Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Has Season Already Ended For Some?

By Mike Chen

In general, the passing of the calendar year marks a turning point in the NHL season. While it's usually when fans are shaking off the holiday doldrums and the media focuses on the Winter Classic, it generally provides a breaking point for teams with playoff aspirations and those that should start thinking about the draft. There's no exact science to this, but by looking at the rough midpoint of the year, this timeframe marks the point when teams slipping away (those hovering below .500) can pack it in.

Of course, with a compacted schedule due to the lockout, the formula gets tweaked. And as most teams look at the rough one-third point in their 48-game schedule, the point of no return may be closer than many people think.

Consider this: the magic .500 mark used in the traditional calendar has more to do with staying within striking distance than actual playoff plans. In a typical NHL season, being .500 come New Year's Day means that you're only a handful of points outside of the 8th spot. That stature also means that one hot streak over a week or two could take big steps to leaping over the competition.

For this year's shortened schedule, though, several other variables some into play that create a bit of bias to the equation. Teams aren't playing opposing conferences, which means that there are no throwaway games — every win, loss, and overtime extra point goes directly into the records of a team's record. (bwin Ice Hockey is a good place to bet on hockey.)

Three-point games — which have been plentiful — can fattening the glut of teams in the middle. With this out-of-the-ordinary point distribution, it makes it more difficult for teams at the bottom to gain ground. It's not just about getting on a hot streak, it's about hitting that stride while hoping that competing teams produce as few three-point games as possible.

So, take one shortened schedule, add in conference-only play, then stir in 3-point games, and you'll wind up with slower-than-usual movement up and down the rankings. Remember, while the goal is to hoard as many points as possible, you're also stuck with the reality of leapfrogging opponents. Because of this, there's no linear correlation between an 82-game pace and a 48-game pace. The first dozen or so games were critical in terms of placement, and the next batch were about establishing any movement from there (good or bad). The 20-game mark does feel to be the logical breaking point for the season — that is, if you're hovering around .500 (within two or three points) at that time, there's still hope.

There are exceptions to the rule; a team that's been considered dead has enough time to put together 10-game points streak, but how many teams can do that? Teams with lowly records are often their for a reason, so barring a miracle, it's pretty safe to count Buffalo and Columbus as the first teams to start thinking about next season. And depending on how the rest of the week plays out, Washington and Florida might be next.

It's definitely not fun as a fan to think that your team is out only 20 games into the schedule. But there is one silver lining to the lockout-shortened season — at least next season, along with all the hope it carries, isn't that far away.

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