Must-win games start in October
Once upon a time, the beginning of the NHL’s regular season was like your typical horse race. It would begin with a few seconds of intense pomp and excitement out of the gate, then be followed by a long stretch in the middle where the horses were as far from the fans as possible, and conclude with a furious battle at the end.
In the post-lockout NHL, though, those days are gone. If you don’t hit the ground running from the opening puck drop of Game 1, you’re going to have trouble getting off the ground the rest of the season.
There was no better example of that last year than the Toronto Maple Leafs, who posted a 1-7-2 record in their first 10 games that basically took them out of the post-season race before it began.
You can also see it by looking back at the ’09-10 Carolina Hurricanes; that franchise won two of its first four games, then went winless (0-10-4) in its next 14. Sure, injuries to goalie Cam Ward and star center Eric Staal were a significant reason for that slump, but having them back in the lineup relatively quickly – which led to an admirable 35-25-6 mark the rest of the season – wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs.
In fact, of the 16 teams that qualified for the 2010 post-season, 10 won at least six times in their first 10 games, while 14 won a minimum of five of their first 10. The only exceptions were the ever-plucky Nashville Predators, who went 3-6-1 to start the season, built a 44-23-1 mark the rest of the way and still only finished in seventh place in the Western Conference, and the veteran Detroit Red Wings who went on a tear to finish fifth in the conference.
By now, we all should understand the primary reason why teams are unable to climb back into the playoff mix later in the season: the NHL’s irrational points system that awards the so-called “loser point” to a non-victorious team in any game that goes to overtime or a shootout.
I detest that system as much as anyone, but as a means to an end – that end being the goal of keeping as many teams at least theoretically in a playoff race – it works perfectly.
And after five years of being in that system, nobody understands how important a good start is more than an NHL coach.
“A good start is absolutely critical,” said Peter DeBoer, head coach of the Florida Panthers. “We’ve been the victim of getting off to poor starts two years in a row and having to scratch our way back into the race. You joke about it a little bit, but to a certain degree we’re playing must-win games from the get-go.”
DeBoer learned that painful lesson two seasons ago, in his rookie outing as an NHL coach. The Panthers began the 2008-09 campaign with a 4-8-1 record and wound up ninth overall in the Eastern Conference with a 41-30-11 mark – identical to eighth-place Montreal – because of Florida’s losing record to the Habs that year.
Last season wasn’t nearly as close for the Panthers, who finished with the NHL’s third-worst record (32-37-13), but still had a lousy beginning to the year (2-7-1).
All in all, it’s clear a poor start takes a heavy toll on every member of an NHL organization.
“It seems like you’re playing must-win games in December, January, and through most of the season,” DeBoer said. “It’s grueling, but that’s the reality of a 30-team league.”
The pressure to win isn’t necessarily any more or less of an issue than it was prior to 2004. But the onset period of that pressure has changed dramatically.
Because of that, the horse race that used to be the NHL’s regular season has become a frantic series of bunkhouse brawls.
Strap yourselves in, everybody.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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