‘Tis Hallowe’en, that day on the calendar that inspires tales of horror and spirits of the night. On the minds of Washington Capitals fans is the horror that the 2017-18 team is not playoff worthy after winning consecutive Presidents’ Trophies as the top team in the league in the regular season.
There has been no shortage of wailing and gnashing of teeth as the Caps stumbled out to a 5-6-1 record in their first dozen games to stand on the outside looking in on playoff eligibility, occupying tenth place in the Eastern Conference before the league plays its Hallowe’en schedule on Tuesday night.
But does sitting on the outside looking in matter on October 31? Not really, if you look at the standings as of games played through that date in previous years.
In 11 seasons following the 2004-05 lockout (not including the abbreviated 48-game 2012-13 season that began in January 2013), no playoff group in the Eastern Conference was set by October 31. In fact, on six occasions, three of the teams outside of the playoff mix on October 31 managed to gain a playoff spot by season’s end, as the graphic below indicates (red for teams dropping out of the playoff mix between October 31 and season’s end; green for those who jumped into playoff eligibility):
And looking at those six instances in which three teams made the leap, it was not as if it was merely a case of leap-frogging one team. Of the 18 teams in that group that climbed into the playoffs over the last five-plus months of the season, ten of them came from 12th place or lower in the conference standings to reach the postseason. Columbus and Toronto did it last season (the Blue Jackets in 14th place on October 31, the Maple Leafs in 15th place), while the Philadelphia Flyers did it the year before, climbing from 13th place on October 31 to seventh in the conference by season’s end. Even the Caps have done it, rising from 12th place on October 31, 2014, to finish in fourth place in the conference by the end of the 2014-15 season.
All-in-all, 25 teams over those 11 seasons were out of the playoff mix on October 31 but earned a ticket to the dance by the end of the regular season. Of those 25 teams, 11 of them won at least one playoff series; six of them reached a conference final; and two – the New York Rangers in 2013-14 (in 10th place on October 31) and the Ottawa Senators in 2006-07 (in 12th place on October 31) reached the Stanley Cup final.
But this is where the story does not have a hopeful ending. No team out of the playoff mix on October 31 since the 2004-05 lockout has tasted from the Stanley Cup. In that respect, you cannot win a Stanley Cup in October... but you can, for all intents and purposes, lose one. And since the Caps do not return to action until Thursday night when they host the New York Islanders, they will be spending Hallowe’en outside the playoff mix.
Hallowe’en might be a day to inspire tales of horror and spirits of the night, but it is also a day on which many are inspired to don costumes. Capitals Nation hopes that on this night the team is not merely costumed as a playoff contender, but is truly one beneath the regalia. We’ll know better when the next holiday rolls around – Thanksgiving – whether the Capitals are a contender or a turkey. But if you are hoping for a Stanley Cup, our advice is to start penning a letter to Santa Claus.