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Holding down playoff spot at Christmas a good sign

by John Kreiser /
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.


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Last of his kind -- NHL games used to be a staple of Christmas Day. But this year marks the 40th anniversary since the last time the NHL played on the holiday -- meaning that Stan Gilbertson's place in history should be secure.

On Dec. 25, 1971, Gilbertson, then a 27-year-old rookie, slid the puck into an empty net with 18 seconds remaining, wrapping up a 3-1 victory for the California Golden Seals against their in-state rivals, the Los Angeles Kings -- and making him the last NHL player to score a goal on Christmas Day.

Gilbertson actually owns a unique sort of hat trick -- he also has the distinction of taking the last penalty ever assessed in a Christmas game and of being in the box for the last power-play goal.

Christmas Eve memories -- Playing on Christmas Eve actually went on for an extra year after Dec. 25 games were phased out. On Dec. 24, 1972, the New York Rangers blanked Detroit 5-0 at Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles beat the California Golden Seals 5-0 in Oakland.

Christmas Eve games weren't as common as the ones played on Christmas, but they were a blessing to the New York Rangers, who went 4-0-2 in the five games they played on Dec. 24. They were pretty good on Dec. 25 as well; New York went 24-11-2 on Christmas, including a 2-1 win at Minnesota in their last Yule game in 1971. They even pulled off a rare holiday daily double in 1966, winning 4-3 at Montreal on Christmas Eve and 1-0 at Chicago the next night.

Some other numbers for Dec. 24-25:

0 -- Combined goals by the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers on Dec. 24, 1949, the only game played on Christmas Eve or Christmas in which neither team scored. The Rangers' Chuck Rayner and Montreal's Bill Durnan both were flawless in what the Hockey News called "the best goaltending performance of the season."

1 -- Christmas games that went to overtime. Detroit beat the Brooklyn Americans 3-2 in OT in 1941 -- the NHL played overtime until World War II and then not again until 1983. There was also one OT win on Christmas Eve -- Toronto beat Montreal 2-1 in 1931.

2 -- Consecutive shutouts by the St. Louis Blues in 1967 and 1968, their first two Christmases in the NHL. Both came against the North Stars -- and both were in Minnesota. Seth Martin won 1-0 in 1967; Glenn Hall was a 2-0 winner in '68.

3 -- Goals scored by Toronto's Bill MacMillan in a 5-3 victory against Detroit on Christmas night in 1971. MacMillan is the last player to get a Christmas hat trick.

4 -- Losses in holiday games by the Los Angeles Kings, who were 0-3-0 on Christmas and 1-1-0 on Christmas Eve.

5 -- Penalty minutes assessed to California's Ernie Hickey and L.A.'s Jean Potvin for a first-period fight on Dec. 25, 1971. It was the last fight in a Christmas game, though the Rangers' Rod Seiling and Minnesota's Jude Drouin had tangled earlier in the evening.

6 -- Most goals in a Christmas shutout after the institution of the red line in 1943-44. Montreal wiped out Chicago 6-0 on Dec. 25, 1962, in the only post-red line Christmas shutout in which the winner scored more than three goals.

7 -- Goals scored by Boston against Chicago in 1950 (7-4) and Los Angeles in 1969 (7-1) -- the only times a team scored exactly seven goals in a Christmas game.

8 -- Goals by Toronto (against Los Angeles) in 1969 and Boston (at Toronto) in 1949 -- the most goals scored by any team on Christmas Eve.

9 -- Games played on Christmas Eve by the Maple Leafs, the most of any team (Montreal is next with seven). The Leafs were 5-2-2 on Dec. 24, capped by their 8-1 rout of Los Angeles in 1969.

10 -- Most goals scored by one team in a holiday game. Eighty-one years ago, the Detroit Falcons (later the Red Wings) celebrated Christmas 1930 by beating Toronto 10-1.
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