Like many, I was anxious to see the Lightning’s 2013-14 schedule when it was released last week.
In particular, I was curious to see how and if the league addressed some of the Lightning’s concerns about being in the Atlantic Division (as it’s now called). When the new divisional format was announced – and the Lightning learned they would be lumped into a division with Florida, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Detroit – the league assured the team that it would devise a “smart” schedule for the Bolts. In other words, the Lightning would not be expected to make a trip to Boston, say, for a single game. Another team concern revolved around the number of times it would have to clear customs. The process of getting back into the United States from Canada can add an hour or more to a trip. I wanted to see how many times the Lightning were coming home directly from Canada – and how many occasions Tampa Bay would have to contend with a back-to-back in which the first game was played in Canada and the second occurred in the U.S.
While no team can ever say that a schedule is perfect, I concede that the league did a terrific job with the Lightning’s schedule. In addition to addressing the points referenced above, here’s a breakdown of why I feel that’s the case.
Home At The Start – And At The End: Typically, teams that get off to a good start to the season put themselves in an advantageous position for the rest of the year. Last year for the Lightning turned out to be an exception, of course. The team started with six wins in its first seven games, but squandered that cushion in subsequent weeks. That, however, is not usually how things play out in the NHL, where it can be difficult for teams out of the playoff picture to make up ground on those at or near the top of the standings. If the more “normal” trends return to the NHL this year, then the Lightning have a great opportunity to gain some separation from the pack early on. After beginning the season with three straight road games, the Bolts play seven in a row at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Tampa Bay has played very good hockey at home over the past several years (even in the last two seasons when the team missed the playoffs). I understand that the opening season road trip is no picnic, with the first two games at Boston and Chicago, but I look at those games against last year’s Cup Finalists as an excellent early test for the Lightning.
The end of the season schedule is also home-heavy. Tampa Bay gets six of its last seven at home. Add in another six-game homestand in mid-March and the Bolts play 14 of their last 20 at home. If the Lightning are in a good spot standings-wise heading into the final stretch, they’ll be poised to consolidate their position. Conversely, if they need a late-season run to make the postseason, then they’ll benefit from all those home games.
Length Of Road Trips: I was expecting to see long homestands and road trips. After all, if the league was going to minimize the potential for hopscotch travel, then I figured the Lightning would be playing a lot of road games in a row, which would, in turn, lead to long homestands. But the Lightning’s longest trip is only four games (there are four such trips). These are much more manageable than trips of six or more games, on which a team can easily get off-track if it loses a couple of early ones. As for homestands, the Lightning got three long ones: the aforementioned seven-gamer at the start of the year, then those two six-game homestands in the final 20 games. I like long homestands as much as I dislike long road trips. These segments give the team a chance to build momentum, as well as to get substantial rest and practice time.
The league also took care of any concern the Bolts might have had about having to make long-distance single-game trips. Tampa Bay makes only four single-game trips all season – and one of those is to Sunrise. The other three – Washington twice and Columbus once – are in the same time zone and in the U.S.
Back-To-Backs: I’m pleasantly surprised that the Lightning only have 12 sets of back-to-back games in 2013-14. Tampa Bay’s number is usually in the high teens. Given that the Lightning have to play every team at least once, once on the road and once at home, I thought the number would be higher than 12. Also, as is usually the case, I expected most, if not all, of those sets would have both games on the road. Instead, two of the 12 sets have both games at home! These are rare for Tampa Bay. The Bolts had one such back-to-back last year, but, in my 11 previous seasons with the club, I could only recall two other times that the team has had both games at home. Both of the Lightning’s opponents this season in those second games – the New York Rangers on December 29 and Columbus Blue Jackets on April 11 – don’t play the night before. While it’s not ideal to be facing a team at home in the second half of a back-to-back that didn’t play the night before, at least the Lightning players will be getting to sleep in their own beds at a reasonable hour following the first game.
As for the other 10 back-to-backs, three have the Lightning playing one of the games at home. In two of those, they play the first game at home. In the first occasion, on October 26 and 27, the travel after the home game against Buffalo is just to Sunrise, a short trip. In the second, the weekend of January 18 and 19, the first game at home against San Jose is at 2:00 PM, so the club should arrive in Carolina by dinner time that night.
There are similar setups in two road back-to-backs. In the November 11 and 12 back-to-back, Tampa Bay’s first game is at Boston at 1:00 PM. That should make for a reasonable post-game arrival time in Montreal. Then on March 1, the Bolts play at Dallas at 3:00 PM before heading to Colorado for a game the next night.
What about opponent back-to-backs? In four of their 12 back-to-backs, the Lightning will be playing teams on the second night that also played the night before. In all, the Bolts will play 12 games against teams that had a game the previous evening.
Travel From Canada: Just as the Lightning had hoped, the team does not make numerous trips home from Canada. Only two, in fact. One is from Montreal on November 12 and the other from Winnipeg on January 7. Ideally, the team would have two days to recover before playing its next home game – that didn’t happen – but in all, it’s hard to quibble with the number. In playing 10 road games against Canadian teams, the Lightning only make four trips north of the border. For the two trips that don’t end in Canada, the Lightning have two days off after a February 1 matinee in Montreal (the final game on that trip takes place in Minnesota on February 4) and a full day off after facing Ottawa on March 20 (they play at Pittsburgh on March 22).
These are some of the components that interested me when I first viewed the schedule. Under this lens, the Lightning seem to make out pretty well. Now it’s up to the players to prove me right!
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