ST. PAUL, Minn. — Through the first 30 games of the 2011-12 NHL season, the Minnesota Wild had sprinted to a league-best 20-7-3 record. But during the remainder of last year’s 82-game schedule, the Wild faded after their hot start and missed out on the playoffs entirely.
If that fast start were to be duplicated during the upcoming lockout-shortened season, Minnesota would likely be a shoe-in to make the playoffs. The lengthy lockout has forced the NHL to play a condensed season, likely play 48 games each.
With less time to make up ground, getting off to a fast start will be more important than ever.
“It’s basically half of a season and go, so it’ll be a sprint to the playoffs,” said new Wild forward Zach Parise. “You want to make sure the games at the beginning of the season are just as, if not more important than, the ones at the end. You want to put yourself in a good spot.”
Teams are expected to begin the regular season Jan. 19, which also happens to be Hockey Day in Minnesota. By Jan. 19 of last season, the Wild had already slipped to 22-18-7 by losing 15 of 17 games after sitting in first place in the NHL.
“Last year, we got a good start and it didn’t go all the way,” said Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom. “Every year you have to get a good start, especially now. It’s 15 good teams in the West, 15 in the East. (This year), you can’t have a bad start. You can’t have a bad week. You have to find a way to bounce back and play good every minute.”
The NBA went through a similar condensed schedule last year after a lockout cut the basketball season short. Teams played a 66-game schedule instead of the regular 82. That meant a more hectic travel schedule, with some teams having to play games on three straight nights.
The NHL schedules still haven’t been released, but there will likely be some similarities. One difference, though, is the physicality of hockey compared to basketball. Because of the nature of the sport, preparation for and within the shortened season will become a balancing act.
“You might have to ease up on practice time. You might have to get more days off,” said Mike Yeo, the Wild’s second-year coach. “I think the other thing for us is with the travel that we have and where we are geographically, I think we might have to look at some adjustments to our travel as far as staying over in cities a little bit more. I would think that we’re facing a few more days on the road than we have in the past.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter was one of the Wild’s big offseason additions, as he and Parise signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts in early July. Neither was a part of Minnesota’s quick start or its eventual collapse last season.
Still, Suter knows the importance of Minnesota starting on the right foot during a 48-game season.
“I think there will be a sense of urgency, definitely. With a shortened schedule, guys know that they have to be going from Game 1,” Suter said. “In the past, you could get away with having a little bit of a slump, but now with the shortened schedule you’re not going to be able to.”
In a way, the short season will make almost every game feel like a playoff game. For those teams that fall behind early, catching up will become much harder — but not impossible.
“In every season, there’s always a big emphasis on starting strong, this year more so than ever. But having said that, one real key to this year is also being able to stay in the moment,” Yeo said. “If you get off to a great start, that’s good. You’ve got to feel good about it, but you have to be ready to move on and you have to be ready to attack the next group of games because you can also lose ground very quickly.
“But having said that, if you get off to a tough start, it doesn’t mean your season’s over. You’re still in the race. You just have a little catching up to do.”