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With the arrival of the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, a couple of NHL aphorisms clicked into place. Both favour the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The first involves the league standings: It has long been an NHL maxim that the teams in playoff position on the U.S. Thanksgiving are generally the ones still there when the regular season concludes in April. This belief was popularized by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, who discovered a couple of years ago that since 2000, when the NHL grew to 30 teams, almost 80 per cent of teams that were in a playoff position at the U.S. holiday finished the season in the same spot.

Aside from the Leafs, who were second in the Atlantic Division with 30 points, despite losing 5-2 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night in just their second road loss of the season, Thursday morning brought good news for a few other Canadian teams. The most surprising of that group is the Montreal Canadiens, who held down an Eastern Conference wild-card spot with an 11-7-4 record and 26 points.

Also in playoff position are the Calgary Flames (13-8-1), who lead the Western Conference’s Pacific Division with 27 points, and the Winnipeg Jets. The 12-6-2 Jets could be considered to be slight underachievers, as they sat third on Thursday in the Central Division, but they have two games in hand on the division-leading Nashville Predators and the surprising Minnesota Wild, who hold second spot, two points ahead of the Jets.

It is also clear the Leafs once again have to fight their way out of the best division in the Eastern Conference. With the Canadiens and the Boston Bruins tied for the two wild-card spots, it is a safe bet the top five teams in the Atlantic will make the playoffs along with the top three in the Metropolitan Division. Another surprise team in the mix is the Buffalo Sabres, who are 8-2 in their past 10 games and are tied with the Leafs in points, though they have one fewer win with 14.

The other significant marker for teams at this time of year involves the league’s general managers: This is when they usually decide if their teams need changes and whether to increase emphasis on trade talks with their colleagues. The GMs got to work a bit early this season, as four teams have already fired their coaches. The Edmonton Oilers were the latest to do so when Ken Hitchcock took over for Todd McLellan on Wednesday.

There are a couple of changes that lie ahead for the Leafs and only one can be called negative. Then again, even if Leafs GM Kyle Dubas does not get restricted free agent William Nylander signed by the Dec. 1 NHL deadline, meaning he can’t play this season, it will not be a downer for the Leafs.

With Nylander’s good friend Kasperi Kapanen filling in for him on the right side of Auston Matthews, the Leafs have not missed a beat this season, fighting it out with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the lead of both their division and the conference. Even when Matthews was lost to a shoulder injury on Oct. 27, the Leafs carried on, posting a 7-4 record in his absence.

The raging question in Leafs camp (aside from how on earth could they allow 29 shots in the first period of the Hurricanes loss?) is when does Matthews return to the lineup? This is where a dark cloud edges onto the Toronto skyline.

When Matthews was injured, the best-case scenario had him lost for four weeks. He returned to full practice last Sunday and this Saturday’s home game against the Philadelphia Flyers marks four weeks since Matthews was lost.

However, it would seem any hopes Matthews would play Saturday were dashed on Thursday when he was still wearing the red no-contact sweater for the Leafs practice in Columbus. Since the sport-science people generally (and this is far from an exact science) want a player to participate in at least one full-contact practice before he returns, it seems Matthews will not be back until next Wednesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks.

This may be more a matter of the schedule than the state of Matthews’s shoulder. The Leafs have back-to-back games, road and home, Friday and Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers. Then they will almost certainly take Sunday off because they spent most of this week on the road and play Monday night at home against the Boston Bruins. That leaves Tuesday as the next practice when Matthews can get in some contact work with a return the next night.

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