10 Important Lessons the Shortened NHL Season Is Teaching Teams
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
When it seemed like the NHL would be a non-event this season, the Chicago Blackhawks decided to do something about it.
The Blackhawks roared out of the gate and set the record of playing 24 games without a regulation loss from the start of the season.
Nobody was more thankful than Gary Bettman.
In addition to the Blackhawks' scintillating performance, the Anaheim Ducks, Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins have all put the attention back on the ice and away from the stupidity of the lockout.
A 48-game season may not be ideal, but the truncated schedule is providing a lot of lessons to those who administer the game, as well as those who play it and follow it.
Each Game Is Vital
In a 48-game season, you don't have a lot of time to correct mistakes.
You need to do everything possible to win every game.
In an 82-game schedule, a coach or general manager is more likely to err on the side of caution with a player who is banged up and has a "lower-body injury."
During a 48-game schedule, a team's management is likely to be far more pushy because there are fewer opportunities to win games and little time to make up for losses.
Consistency Is Important
In the 48-game schedule, there are plenty of built-in traps for NHL head coaches.
Every game is equally important, and the NHL leaders can't lose sight of that.
In an 82-game schedule, a coach can look at one or two games and try to get his team worked up. For example, when the Vancouver Canucks went to Boston last year to play the Bruins, Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien could easily get their teams stimulated for the matchup between the 2011 Stanley Cup finalists.
But in a short schedule, teams can't afford to get jacked up for rivalry games. Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues can't have his team focus on the Chicago Blackhawks any more than it does for the Nashville Predators.
Putting too much emphasis on a rivalry opponent will take away from preparations for the rest of the schedule.
Ride a Hot Hand, but ...
Teams are playing three and four games a week during the 2013 schedule.
There is not a lot of down time for coaches and players.
There is no need for coaches to overthink the game. If a coach has a hot scorer, he needs to get him on the ice more often. If one of his goalies is kicking out everything, he needs to play him that extra game.
Ride the hot hand to give your team the best chance to win.
However, you can't push too hard. You don't want to wear out your skaters or your goalies.
A good coach knows he can push his players, but only so far before it brings about negative results.
You Must Have Great Goaltending
Great goaltending is the hallmark of any team that considers itself a championship contender in the NHL.
A team with a top goaltender will see the benefit this performer brings during the course of the Stanley Cup playoffs in most years.
A goalie is important in the regular season as well, but factors like puck possession, offensive skill, shot-blocking and physical toughness will decide a lot of games.
In a 48-game schedule, you need to have your goaltending working as if it were the playoffs. Look at the Blackhawks. They have gotten stellar play from both of their goaltenders. Backup goalie Ray Emery (11-0-0) has a perfect won-loss record.
Goaltending is even more important than usual in a shortened season.
Hockey Players Need to Be Resilient
The frequency of games means players have to put last night's results behind them.
In a given week, a team could play on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with another game the following Sunday. That's five games in eight days.
As a player, you must be in even better shape than usual to withstand that kind of demanding workload. You also must be resilient. If you scored the game-winning goal on a breakaway in overtime last night, put it behind you and move on to the next game.
If you turned the puck over and your opponent converted your error for the decisive goal, you need to forget about it because you can't have that misdeed on your mind the next time you take the ice.
Depth Is Vital
If you have one or two good lines, it's often enough to carry the bulk of the scoring for a winning team.
However, in a 48-game schedule, you are playing one or two more games per week than you are in an 82-game schedule.
You have to use your depth. Players get tired, and while there may be opportunities for your top players to dominate, head coaches cannot abuse them.
The teams that can roll out four lines and use three sets of defensemen have a better chance to survive the gauntlet.
A Shortened Season Is More Competitive
Every inch of real estate is valuable in a shortened season.
Every inch of real estate is worth fighting for.
That means players are more willing to battle hard in the corners, give each other an elbow or drop the gloves and fight during the shortened season.
Nobody wants to give anything away. It's all about the competition.
There are dead spots during an 82-game schedule. The teams hit the dog days in January and February. There are no dog days in 2013.
Everyone fights hard and competes for every loose puck and every goal.
Where Are the Other Guys?
The 48-game schedule is quite intense in the NHL, but it lacks some depth.
Where are the other guys? There are no Western Conference teams visiting the Montreal Canadiens in the Bell Centre.
There are no Eastern Conference teams going to the United Center in Chicago or the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
You get a better idea of where you stand when you compete against the other conference.
Interconference games are missing in action in 2013.
When Is Practice?
Practice is a way of life in the NHL during most seasons.
However, coaches have had to cut back on practices for two reasons this year.
Players are getting more days off as a result of negotiating that benefit in the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL.
Additionally, coaches have to pull back on the reins and give their players more time off since games are played with such frequency. If they don't, players will wear out and fatigue will set in.
Practices are shorter and less frequent during the 48-game schedule as well.
The Playoff Race Is On
Every game is important during a 48-game schedule.
However, once you get to the second half of the schedule, every game is vital in the playoff race.
The intensity of games in the second half of the season makes it very entertaining for fans, but draining for players and coaches.