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Sprint toward playoffs leaves no margin for error

Thursday, 01.17.2013 / 3:00 AM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

The end goal remains the same in a 48-game season as it does in an 82-game season. The mindset for getting there is what's different now.

"You know how during a season you have the beginning and it's all excitement, then you get into the dog days, then things ramp up again for the playoffs," Minnesota left wing Zach Parise told NHL.com. "Well, now it'll just be ramped up the whole time."

The sprint to the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Saturday when 26 teams play the first of their 48 games this season. Ninety-nine days is all they'll have to earn a playoff spot. There are no preseason games to work out the kinks, no time to waste.

"It's amplified now," ex-Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko, who experienced the 48-game sprint in 1995, told NHL.com. "It's a big challenge for the coaches to get guys to gel and find that chemistry right away, more so than in an 82-game season when you can go through your prolonged slump.

"The L.A. Kings can't do what they did last year. They might not make the playoffs."

Eighteen years ago, the Devils were on the ropes, teetering on the edge of the playoffs with nearly 60 percent of the season in the books. Daneyko and goalie Martin Brodeur remember it vividly because they were so close to falling off the cliff one season after they went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

"We were very inconsistent," Daneyko said. "But we knew we could turn the switch on come playoff time."

It took a 10-2-2 hot streak from mid-March to mid-April to get the Devils into the playoffs. The fact that they won only two of their final seven regular-season games didn't matter because the Devils had done enough in that 14-game spurt to relieve the pressure.

They got into the dance and rolled to their first Stanley Cup championship. Just like in a typical season, how they got there didn't matter once they were there.

"Once the playoffs started, it was game on," Daneyko said. "You don't worry about the 48 games. It was very normal once the playoffs started. I remember that vividly. The playoffs were the playoffs. It was intense and great."

But it's still about getting there -- and in a 48-game season the challenges are magnified.

It starts this week in training camp, where coaches are finding out who is in shape and who may still need an extra bag skate or two. This was a much greater challenge 18 years ago, when offseason training wasn't as important or popular as it is today.

"Back then we had almost nobody that went to Europe and nobody played in the minors," Brodeur said. "These are things they weren't doing. You can see a lot of fresh legs out there now and guys are anxious."

"Not that we didn't train, but it's so much big business now that you stay in shape year-round," added Daneyko. "That wasn't the case in 1995. Now every guy is built like a racehorse. Preparation will be a lot better. These guys are machines now."

Even still, especially early in the season, coaches have to make sure their players are getting enough rest and recovery time after practices and games to at least reduce the percentage for injuries such as groin pulls and muscle tears.

"They all come back with varying degrees of fitness, and you have to be cognizant of that and try to enhance that as you go along," Rangers assistant Jim Schoenfeld, who coached Washington in 1994-95, told NHL.com. "It doesn't end in camp. For the remainder of the season, enhancing their level of fitness and finding time for them to recover -- those go hand-in-hand -- are things that never leave your mind."

Schoenfeld said open lines of honest communication between coaches and team leaders are "absolutely critical."

"You're going to have to have an ongoing dialogue, and you're going to have to have faith in their judgment," Schoenfeld said. "You miss something if you don't include them to varying degrees in the decision-making process. They're the ones out there and you don't know how they feel.

"It's different when you have your [training] camp," he added. "You do testing and you have all the numbers. We're not doing that. We've got to get ready to play hockey. The conditioning we have to see through the art of the play."

The art of the play will also tell the coaches if their guys are gelling together quickly, which is also critical in a shortened season with only six days of training camp and no preseason games before the puck officially drops.

This may be the greatest challenge.

"Puck movement is critical," Schoenfeld said. "When timing is off and passing is off, it can make a fast team look very slow. [In 1995] we did a lot of work on moving the puck, trying to move it with tempo."

The 600-plus players who didn't play in the minors or overseas during the lockout could be at a critical disadvantage early in the season without having the luxury of a preseason game or two.

"You take for granted just getting a couple of those warm-up games in to get ready to play at a high pace," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews told NHL.com. "It almost seems like those games in preseason are just as physical, if not more physical, than in the regular season because you have a lot of young guys pushing for spots running around trying to hit somebody. With no games before the regular season you're missing that."

Schoenfeld recalls discovering in 1995 that it was almost impossible to work on every aspect of the game both in training camp and during early-season practices, so he said coaches have to pick two or three items and go in depth on those.

He added that a lot of that work will also be done in the film room because practice time is so limited.

"One coach may think defensive zone coverage and breakouts and forechecking are the main three things. Some may think special teams," Schoenfeld said. "Every coach is going to have his list of priorities. The heart of your practice will be those things.

"You can touch it all from offensive zone pressure, defensive zone coverage, power play and penalty kill, but you're not going to get anywhere near perfecting all of that. You have to prioritize what you think will give you the best chance for success early in the season."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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