The 48-game schedule being used for the shortened 2013 NHL season is creating plenty of excitement for hockey fans, but the physical wear and tear from playing multiple games each week with very few days off is starting to impact a lot of players across the league.
Regular season games are being treated like playoff matchups because we have reached the point in the year where a three- to five-game losing streak can ruin a team's chances of making the postseason.
Players are now in real hockey shape again after a lengthy rest during the lockout, so the intensity, speed and physicality of games is starting to increase at a rapid pace.
As a result, the number of injuries has risen considerably over the last week-and-a-half. But the more troubling pattern is the amount of head injuries, specifically concussions, that players have suffered in the last half of February.
On Tuesday, TSN's Bob McKenzie shared a list of 10 players with concussions.
The concern for teams is that there aren't a lot of days off for injured players to rest and recover because many clubs have very few stretches of more than one day off in a row for the rest of this shortened season.
For example, the Boston Bruins will play their final 33 games over the last 61 days of the season. They have just one two-day break (March 28-29) between games remaining on their schedule. Since the majority of the league's players have never gone through a stretch like this before, injuries will be a common occurrence throughout the season.
The importance of winning games is always high, but it's heightened in a shortened season. Coaches want the option of resting important players in late April so their teams don't go into the playoffs too fatigued.
"[We] just focus on just what’s in front of us now, but in the back of my mind I’m aware there’s going to be 17 games in 30 days, or whatever it is," Bruins forward Shawn Thornton after his team's 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday. "But to make sure that we’re ready for that grind, winning these games, as many of them as possible, sets ourselves up in a little bit better position going into that grind will definitely help."
With fewer games for teams on the playoff bubble to pick up points from, there will be more pressure on players (possibly coming from teams, coaches, teammates and themselves) to make a quick recovery and get back into the lineup as soon as possible (often sooner than they should).
Teams like the New York Rangers, who lost 4-3 to the Winnipeg Jets at home on Tuesday night to fall to 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, desperately need injured players such as Rick Nash and Michael Del Zotto to return to the lineup.
However, when players go back into the lineup earlier than they should, there is obviously a risk of further injury. If Nash rejoins the Rangers and suffers another head injury, his season could be over, which would be a huge setback for New York in their pursuit of a playoff spot.
Injuries will be a league-wide problem for the rest of the season as the playoff race heats up, the April 3 trade deadline draws closer and the already-high speed and physicality of NHL games continue to increase.
With expectations high and many players trying to impress general managers for when they are free agents in the summer, guys are doing everything possible to give their team an edge. Sometimes this results in them going over the line and hitting other players in an illegal manner, or pushing themselves too far physically to the point where injuries occur.
Players have to find a balance between playing hard with maximum effort and not being dirty or too physical in certain parts of the ice.
According to CBS Sports, the only teams without any official injuries are the Anaheim Ducks and Boston Bruins (Marc Savard not included). To no one's surprise, these two teams have a combined record of 25-5-3, owing in large part to their good health.
The teams that enter the 2013 NHL playoffs with the healthiest rosters will have the best chance to lift the Stanley Cup in June, even if they aren't the most talented squads.
That's why it's better for teams to give players the time needed to recover as close to 100 percent as possible. Unfortunately for some clubs, their places in the standings and the playoff race won't allow them to show a lot of patience with star players battling injuries.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs. All quotes obtained first hand or from Bruins media website unless otherwise noted.