Saturday, February 23, 2013

Congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks, 14-0-3



Congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks, who set a new NHL record by opening their season 14-0-3 (31 points). It is the first time in league history that a team has taken points in each of the first 17 games of the season.

In addition, the Blackhawks have not lost a regular-season game in regulation since 3/25/12. They ended last season 3-0-3; so they're 17-0-6 in the past 23 regular season games, tying for third place among league records for going without a regulation loss. (Of related interest, in the playoffs last year, the Blackhawks took 5 of the 6 games they played to overtime.) 

The Blackhawks will face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday 2/24 and the Edmonton Oilers on Monday 2/25 for their next two games. Both matches are at the United Center.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How has a shortened season been affected by travel schedules?

Discussion about miles logged during the hockey season are nothing new. It's a topic of interest every year, and it's often expressed that Eastern teams should have an advantage come the playoffs, as their travel demands tend to be far less grueling than their Western counterparts.

With the Atlanta Thrashers transformed and turned into a western Canadian team (Winnipeg Jets), realignment remains a current topic that needs to be resolved prior to the 2013-2014 season.

If the league retains a six-division format, the most sensible scenario is a simple swap of teams: the Jets go into the Central, and one of the Central teams - Nashville or Columbus being the obvious choices - switching out to the Southeast. This would benefit the league further by putting a Canadian team into the highly competitive Central, and a smaller-market team like the Preds or Blue Jackets would benefit by heavy Eastern (read: hockey-media-heavy) coverage.

Detroit has long lobbied for an opportunity to move to the East; they've cited TV ratings (being one of two Western teams in the Eastern time frame) and travel demands as detrimental to their team. However, it is difficult to accept that Western Conference travel demands have been holding Detroit back from success when they have won four Stanley Cups, six Conference championships (plus twelve Division banners), and six Presidents' Trophies since the 1994-1995 season.

With a shortened season of just 48 games, it is obvious that teams needed to get out to a good start early; no team wants to be desperately chasing points with fewer games to make up ground.

Teams have now played between 14 (Bruins) and 19 games (Flyers), which puts us roughly 1/3 through the season. Where do teams stand in relation to pre-season expectations, and has travel impacted teams more than usual?



WESTERN CONFERENCE

Overall, the Western Conference had the tougher opening quarter. Four WC teams played eight or more games on the road in the first dozen games (CHI, NSH, LAK, CBJ); only two Eastern teams did (CAR & PIT).

The team with the best record in the NHL is the Chicago Blackhawks, who tied the record for the best start in league history with a hot 13-0-3 (29 points) start. Chicago looks to make history on Friday night when they drop the puck against the struggling San Jose Sharks, who are 3-4-3 over their past 10 games.

You wouldn't know it to look at the Blackhawks, but they had the toughest opening schedule in the NHL: their first dozen games saw them at home just twice due to an annual ice show at the United Center, and the team logged over 10,000 miles in that time frame.

It could be that the Blackhawks, with just two new faces in the roster this year, have reached that point in team chemistry where they've been playing together a few years and things naturally settle into place. However, it's also worth noting that Chicago had a large share of players who got playing time in the AHL or abroad during the lockout. Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and Nick Leddy played for AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs; Bryan Bickell, Michael Frolik, Patrick Kane, Viktor Stalberg, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Michael Rozsival played in Europe; and Johnny Oduya found team time in Thailand, of all places.

Opening the season mostly on the road also helps with team bonding, some of the Blackhawks have noted. The team gets into the mid-season mentality right away, and when a team is on the road, their primary focus is hockey. Depending on the Blackhawks' record for the season, other teams might start jockeying to get more road time early in the season in years to come.

As for the other teams (NSH, LAK, CBJ) in the West that had eight of the first dozen games on the road: the Predators are 4th (21 pts), despite having just the 5th-lowest goals-for total in the league. In Nashville's case, they're benefiting from the usual stellar play of their top goalie, Pekka Rinne. 

It was thought that the defending Stanley Cup champs, the LA Kings, wouldn't have the same "Stanley Cup hangover" that's plagued other teams -- they had far more time to rest and recover from their Cup run than teams usually do. Perhaps it didn't sink in immediately for the Kings that every single team, every single night, teams bring their "A" games versus the Cup defenders; they've gotten off to a rocky 7-6-2 start, which is only good enough for 10th right now.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, at only 12 pts (5-10-2), have already fired their GM, and hired Jarmo Kekäläinen as the new one. Columbus will also have one of the toughest final stretches as the season ends, playing four of their five final games on the road before finishing out the season on home ice.

