When I heard that the league was going to be announcing a schedule with 48 games for each team, I was curious to see the matrix. Playing only within the conference meant that there would be a certain number of games versus the four other teams in your division and, presumably, fewer contests against the 10 other clubs in the conference.
Here’s how the league did it. Within the division, teams will play five games against two opponents and four versus the other two. In the latter two series, the games will be split evenly, with two at home and two on the road. In the two five-game sets, a team will have the extra game at home in one series and the additional game on the road in the other. That’s 18 total games within the division.
The remaining 30 games will take place against the other 10 teams within the conference. Three games against each team. In five of those series, a team will play two at home and one on the road. In the other five, it’s one at home and two on the road.
I like it. Not just how the league designed the schedule format in general, but also the Lightning’s 48-game schedule specifically.
Within The Conference: Since all the games will take place within the conference, every game will have teams vying for one of the same eight available playoff berths. Assuming that the races will be close – which they invariably are in a regular 82-game schedule – every game will be a proverbial “4-point” contest.
Lots of Home Games Early For The Lightning: There’s been some debate about the importance for teams to get off to a great start. History tells us that it’s much easier to protect a spot in the top-eight than it is to climb up from the bottom. In a shortened season, that task may become even tougher. The likelihood of many “three-point” games (those that go into overtime) means that it can be difficult, though not impossible, to make up ground. Still, the consensus around the league seems to be that as long as teams don’t suffer losing streaks of four or five games right off the bat, there’ll be enough time to recover from a slow start.
The Lightning get ready to square off against division rival Washington in the season opener at the Tampa bay Times Forum
Having written all of that, all teams do want to start well and separate themselves from the clubs behind them. The Lightning get six of their first eight games at home, where they have excelled under Head Coach Guy Boucher. The Bolts have won a franchise- record 25 home games during each of his first two seasons behind the bench. Assuming the team can continue playing well at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Lightning will have the opportunity to put some early points in the bank.
Travel: Due to the conference-only format, NHL teams won’t have to travel across the continent, except for Winnipeg. So road trips won’t be as long for clubs this year, either in distance or duration. Even without trips to the West Coast, the Lightning’s schedule could have included tougher travel than it does. The Bolts do not have to go to Winnipeg three times (which was a possibility given the divisional breakdown) – their extra divisional road game is at Carolina. (The additional divisional home game is versus Florida). Also, their out-of-division conference schedule is more travel-friendly than it could have been. Here are the five teams against which the Lightning play only one road game: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo and Philadelphia. Tampa Bay plays twice at the Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Penguins and Bruins. The Lightning only make two trips to Canada – and the first of those isn’t until March 20. Even the two games in Boston, which is the farthest city in the second group, are sandwiched between visits to closer destinations.
Back-To-Backs: Ah, the dreaded back-to-backs. How often do we see one team that played the night before and traveled to a second city (arriving in the wee hours) face an opponent that didn’t have a game the previous evening? These schedule quirks don’t guarantee victory for the more-rested team, but they do provide that club with a circumstantial advantage.
The Lightning have eight back-to-backs this year. Pro-rated, that number equates to between 13 and 14 back-to-backs in an 82-game schedule. So eight is not a high number, particularly considering how condensed the schedule is, with teams often playing four games a week.
Of those eight sets, seven have both games on the road, so the Bolts will be dealing with post-game travel. (The other back-to-back set, on February 1 and 2, has the Lightning playing both games at home).
In those seven road back-to-backs, three begin with an afternoon game – at the Islanders on January 21, at Boston on February 9 and at Ottawa on March 23. So the players will be arriving at their next destination at a reasonable hour. That will – hopefully – somewhat level the field for that second game. In two of the other back-to-backs – March 5 at New Jersey and April 7 at Washington - the Lightning’s second opponent also has an away game the night before. Travel for both teams puts them in the same circumstantial boat, so to speak.
Final Analysis: So I do like the Lightning’s schedule. I’ll like it a lot more, of course, if the Bolts have a great season. And really, that’s a much better barometer. Lengthy travel seems shorter after a win. Short trips take forever after a loss. Players have a lot of energy on the team plane after sweeping a back-to-back, less when a road outcome doesn’t go their way. So here’s hoping I end up feeling the same way about the schedule in late April as I do now.