48 games, and every one is magnified
Shortened NHL season?
You can look at it that way. But the way it’s going to feel to the players and coaches is more like a prolonged playoff season.
This is right around the time of a normal, 82-game NHL season that the intensity of games starts to ramp up and players start to pay attention to the standings. In that sense, there’s no easing into this season, for any player.
Columbus Blue Jackets veteran forward Derek MacKenzie knows it should go without saying that every game is magnified in a 48-game season. But he also knows he’s going to hear it anyway.
“We’re going to get tired of hearing about how important every game is,” he laughed, “because we know you’re going to be facing teams you’re chasing or being chased by every night.”
And MacKenzie is well aware that getting off to a good start in an abbreviated season is paramount for any team that expects to be in playoff contention this spring.
“I believe in the backs of our minds we’re going to be focused on not having the start we had last year, that we’re going to pay a little extra attention to detail to make sure that doesn’t happen again. If we’re a little afraid of that, I think that’s a good thing.”
Along with starting well this season, every team in the NHL will likely have its depth challenged. The Blue Jackets are playing their 48 games over 99 days, and it’s virtually the same for every team in the league. That means an inordinate number of back-to-back games and five-game stretches played over eight days. It’s going to be grueling at times, and that will likely make it harder to keep players on the ice.
“Well, the biggest thing is just to try to stay healthy,” said Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski. “Obviously with a shortened season, you can’t just go out and do some of the things you could during a normal regular season. Nutrition is going to be very crucial, and so is rest. The more you can get of that, and the more you can stay healthy, the better your chances to win.”
Let’s review. In this unusually brief NHL season, it’s universally accepted that each game becomes that much more important. The pressure to win is naturally intensified when there are fewer games up for grabs. Go on a six-game losing streak this season and, well, you can do the math. At the same time, though, staying healthy is going to be critical. Depth will be tested.
So how does a coaching staff balance the pressure to win every game with the effort to keep guys as healthy as possible when they’re playing essentially every other night? Do you play your horses the extra three or four minutes a game trying to secure two points, at the risk of having those horses go down well before the finish line? Can you afford to think big picture in a small season?
Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards agrees it’s going to be tough to weigh the pressure to win now with the need to maintain depth for this regular-season that’s been turned from marathon to sprint.
“We’re juggling balls,” he said. “We’re talking about ways to keep the guys as healthy as possible; if a guy is out 10 days, he could miss six games. The way we approach things could change every day, depending on where we are in the standings, with injuries, with travel.”
Shortened season? Technically, yes. But this 48-game sprint has all the makings of a three-month playoff season, followed by the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That would make it short, and sweet. And it all begins Saturday.