As readers of this column are well aware, when the Lightning’s schedule is released, there are certain components I look at closely: the start, road trips and back-to-backs. Here’s my take on the Lightning’s 2016-17 schedule.
Because of the NHL’s point system, early-season games carry a lot of importance. Due to the existence of three-point games (contests that go into OT), it’s a challenge for teams to make up ground in the second half of the season. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that teams below the playoff cut line after the first couple of months can’t climb above the line. Just last year, both the Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins used strong second half surges to vault up the standings. But even with their average starts, the Lightning and Penguins never fell too far below the playoff cut line. And history has shown us that fast starts greatly help clubs eventually qualify for the playoffs.
Last year, the Lightning opened the season playing 11 of their first 16 games on the road. They did a reasonable job of banking points in many of those road games – they went 5-4-2. But their early position in the standings was hurt by the fact that they won only two of those first five home games. That left them with only a 7-7-2 record after those 16 games. As a result, much of the first half of last season was spent playing catch-up in the standings. Conversely, the Lightning’s fast starts in both 2013-14 and 2014-15 helped them stay above the playoff cut line for the rest of those seasons.
In terms of the home/road breakdown, this year’s schedule poses a similar challenge to last year’s. After opening the season with four consecutive home games, the Lightning will play 19 of their next 28 games on the road. That road-heavy stretch will last until mid-December. If the Lightning want to get off to a fast start – and set themselves up better than they did last year in the first few months – it’s imperative that they not only take points regularly out of those early road games, but also cash in on those isolated home contests.
Two years ago, the Lightning had four separate five-game road trips. Those 20 games comprised nearly half of the entire road schedule. Last year, the team didn’t have any trips longer than four games – but they had six of those. In this year’s road schedule, the longer trips have returned. The Bolts have two separate six-game trips and one five-gamer. The rest of the road trips are all three games or less, with the exception of a February stretch in which they play four straight on the road, but the team’s week-long bye occurs in between the first two and the last two.
I’m curious to see how the team handles the three long trips. Coincidentally, one of the six-game trips and the five-game trip occur during the aforementioned early stretch. Coach Jon Cooper’s standard on road trips is to bring back more points than games. If the Lightning can meet that goal in all three, they’ll not only be poised to have a very successful road record, but also put themselves in a good standings position during the season’s early months.
I’ll address back-to-backs in the next segment, but they will affect the Lightning’s road record as well. Of their 16 back-to-backs, 11 of those sets will have both games on the road. Interestingly, there is only one set in each of the three long trips. So of the Lightning’s 24 road games that aren’t part of the three long trips, 16 of them will be parts of back-to-backs sets. Including the two home-road back-to-back sets that are also in the schedule, ten of those 24 games will be the second half of a back-to-back. Therefore, if the Lightning wants to do well on the road, especially outside of their three long trips, they’ll need to bank points in back-to-backs.
As just referenced, the Lightning has 16 sets of back-to-back games this year. That’s three more sets than either last year or in 2014-15 (The World Cup of Hockey will push the start of the season back a week and each team will have a bye week in the schedule, so the number of sets has gone up league-wide). Eleven of those sets are road-road, two are home-road and three are home-home. There aren’t any road-home sets.
Cooper often talks about how a team’s regular season record can be linked, at least in part, to the schedule. Based on back-to-backs and travel, certain matchups can favor one team over another. It’s important for a team to win games when it has a circumstantial advantage. And it must find a way to accumulate points when it doesn’t have the advantage.
The second game in a back-to-back is one of those regular season landmines that teams must navigate. It often comes against a rested opponent. Still, not all second games are created equal.
Travel circumstances are tough in some of the scenarios. One of the most daunting is a game on December 23 in Washington following a December 22 home game versus St. Louis. The game against the rested Caps occurs less than 24 hours after puck drop against the Blues. And there’s a customs clear on March 14 in Ottawa after a March 13 contest in New York City.
But other sets are more manageable. For example, in the three home-home sets, travel after the first game isn’t part of the equation. Also, there are three instances in which both teams will have played the night before. Those games will take place on December 29 versus Toronto, February 11 at Winnipeg and April 2 versus Dallas.
There are three consecutive back-to-back sets in January. Even though the Lightning will be playing a rested team in the second game of each of those sets, none of the three involves tough travel circumstances. In the first, the Lightning plays back-to-back afternoon games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on January 7 and 8. On January 12 and 13, the Bolts host back-to-back games against Buffalo and Columbus. And on January 16 and 17, the Lightning plays an afternoon game in Los Angeles followed by a night game in Anaheim.
Here’s another positive. During the Lightning’s tough road-heavy start to the season, they only have to deal with four sets of back-to-backs. The other 12 come after they return from their Western Canadian trip in mid-December.
There are also 16 instances in which the Lightning plays a team that had a game the night before. As previously mentioned, three of those occur when both teams are completing back-to-backs. In the other 13, the Lightning will not have played the night before. Most of these games occur at Amalie Arena. But in three, the Bolts will be on the road, waiting for a team that itself is playing on the road the night before. They occur on October 27 at Montreal, at San Jose on January 19 and March 13 at the Rangers. In another, on October 29, the Lightning plays the Devils in New Jersey the night after the Devils will have hosted Chicago.
Both for and against, back-to-back circumstances are just that – circumstances. They don’t always foretell a game’s outcome. But teams that have successful seasons win games in both types of circumstances.