Here we are, January 19, 2013. We find ourselves, finally, at the start of the 2012-2013 NHL season. Beyond the excitement of finally seeing the best in the world in action, questions abound.
What should expect from a lockout shortened season? The NHL season, which can be normally viewed as a 82-game marathon followed by 2 months of grueling playoff hockey, is now a 48-game sprint to the finish. How will this change the quality of the game we see on the ice, as well as the fortunes of the teams and its players?
First and foremost, I believe you will see more intense hockey throughout the season. Players will be focused knowing that every point counts. For instance, in a full schedule last year the point difference between the #1 seed and #9 seed in the East was only 20 points and in the West 21 points.
As of January 28, 2012 the difference between the #1 seed and #9 seed was 13 points in the East and 11 points in the West. A little over half of the schedule was played at that point last season. So, expect a very close difference between the top seed and #9 seed that will be just out of the playoffs. A difference of 11 points is 5 wins and an overtime loss. That is not much.
Teams will have to avoid long losing streaks. Otherwise, it could be the end of their season because teams will be bunched together. Gaining ground at the end of the season could be extremely difficult. Teams that make the playoffs will avoid extended losing streaks, put together winning streaks, and be consistent throughout.
Check out this article on How the Kings Regained Momentum after their first two game losing streak in the 2012 Playoffs
If I know this then for sure the NHL coaches and players know it. Therefore, we should expect high intensity, focused play throughout the season. However, I am not so sure with a week of training camp teams will be in physical condition to play this intense brand of hockey. So, unfortunately I think we could see injuries become a big part of team's fortunes, more than usual. Add to this the stress players will be under to perform when their minds and bodies might not be at mid-season form and this will increase the likelihood of injury.
While I have concerns about injuries, I also think the quality of play will be hit and miss early on in the season. These teams have not been together for much time. Chemistry will most likely be lacking. Special teams performances could suffer early in the season due to the lack of chemistry. And, I think play may be sloppy because the players will be pumped up to start the season and get off to a good start without much time to prepare. Too much energy is not always a good thing, especially when you have not had the time to clean up the issues in your team play.
So, expect sloppy, but high energy play for maybe two weeks. Then, I think it will be on. I am excited to see just how intense these division and conference games will be; there will be no inter-conference play for an overtime loss. Teams will not want to give their rivals any points. Every point will be precious.
Needless to say it is going to be extremely difficult to extend any kind of point advantage in the standings and a buffer from being out of the playoffs. This should create an amazing run through April that fans are going to enjoy. Every team, more than usual at the start of a new season, will feel like they have a chance to make the playoffs.
So, it will not be surprising that some perennial playoff teams will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin. Other teams that missed last year will get in. Now, this is the case every year, but I would expect it to be more of a roll of the dice in a 48-game season. With some teams making major changes in the off season like the Carolina Hurricanes and the Minnesota Wild, and others ready to emerge like the Edmonton Oilers, your guess is as good as mine as to the teams that will make the playoffs.
As NHL teams embark on a lockout-shortened season hope and optimism are plentiful. Get on a good streak to start the season and you might just get in the playoffs. As every season, however, the consistent teams will be there at the end. Ultimately, it is best to keep a game-to-game focus, and evaluate performance on 5 or 10-game blocks. I think this goes for the pros and for the fans. Otherwise, this crazy, emotional rollercoaster of a season will drive us all nuts.