The 2014-15 season will be the NHL’s second under the new format and, like last year, I think the league did a nice job with Tampa Bay’s schedule. Here are some reasons why.
Home At The Start – And At The End: In 2013-14, the Bolts, after opening with a three-game road trip, played a season-long seven-game homestand. They went 5-2-0 in the homestand and 7-3-0 overall in the opening 10. Their ability to bank points during October helped propel them to the top of the standings, where they stayed for most of the season. Then, they finished with 14 of their last 20 games at home. Once more, they effectively utilized the favorable finish to lock up a playoff berth and earn second place in the division.
While this year’s bookends aren’t quite as lopsided with home dates, the campaign does set up nicely for the Bolts. Not only does Tampa Bay open with three straight home contests, the Bolts play seven of their first 12 at home. With multiple off days between several of those games, they’ll have some valuable practice time in those early weeks, too.
Then, beginning with a February 27 home game against Chicago (which follows a four-day layoff), the Lightning play 13 of their final 21 at home. That includes a season-long six-game homestand and a season-ending three-game homestand. Of course, the placement of these home games is only valuable if the team can take advantage. Last year they did, recording a franchise record-tying 25 home wins. If they can play as well at home this year, the Lightning will be poised to post a strong start and finish.
Length Of Trips And Customs: One of the biggest challenges for the Lightning and Florida Panthers is how far away they are from their other division partners. So lot of single and two-game road trips are not ideal. Even though lengthy road trips can be a grind, the Bolts would prefer that scenario to, for example, an up-and-back trip to Ottawa. Last year, the Lightning only had five single road games, but also their longest trip was a manageable four games (four times). This year, the Lightning have four five-game road trips, plus another four-game trip. Those five trips comprise 24 of their 41 road games, so they’ll need to make some noise on them. But not only do the trips make sense (one trip to Western Canada, one trip to include California, Arizona and Colorado, etc.), they are spread out nicely throughout the season. As for single game trips, the Lightning have only three: Carolina on January 27, Nashville on February 10 and Florida on March 1. Very reasonable.
Another potential monkey wrench for the Florida-based teams is how often they must clear customs and head directly home. With three Canadian clubs in the division, the Lightning make several trips north of the border. Clearing customs can add substantial time to an already long trip home. But the NHL kept those instances to a minimum for Tampa Bay. The Lightning play 11 games in Canada this year, but only must return directly home from Canada twice. And after one of those games (in Montreal on January 6), the Lightning, will have two days before their next game.
Back-To-Backs: One of the reasons why the Lightning made the playoffs last year was their ability to play well in the second half of back-to-backs. The Bolts had 12 back-to-backs in 2013-14. In the second game, often against a rested opponent, they went 8-3-1. Again this season, the Lightning have 12 back-to-backs (though there is a chance the number might change due to a scheduling conflict currently being resolved by the team and the NHL). Eleven of the 12 sets will take place entirely on the road, while the other features back-to-back home games.
So what do I like about the back-to-backs this year? First of all, the number is favorable. Twelve back-to-backs is on the low end of the league spectrum – some clubs must deal with 20 or more. Second, in the final seven weeks of the season, the Lightning will have only one back-to-back remaining (though the additional one may also occur in that timeframe). And third, the Bolts, with a young, fast team, showed last year that they are capable of posting wins in that second game.
On the other side of the coin, the Lightning will play 14 times against teams that played the day or night before. Nine of those will be played at the Tampa Bay Times Forum and the other five will be road games. On one occasion, December 20 at the Islanders, both Tampa Bay and New York play the night before, but the Bolts have shorter travel – they’ll be coming from New Jersey while the Isles are in Detroit. On March 1, the Lightning face the Panthers in Sunrise. But the Lightning have Saturday, February 28 off while the Panthers host the Buffalo Sabres. In the other three road instances, the Lightning will play against a team that itself played a road game the previous day. As the Lightning showed last year with their 8-3-1 record in the second half of back-to-backs, however, a more rested team doesn’t always win. Still, the Lightning will have plenty of chances to cash in when they have a circumstantial advantage.
Ultimately, though, as I’ve mentioned a few times in this piece, a good schedule doesn’t guarantee success. It’s up to the Lightning to take care of business as well as they did throughout last year.