From five games in the first eight days to 48 games over 97 days, the Buffalo Sabres have one crazy-busy schedule this season in the wake of the NHL lockout.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was an assistant with the Florida Panthers during the 1995 shortened season and said he expects the every-night intensity to match that one.
“You thought every game meant so much,” Ruff said. “Every game, someone was jumping up [the standings] or falling down.”
Ruff said he’s not treating the schedule any different than he would a regular, 82-game slate. From today to the end of the original schedule, the Sabres had 38 games. That included an eight-day break for an All-Star Game in Columbus that’s been canceled and replaced by three games, and this schedule has been extended by 13 days (from April 13 to April 26) to accommodate the remaining games.
“Rest will be important. Trying to stay healthy,” Ruff said. “Rest ties into that, nutrition, how we travel. We’ve talked about all those situations.”
For some perspective on 48 games, consider this nugget: When the Sabres hit game 48 last year after a January loss in St. Louis, they were 19-24-5 and in 14th place in the Eastern Conference. On that date, 15 of the 16 playoff teams were already in place — including all eight in the East. Only Phoenix, which eventually passed Colorado, snuck in from outside.
So if virtually all of the playoff teams are in order after 48 games of an 82-game schedule, is it reasonable to think it will be hard to overcome deficits after 30 or 35 games this year?
Perhaps. Still, the simple time frame means teams will likely be closer together. And so will the fact that all play will be within conferences. No games against the West means every game is essentially a four-pointer for every team. It could allow more of a chance for teams to make up deficits.
Some items to watch on the schedule:
No team is going to want to fall into an 0-4 hole out of the gate, a 2-6-1, a 4-9-3. For the Sabres, the real key has to be to figure things out at home quickly.
Buffalo has gone just 5-8-1 in its first 14 home games each of the last two seasons — including 0-6-1 in the first seven two years ago. And this year, remember, those 14 games would represent more than half of the home schedule.
The Sabres have seven games in the 12 January days on the slate. You would think anything less than eight of those 14 points would be considered immediate trouble.
Home vs. road
Much has been made about the fact the Sabres finish with 10 of their final 14 games at home and that could certainly help. But it also means the team has 20 of its first 34 on the road.
January and February are pretty balanced with 10 home games and 11 road games. March is where the Sabres need to stay afloat, with nine of the month’s first 13 games on the road.
If the Sabres can get to the final week of the season intact, they should be golden. The last two games are at home against Winnipeg (April 22) and the New York Islanders (April 26). And if the finale becomes an absolute must-have, the Sabres will have the advantage of one of just two three-day breaks between games all season.
For a team that played 22 sets of back-to-backs two years ago — more than half the schedule — the Sabres get some reprieve on that this year with just nine sets. And two come without travel as the March 30-31 games against Washington and Boston and the April 13-14 matchups against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay are all in First Niagara Center.
Perhaps of more concern will be the fact the Sabres will play three games in four days eight times. Still, the team’s lack of extended travel mitigates a lot of the trouble spots. Buffalo leaves the Eastern time zone for just one game, the April 9 trip to Winnipeg.
“We don’t have the back-to-backs we always did,” said captain Jason Pominville. “You have to get your rest but it’s something that’s better than in the past. The good thing is our travel. You’re talking a lot of quick trips in and out of places. It’s always been an advantage for us and this year it might help even more.”
The Sabres have been quick to point out how injuries were a major factor in their demise in recent seasons, especially last year. They’ll be magnified this time around.
“If you do get hurt, if you miss 3-4 weeks for something, you’re going to miss a quarter of the season,” said Thomas Vanek. “That’s going to be a frustrating part. At the same time, it’s a sprint. For fans, it’s going to be better than anything. If you go on a five-game winning streak, it’s going to show in the standings and the same the other way.”
Similarly, NHL discipline could have a big impact on things. The league says suspensions won’t be cut back due to a short schedule. A six-game ban last year will be a six-game ban this year but that would be a dramatically larger portion of a team’s schedule.