Thanksgiving is traditionally line-in-the-sand time for teams.
Teams outside the bubble, teams that are struggling, teams that have been laid low by injury have historically found it difficult to catapult themselves back into the playoff fray after the fourth Thursday in November. Conversely, franchises entrenched in the top eight come Turkey Day have traditionally been able to hold on to those coveted postseason berths. But history and tradition are relative.
Here's a look at which key players and coaches on those teams deserves an extra slice of pie -- and which look like postseason turkeys.
Making it look as easy as pie
Alain Vigneault, head coach, New York Rangers
Kudos to Vigneault, who must have wondered whether his ship had sailed when the Rangers were bounced in the first round of the playoffs in five games last April by the eventual champs from Pittsburgh. Now New York, which looked at the season's outset to be a playoff bubble team, leads the Metropolitan Division and boasts the league's best goal differential by a wide margin. With Vigneault getting the most out of a speedy, highly skilled group that leads the NHL in goals per game, we can now talk in terms of which of the three elite Metro teams -- the Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals -- will emerge as a division winner and send the other two into a first-round playoff clash.
Remember when Rask was too ill to play in a must-win game, Boston's final regular-season tilt in April? It was a disappointing ending for both Rask and the Bruins, who lost Game 82 without him and were denied a ticket to the postseason ball for the second season in a row.
With the B's still in transition, there were plenty of questions during the offseason about the team as a whole and its goaltending specifically. Rask has quieted those questions with this answer: Back off. I'm still pretty damn good. The 29-year-old former Vezina Trophy winner is tied for the league lead in wins and has a sparkling .942 save percentage and 1.57 goals-against average. And the Bruins look like they're back on that playoff track. If the vote were held today, Rask would be a Vezina Trophy finalist for sure -- and, I'm guessing, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
Time to talk turkeys
The Predators, from whom so much was expected, got off to a pretty bumpy start. And it seems clear that Nashville is going to need Forsberg to find his groove again. The highly skilled Swede led the way for the Predators a season ago with 33 goals. He was only OK -- with two goals and four points -- in the postseason, had one goal and an assist in four World Cup of Hockey games, and now has just one goal through 18 games this season, putting him on pace for about seven goals in 2016-17. Yikes.
Forsberg, who does have 12 assists, is just 22, so I can't be too hard on the kid. But whether it's a confidence issue or how he's being defended, Forsberg is taking about one-third fewer shots than he did a season ago, when he averaged more than three shots a game over 82 games.
Lindy Ruff, head coach, Dallas Stars
Sure, the Stars have been more than a little banged up this season -- but what team hasn't dealt with injuries of various sorts and sizes? And, relatively speaking, Dallas has avoided losing key personnel for long stretches like many other teams have.
Yet something is definitely amiss for the defending Central Division champions, who led the league in goals last season but have slumped to 13th in goals per game this season. And how about that team goals-against average? The Stars are second worst in the league with an ugly 3.30 GAA. Lots of that is on goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi -- and that means it's on GM Jim Nill, too. But the power play, fourth last season, also ranks a middle-of-the-road 13th, while the penalty kill has dropped 17 spots from a year ago to 27th.
All of this means that there's lots of heat on Ruff to get this team, which has won two games in a row just once this season, back on track.
A former goalie told me during the offseason that although the Flames had flirted with acquiring the Tampa Bay Lightning's Ben Bishop, he liked Elliott's mental toughness and felt he was ready to be "the man" for a Canadian team looking to build off a playoff run two years ago.
That hasn't happened so far. Elliott has a bloated 3.43 GAA and unsightly .883 save percentage and hits Thanksgiving mired in a six-game losing streak. As the Flames try to make do without Johnny Gaudreau for six weeks or so, Elliott will have to prove he's the man the Flames hoped he'd be and not the one he's been.
Garth Snow, GM, New York Islanders
If you immediately think "tire fire" when you hear "Islanders," then you're not alone. The Isles have gone almost overnight from a team on the rise to one in disarray. The Islanders occupy last place in the Metropolitan Division in spite of a home-friendly schedule that saw them play 12 of their first 17 in Brooklyn. They finally earned their first road win of the season in a shootout over the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday.
Big offseason additions Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera have combined for three goals, and at this point the Isles look likely to miss the postseason just one year after winning their first playoff series since 1993. The franchise's new ownership can't be too thrilled with that prospect -- nor can captain John Tavares, who has one more year left on his deal. Speculation is already rampant that Tavares will take the first train out of Brooklyn when the time comes. At some point, either Snow will be proven right and the Isles will shake out of this, or someone will have to pay the price. I'm going with Option B.
For 25 consecutive playoff seasons, the Red Wings have been a playoff fixture. But that streak is definitely in danger as Detroit hits Thanksgiving in a tailspin that saw it lose four in a row and seven of nine in November.
There has always been a marquee guy in the Red Wings' lineup, often a handful of them. But with his longtime teammate Pavel Datsyuk back in Russia, it has become even more apparent that the team's classy captain is no longer the force he once was. Zetterberg has three goals in 19 games -- and, coming off a 13-goal campaign a year ago, seems to be signaling that times are changing in Motown.