To anyone who has ever complained that the regular season of a pro sports league dragged on too long -- that the individual games weren't quite meaningful enough -- I present the 2013 NHL season. Following a 119-day lockout, the NHL this past weekend kicked off a campaign that will see it cram 48 games for each team into a schedule that lasts just 99 days. It's the sort of mad dash to the finish line that makes last year's 66-game lockout-shortened NBA schedule seem downright lengthy. To reverse the old cliche: This NHL season is a sprint, not a marathon.
It's natural for teams to have ups and downs over the course of a season, but in such a condensed slate of games, a slump lasting even a couple of weeks can be devastating. The long 82-game schedule corrects for strong teams that experience a hiccup or weak teams that unexpectedly get hot for a while. But in a 48-game schedule, eventual seeding can be thrown out of whack by just a handful of games. This promises to be a regular season that rewards consistency, which is why teams like St. Louis that boast strong goaltending tandems are well positioned to put up big point totals. (Via On the Forecheck, the average team will play 8.6 back-to-back sets this season, though some teams will play on consecutive nights as many as 12 times. Poor Chicago and Detroit.)
More than ever -- well, more than in any season since 1995, which also featured a 48-game schedule -- teams will want to get off to a hot start, or at least avoid digging themselves any sizable holes. Complicating this, of course, is the brief nature of this year's training camps and the total lack of a pre-season. Normally, by the time the pucks drop in the season opener, teams like the Rangers or the Wild that are introducing a game-changing star (or two) to their lineups have had weeks to practice. This year, with roughly just a week of official training camp (plus some unofficial workouts prior to that), teams are starting the season with kinks to work out. Clubs that return mostly intact, meanwhile, don't have to fret as much about such things. The Kings are a prime example: They'll defend their Stanley Cup with more or less the same players that won it last June (though we'll note they were routed in their season opener Saturday after raising their long-awaited Cup banner).
Coaches, too, face unique challenges this year. They've already completed their training camps, though there was little time this year for much more than trust exercises and maybe a couple of power play drills. (We kid -- though coaches really did have to figure out how exactly to structure their lone week of camp. Rangers coach John Tortorella, notorious for running a demanding camp that forces his players to be well-conditioned, spoke last week about having to figure out how much to ask of his team each day.) Then there's the in-season balancing of practice time and rest, though we'll note that the new CBA requires teams to schedule four full off-days for players each month. It's a real dilemma for coaches: Rest players too much, and you miss out on valuable practice time in a season that barely had a training camp. But push guys too hard, and you risk not just exhaustion but injury.
Speaking of which, a quick word of advice to teams gunning for a strong playoff seed: Stay really healthy. Again, everything is magnified in this regular season, so three or four weeks without a top-pair of defenseman or first-line forward or (God forbid) a starting goalie will account for a much larger percentage of games than usual. Knees and ankles and shoulders, after all, don't care that the season only lasts three months and change this year. (A quick aside: We really hope that the shortened schedule doesn't mean teams will be tempted to rush players back from head injuries.)
The season also promises to be borderline disorienting for fans: For months, virtually all NHL talk revolved around escrow payments and pension plans and year-to-year contract variance. That left just two weeks to change focus to on-ice topics, and now storylines are everywhere. A full season (hopefully, for the sake of the game) of Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. A rookie coach in Washington, albeit one with the Alex Ovechkin seal of approval. Teams like the Rangers and Blues poised to take the next step after encouraging 2011-12 seasons. The utter weirdness of a Red Wings' team without Nicklas Lidstrom. An Edmonton squad that makes us wonder how many first-overall picks they plan on stockpiling before they start to win. There are dozens of others, too, and to repeat, they're all getting crammed into a regular season that will last just 99 days.
There's precedent for this sort of mayhem: After the 1994-95 lockout, the league played a 48-game season with a full, four-round postseason, just as it will do this year. And that season taught us that there are exceptions to the "start hot or else" rule: The 1995 Devils earned just one point during a season-opening four game road trip, and their turnaround didn't really come until more than halfway through the schedule, when they'd go on a 10-3-2 run. Even after that hot stretch, they'd enter the playoffs as just a No. 5 seed. That Devils team, of course, cruised once the playoffs began, losing just four times total during the Eastern Conference playoffs before sweeping Detroit in the Finals. So perhaps the lesson of the previous 48-game season is this: As wild as the 2013 campaign promises to be, and as much as the battles for playoff seeding (or playoff berths) can be affected by a few good (or poor) weeks of play, the postseason remains its own animal.
But for now, let's focus on the sprint, not the finish line. Fans have waited a long time for the season to begin, and just a few weeks ago, there was no guarantee that it would begin at all. Hockey is back, and it's about to get pretty crazy.
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Joe DeLessio is a senior producer at New York Magazine's website, nymag.com.