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This Week's Question: Reaction to the 2013-14 Regular Season Schedule
Now that the 2013-14 Season Schedule has been released, share your immediate thoughts on the strength of the schedule and predicted challenges and opportunities for the Lightning.
With the NHL's new division realignment, the first worry about the Lightning's schedule this season is travel time. We know this is a big deal to the current management group as they moved their AHL affiliate from Norfolk to Syracuse primarily because of a more favorable travel schedule. However, Tampa Bay's 2013-2014 schedule isn't as bad as it could be, despite the frequent trips up north. According to ontheforecheck.com, the Lightning will travel 43,102 miles this year, which is the 13th-most in the league. San Jose is first at 57,612. The Bolts will have 16 games that require a one-way trip of at least 995 to play.
The Lightning lucked out in that they only have 12 back-to-back games, which is among the fewest in the league. By comparison, the Devils have 22. More would have been okay, though, as Tampa Bay has two starting caliber goaltenders -- a plus in this case.
Starting on the road is always a challenge, especially since the odds are stacked against winning another teams' home opener, but fortunately Game 2 in Chicago and Game 3 in Buffalo won't be home openers for those teams. It is still highly possible the Lightning could play their first home game with an 0-3 record and confidence waning. A glass half-full approach would state a team needs bonding time for chemistry at the beginning of the year and there is no greater opportunity for that to happen than an extended road trip. They will get a similar opportunity after the Olympic break when the team has to play its first four games on the road.
The key to the Lightning's playoff chances ride on two 7-of-8-games-on-the-road stretches in the middle of the season. If they come out of those 16 games with four or fewer wins, there likely isn't a shot at the playoffs. If there is a shot, that last homestand (six games) will be of utmost importance. That homestand balances out the schedule, but it won't matter if the team doesn't have itself in playoff position to make it worthwhile.
When I look at the Lightning’s 2013-14 schedule, the first things that jump off the page are the lengthy home stand to start the season, and the lengthy home stand to end the season. Despite the Lightning’s struggles over the last three years, the team has generally been solid on home ice. With seven straight games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in October, the Bolts will have a great opportunity to come out of the gate flying. With a set of six straight at the Forum in April, the team will be in perfect position to pick up points if a playoff spot is on the line. Travel is never friendly to the two Florida teams, so the fact that the Bolts have a chance to open and close 2013-14 season with home ice advantage could be huge.
I was among those who had concerns about the new division's potential for travel issues, particularly in regard to trips in and out of Canada. I feel the increase in distance is negligible (the difference between flying to Durham and flying to Montreal from Tampa is less than an hour and a half in the air) but multiple trips back and forth through customs could present some hassles. I felt like these could be alleviated by creating extended Canadian road trips and it looks like the league took care of the Lightning in that regard for the most part. The only back-to-back road games between American and Canadian cities is November 11 in Boston and November 12 in Montreal but at least it's a day game followed by a night game. All in all, the Lightning will cross the border eight times with only one single-game excursion this season, which isn't bad at all. Other than that, I'm looking forward to long homestands at the beginning and end of the season, as well as celebrating Thanksgiving eve with a home game.
First of all, I think the Tampa Bay Lightning do face a challenge being in a division alongside teams such as Boston, Detroit, and Ottawa because of how well these teams fared last season. Let’s not forget about Montreal or Toronto either. More than half of the teams in the new Atlantic Division made the playoffs last season. Under the new National Hockey League alignment, the Eastern Conference (Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions) play 30 divisional games this season. If the Lightning play well in these divisional games in such a competitive division, it’ll surely propel them into one of the top teams in the conference.
This is sort of generalizing things, but really the biggest challenge with the schedule is the new division and who the Lightning are directly competing with. The Bolts will be playing five of the seven divisional opponents the same number of times (four) as they had in the previous alignment, while we increase the annual number of games played against Detroit (up from “maybe one” of recent past seasons) and decrease the games against Florida (from six games to four). It’s how well Tampa Bay fares during those 28 games that will likely make or break playoff chances.
The schedule, travel wise, is not as bad as it could be with the new divisional lineup. Also, the Lightning play only 12 back-to-back games this season, that’s the same number as this past season during its accelerated pace.
Due to the recent realignment, the Lightning will be in for one heck of a dogfight as part of an 8-team “Atlantic” division of which 5 members made the playoffs last season. Boston, Ottawa and, in particular Toronto, will bring an intense, physical brand of hockey that will raise the stakes for divisional match and test the Lightning’s mettle while Detroit and Montreal will provide more of a tactical challenge for the Bolts. The first thing you notice about the new schedule is an opportunity to build some early steam with a 7-game home-stand after opening up the season on the road. 10 of the next 13 will be away—a daunting task—but successful trips could see to it the Tampa Bay reaches the season’s quarter pole in very good shape record-wise. The key is to reach the Olympic break in playoff contention as the Bolts will have a great shot at finishing strong during the home stretch as they play host for 14 of the last 20 matches. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff is able to balance rest and work in practices as over the course of the season the Lightning will rack up much more mileage than most of its divisional opponents but will play the fewest number (12) of back-to-back contests.