Every summer in this space, I attempt to break down the Lightning’s upcoming schedule. How tough is the first month, a time when teams can establish a good position in the standings? How many back-to-backs for the Bolts? And how many times do they play a team on the second half of a back-to-back? How long are the road trips, both in terms of games and duration? Here are some answers to those questions.
A Tough Start: Last season, the Lightning played eight of their first 13 games at home. They cashed in, going 9-3-1, and earning a spot in the top half of the Atlantic Division standings. A spot they held throughout the rest of the regular season. This season’s opening stretch, at least in terms of a home/road breakdown, is tougher than last year’s.
The Lightning will be on the road for 11 of their first 16 regular season games. Those games will take place in a 31-day span. This is the second-busiest road stretch of the entire season (the other takes place from February 20 until March 19, when the team plays 11 of 15 games on the road). I’ve often written that two points early in the season often are more significant than two points late. That’s because as the season progresses, it becomes very difficult for teams outside the playoff bubble to force their way in. Ottawa was an exception last year, but it took a 21-3-3 finish for the Sens to eke in just past the Boston Bruins. Last season’s fast start for the Lightning was a crucial component in their successful regular season. If they want a similar start in 2015-16, they’ll need to make some noise on the road early on.
Home Sweet Home: The Lightning set a franchise record and led the NHL with 32 home wins during the regular season. They’ll look to be just as inhospitable again this year. There will be a few stretches in which the schedule becomes very home-friendly. After the grueling start, the Lightning wrap up November by playing seven of their next nine at Amalie Arena. There will be two six-game homestands: one that lasts from December 20 until January 2 and the other from March 22 through April 2. But the least travel-intensive stretch in the schedule begins on January 15. Starting with that home game against Pittsburgh, the Lightning play 11 of 14 at home. The only road games are a single trip to Sunrise against the Panthers on January 23 and a quick back-to-back in Ottawa and Montreal on February 8 and 9. That entire 14-game stretch lasts 34 days and includes the All-Star Break.
I mentioned earlier how the Lightning’s fast start last year was a factor in the regular season success. So, obviously, were the 32 home wins. So the team will look to capitalize when it gets those aforementioned home-heavy segments.
Back-to-Backs: Last year, the Lightning had 13 back-to-back sets of games. That number, compared to other seasons, is reasonably low. (I recall some years when the back-to-back sets reached into the high teens). In 2015-16, the Bolts again will have 13 back-to-backs. As was the case last year, most of the back-to-backs will take place on the road. Only one of the sets features both games at home (they had two such sets last year). Three others feature one game at home and one on the road. The other nine have both games on the road. In other words, in 12 of the 13 sets, the Lightning will be getting on a plane after the first game and traveling to the second game’s site. Those second games can be challenging, especially when facing a team that didn’t play the night before. Last year, the Bolts went only 4-8-1 in the second half of those 13 back-to-backs. That’s a record they’ll want to improve this year.
And what about the Lightning’s opponents? The Bolts will have 11 games this year in which they’ll be facing a team that played the night before. On three of those occasions – November 28 versus the Islanders, December 6 at LA and April 5 at the Rangers – both clubs will have played the night before. In those cases, neither team should have much of a circumstantial advantage, perhaps with the exception of the LA game. The Kings will have played a Saturday afternoon game at home the day before the Sunday night tilt with the Lightning, while the Bolts will be flying in after a night game in San Jose.
So there will eight other games in which the Lightning will be rested and facing a club that played the previous day. And there will be 10 occasions when the Bolts will be the team that played the night before, taking on a rested opponent.
Road Trips: Would you rather have a few long road trips or more frequent shorter trips? Last year, the Lightning had four separate five-game road trips. Those 20 road games comprised nearly half of the entire road schedule. This year, the Bolts don’t have any trips longer than four games. But there are six four-game trips. The Lightning handled the long trips reasonably well last year – they picked up at least five points in three of the four five-gamers. But it’ll be interesting to compare this year’s slate, which has more trips of fewer games.
A couple of other interesting tidbits.
-The Lightning and Buffalo Sabres will have concluded their four-game season series by November 10.
-The Lightning will make only one trip to New York City and it won’t take place until April 4, when they play their first-ever game in Brooklyn against the Islanders. They’ll take on the Rangers at Madison Square Garden the next night.
-Last year, the Lightning played nine of their last 11 regular season games (and 14 of 17) within the division. This year, only seven of the final 18 are within the division.
Ultimately, a team’s performance will be the truest indicator of whether a schedule is favorable or not. Hopefully, the Lightning will make 2015-16 another memorable one.