Among the most interesting cases this year is Detroit - usually one of the powerhouses of the league. The Red Wings are bouncing around the bubble, currently hanging at 9th in the West. It is interesting to note that Detroit not only played eight of their first dozen games at home, but they had one of the easiest opening road schedules: all four road games were against Central division rivals, and none of the road trips lasted more than one game. The team has had as "easy" a schedule as a team could dream of to start the season, but they're struggling to stay within the Western bubble.

Detroit also continues to be plagued with injuries, including team veterans Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen, and both top goalies have missed playing time. Could this be the first time in more than 20 years that the Red Wings miss the playoffs? The loss of Nicklas Lidström has been seen and felt immediately and perhaps more so than people predicted; this may become simply a rebuilding year for the Motor City.




EASTERN CONFERENCE

Eastern teams haven't had to travel as far as their Western counterparts, but many of the EC powerhouse teams have been hit hard with injuries. The two Eastern teams who had the toughest opening schedules (4 home; 8 away) were Pittsburgh and Carolina.

Carolina made a pair of major signings this summer: Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. They lost Tuomo Ruutu to hip surgery recovery; have a couple regular players on IR, and just lost Jeff Skinner to a concussion. A sizable chunk of their roster spent the lockout in the AHL. Yet the Hurricanes are getting it done -- sitting solidly in a playoff contention spot, currently 3rd in the East.

The Penguins have gone 11-6-0 (22 pts/5th), and have what every other team in the league would like to have: a healthy roster. During their opening stretch, Pittsburgh has had just two one-goal games: the January 27 shootout win against the Senators, and last night's 6-5 loss to the Flyers. Their others losses have come against the Islanders, Jets, Leafs, and Devils.

Only one eastern team had eight games at home to start the season: Montréal, who holds onto the top spot in the East over the Devils thanks to tie breakers (specifically: goal differential). Last season, the Canadiens ended their season dead last in the East, and 28th overall. It has been a huge bounce-back year for them.

There have been three big surprises in the East: the Flyers have been hit with a series of injuries, and the impact of these players showed as Philadelphia wallowed near the bottom of the Eastern standings. However, the Flyers have begun to pull it together, and have moved up in the standings to 10th (17 pts).

Florida has also slumped this season. While the Panthers have seen several players on their injured list, including new Captain Ed Jovanovski, they just haven't been very good this year, getting out to a 5-7-4 (14 pts) start, which puts them in 13th place.

There is no bigger surprise in the East - or really, the whole league - than the Washington Capitals, who have plummeted to last place in the East with a 5-10-1 record and just 11 points. Has Alex Ovechkin cooled off? Did Alexander Semin have that big of an impact for the Caps? Whatever the reason, it's clear that it went beyond ousted coach Bruce Boudreau -- who has taken his replacement team, the Anaheim Ducks, to 2nd place in the West.




LOOKING AHEAD TO THE HOME STRETCH

Based on standings as of today, the only team currently in playoff contention with a rough final stretch is Anaheim, who will play four of their final five games on the road through western Canada before coming home to face the Coyotes at home.

Ottawa and St. Louis both will enjoy four of their five last games at home, a luxury that only three teams will see. (Edmonton is the third.) If the Senators can survive the string of injuries that have taken out several of their best players (Erik Karlsson's Achilles surgery; number one goalie Craig Anderson being injured tonight; Jason Spezza needing back surgery; Milan Michalek's sprained knee), a good home stretch can help them going into the playoffs.

No teams are mathematically eliminated yet -- no, not even Columbus or Washington -- although either team would have to go somewhere between 0.645-0.680 for the rest of their seasons in order to edge into the playoffs.

Teams will likely need 54-56 points (depending on conference) to make the playoffs this season. The Blackhawks have already earned 52% of the points they need with just 33% of games played; they are on track for 87 points -- which in some normal 82-game seasons would be enough points to get some Eastern teams into the playoffs!

It is interesting to note that the top 8 teams in the East - aside from those teams in the Southeastern division - are starting to form a clear break in the points standings. Six of the top eight in the East already have at least 22 points.

In the ultra-competitive West, it is not surprising to see the points more evenly spread out; just three teams have hit the 22 point mark so far (Chicago 29; Anaheim 25; Vancouver 22).

The shortened season may give some interesting insight into future alignment arrangements and playoff scenarios. When there is less inter-conference play -- and thus fewer "freebie" points to be taken from the other conference -- it shows off the weaker teams in each conference more readily.

How might standings look if the entire 82 game season was played within conferences? What about a schedule that ensures every team plays home and away against every season, making up the remaining games primarily within a team's division?



It's an interesting season, for many reasons.

In the meantime, in Chicago, the Blackhawks are poised to make league history on Friday night, and the Sharks are circling in the waters to stop them.