Christmas but rallied to finish seventh in the East. Since the shootout was adopted in 2005, only the 2010-11 Sabres and the 2007-08 Washington Capitals
have overcome Christmas deficits as large as eight points to make the playoffs. Vancouver made up a nine-point deficit in pre-shootout 2001-02, the largest since the League expanded to 30 teams.
And having a big lead over the ninth-place team at the Christmas break is great, but it's still not a guarantee of playoff hockey. Last year's Atlanta Thrashers appeared to be in good shape for a postseason berth when the Christmas break arrived -- they were nine points ahead of ninth-place Carolina. But while the Hurricanes missed the playoffs, so did the Thrashers -- and the nine-point advantage they couldn't hold is the largest of the shootout era. The New York Rangers
wasted a 10-point lead in 2001-02, again during the 30-team era but before the shootout was adopted.