These two dark nights on the NHL schedule provide a chance to sit back and look at what we have. Once again this year, I'm using this short détente in the action to predict which of our non-playoff teams will shoot themselves back into a playoff spot by April:
Eastern Conference: Outside looking in
9. Carolina Hurricanes, 33 GP, 34 points -- According to Sports Club Stats, the Hurricanes have a 29.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. They have games in hand on the Rangers, Thrashers and Lightning -- the three teams most people would agree have the best chance of possibly dropping off in the second half. Not saying they will, just saying there's a possibility. Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward has given Carolina playoff-caliber goaltending. Just a hunch, but I like the feeling of this club ... Merry Christmas Carolina, I see you making a second-half run and cashing in on your one-in-three odds.
10. Ottawa Senators, 36 GP, 34 points -- The math guys at Sports Clubs Stats give them only a 3.1 percent chance of making it. Ouch. Obviously, the games played a factor here. At 4-4-3 in December, the Sens have shown no signs of putting together a big run. And I don't see it in the second half, either. Playoffs? Nyet, Mr. Kovalev.
11. Florida Panthers, 33 GP, 32 points -- Interestingly, the folks at Sports Clubs Stats give the Panthers the highest probability of the non-playoff teams in the East at the Christmas break, at 39.1 percent. No question, I think Peter DeBoer is one of the best coaches in the NHL and squeezes every drop of talent out of his limited roster. What better chance to make hay than right after the Christmas break with the Panthers playing their next eight games against teams ahead of them in the East, including the first three versus Montreal, Boston and the New York Rangers? But, we don't see the second-half surge. What we see is a selloff of assets come Feb. 28.
12. Buffalo Sabres, 35 GP, 32 points -- The Sabres are pegged at a 6.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. I don't like their chances, either, but I would give them a higher chance than that. For starters, they play in the weakest division in the conference and 13 of their final 47 games are against Northeast teams (they're 5-5-1 versus NE), which gives them a chance to make up some ground. In the end, however, we see too much of a hole to dig out of. Losing top scorer Derek Roy to injury Thursday night certainly won't help things.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs, 33 GP, 28 points -- The Leafs have gone 8-17-4 since their perfect 4-0-0 start had people in Toronto dancing a jig. The math guys give them at only a 0.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. Let's put it in this context: If you figure 90 points is the bare minimum to get the eighth spot in the East, the Leafs would need to pick up 62 points over their final 49 games. That's the kind of pace that generates 104 points over 82 games. Right ... Make it six straight seasons without a playoff berth for the Leafs.
14. New York Islanders, 32 GP, 22 points -- The math suggests the Islanders have a 0.1 percent chance of making the playoffs. I don't think there's any need to expand on this.
15. New Jersey Devils, 34 GP, 20 points -- Six more coaching changes won't change anything: 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs according to Sports Clubs Stats.
Western Conference: Outside looking in
9. Anaheim Ducks, 38 GP, 40 points -- The folks at Sports Clubs Stats give them a 12.7 percent chance of earning a postseason berth, which you might think is pretty low for a team that has the same amount of points as the eighth seed at the Christmas break. For starters, it reflects that the Ducks have played the most games in the NHL, and it might also take into account that Anaheim has 15 of its final 44 games left against Pacific Division rivals -- a mighty tough group. The Ducks are 6-3-0 versus the Pacific so far this year, but the Kings and Sharks, in particular, have really turned it on in December and won't be the same teams in the second half. I don't see the Ducks making it.
10. St. Louis Blues, 34 GP, 39 points -- The Blues have a 44.2 percent chance of making the playoffs right now, the highest percentage Sports Clubs Stats gave any non-playoff team at the Christmas break. Certainly, this is a very good club that was fighting for first in the conference in early November (it was 9-1-2 after a win Nov. 7) before an unimagined list of injuries hammered the team, especially key players. How quickly those top guys return, especially T.J. Oshie and David Perron, will have an impact, but either way I am prepared to announce that the Blues will indeed make the playoffs this season.
11. Phoenix Coyotes, 33 GP, 37 points -- The Coyotes are pegged at a 34.5 percent chance of making it. They've won only four of their past 12 games (4-6-2) to limp into the Christmas break. Phoenix plays 17 of its final 49 games against Pacific Division rivals, and the Coyotes have gone only 3-4-0 against them so far this year. In fact, they finish the regular season with three of their final six games versus Cup contender San Jose. The Coyotes were one of the best stories in hockey last season, but I just don't feel the same mojo for them this year. I see them missing out.
12. Columbus Blue Jackets, 34 GP, 37 points -- At one point earlier this season, many of us were ready to declare the Blue Jackets this year's version of last season's surprising Coyotes. Not looking that way anymore. Their playoff chances are judged to be 21.6 percent at the break, but the Jackets have won only three of their last 14 games (3-8-3). Mercy. Goalie Steve Mason has lost his confidence, and backup Mathieu Garon can't sustain his play forever. This isn't going to end well once again in Columbus. No playoffs.
13. Minnesota Wild, 33 GP, 36 points -- Sports Clubs Stats likes the Wild's chances more than I do. They've got them at 28.4 percent. I have seen little from this team this season that shows me they're ready to put on the kind of run needed in the second half to solidify a playoff spot, current three-game win streak notwithstanding. Perhaps playing in the weaker Northwest Division with Edmonton and Calgary helps their chances, having gone 5-1-1 so far against those clubs. They only have one game left with the Flames and get the Oilers four more times. But I just don't see it. Sorry, Wild fans.
14. Calgary Flames, 36 GP, 33 points -- Only a 4.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, says Sports Clubs Stats. The Flames are only seven points out, but it's all the teams in front of them they have to climb over. History suggests it's nearly impossible. They've also played more games than four of the five teams right in front of them. If they can somehow remain relevant until then, their last two regular-season games are against rivals Edmonton and Vancouver. But I think the fat lady will have sung way before that. No playoffs.
15. Edmonton Oilers, 33 GP, 30 points -- The young Oilers are pegged at only a 1.6 percent chance of making it at the break. Too bad, they're fun to watch! But this season has always been about learning, selling the future and picking high again come June. Consider that a fait accompli.