The lowdown on the shortened NHL schedule and games to watch
The NHL is finally about to begin its season, and you might want to hold on because it will be a whirlwind.
Each team will play 48 games in 99 days. That adds up to 720 games overall. The schedule is short but stops short of becoming grueling–for every back-to-back game, there is a two-day break.
18 of the games will come against divisional opponents, while the remaining 30 will be played against the other 10 teams in the conference (three games against each team, at least one at home and at least one away).
A condensed schedule means the potency of each game is increased. With only one week to prepare between the official ratification of the CBA and opening day on Jan. 19, it’s going to be a race to the playoffs. Teams don’t have a lot of time to find their legs or to make up for any missteps.
The stakes are high. What the players might lack in game-shape conditioning and timing, they will make up for with emotion and determination. While the East and West won’t see each other until the Stanley Cup Finals, there’s plenty of intrigue in either conference’s matchups to keep us busy until season’s end at the end of April.
Most interesting will be storylines that are carrying over from last year’s Cinderella playoffs that saw many favorite teams crash and burn, and a six-seed meet an eight-seed in the Finals (the 8-seed won). Here are five games you won’t want to miss in the truncated schedule, regardless of your favorite team:
January 19: Pittsburgh Penguins @ Philadelphia Flyers
One of the nastiest rivalries in the Eastern Conference came to a brittle breaking point in the Conference Quarterfinals last year when the Flyers beat the Penguins in six games, and it got interesting. The teams combined for an average of nearly 10 goals scored per game and 300-plus penalty minutes. Many thought the series was embarrassingly violent and undisciplined; others thought it was exciting, a brutal rivalry at its best. It will surely be dramatic to have the Penguins return to Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia after their last game there was also their last game played, period. That last game was a 5-1 beating that sent the Pens packing.
January 28: Nashville Predators @ Phoenix Coyotes
The Coyotes finally made it out of the first round of the playoffs last season. They beat a struggling Blackhawks team in six games. They then proceeded to roll over the Nashville Predators. The series was expected to go to seven with both teams’ sound defense. And, with the Predators fast becoming the darling underdogs of the West, Phoenix wasn’t expected to triumph in the end. But it was an easy victory for the Coyotes. The Predators’ trouncing of the Red Wings in the first round seemed to go to their heads. When the Predators return to Jobing.com Arena, it will be with a chip on their shoulders.
February 5: Los Angeles Kings @ Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus is the furthest east that any Western team will get until May, and it will be interesting to see the defending Cup champs on the home ice of one of the most struggling Western teams. The Blue Jackets will take the ice for the first time since 2002 without Rick Nash as a member of their organization, having recently traded their captain and top offensive producer to the New York Rangers. Seeing this game could be a good barometer for how the Los Angeles Kings are dealing with any Cup and/or lockout hangover and how Columbus is filling its void of team leadership a few weeks into a strange season.
March 5: Boston Bruins @ Washington Capitals
The Bruins will meet the Capitals for the first time since April 25th, 2012. After an emotional overtime win from a Tyler Seguin goal to stave off elimination in Verizon Center April 22, Washington came to TD Garden and pulled off an overtime win of their own in Game 7, which brought Bruins fans first to outrage and then to silence. It most certainly wasn’t the performance expected after a Cup year. The Capitals lost in the next round themselves, and they haven’t been past the semifinals since 1998.
April 27: Chicago Blackhawks @ Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks have been the most successful Canadian team in recent years, but have very little to show for it. They made it to the Cup Finals in 2011 and are also back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winners. They have won their division with relative consistency since 2004, which has also been thanks to the leaner years for the rest of the Northwest: Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, and Minnesota have not had excellent success in the years since the last lockout ended in 2005, and the Canucks‘ future success remains a mystery with goaltender Roberto Luongo’s fate in the balance. This will be the Canucks’ last game of the 2013 season, and it comes against a team that has twice kicked them out of the playoffs in recent memory. Whether the Canucks continue their regular season dominance may well depend on this game’s outcome–and the Blackhawks, a seemingly perpetually youthful team, will still have something to prove heading into the playoffs.