Well, it’s finally here, the road map to the new, compressed NHL schedule that will see 30 teams race pell-mell from Saturday to April 27 en route to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s the kind of schedule that will tax everyone along the hockey ladder from GMs, who must quickly decide who will come to training camp (which will open Sunday), to the coaches, who must find instant karma among their forward combinations and defensive pairings, on through the players and trainers, who must keep them healthy and ready for a steady dose of three games in four nights and six- or seven-game road trips.
Because it took so long for the players and owners to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement after the tentative framework for the deal was produced in the early-morning hours of Jan. 6, the 48-game schedule has some quirks.
Each team will play two teams in its division five times and the other two teams in the division four times for a total of 18 divisional games. Each team will then play the other 10 teams in their conference three times for a total of 48.
No games are scheduled outside the conference, as was the case the last time the NHL went this route, in 1994-95, when the labor strife also resulted in a 48-game schedule.
For all its quirks and craziness, it’s also the kind of schedule designed to help fans forget that the league and its players engaged in a mostly useless labor dispute that cost both sides millions of dollars in salary and revenues and did untold damage to the league’s brand.
So, without further ado, here are some dates to keep an eye on:
Jan. 19: Chicago at Los Angeles
The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings will get their long-delayed banner-raising ceremony on Saturday afternoon at the Staples Center against the 2010 Stanley Cup champs, the Chicago Blackhawks. The matinee is one of 13 games set to kick off the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
Jan. 19: Pittsburgh at Philadelphia
We’ll actually be in Philadelphia for the first of four clashes between the Pennsylvania rivals. The two engaged in a frenzied six-game series in the first round of the playoffs last spring when goaltending on both sides was non-existent but bad blood was everywhere. Other rivalry games that will mark the first day of the schedule include Toronto (sans GM Brian Burke) in Montreal, the New York Rangers in Boston and Detroit in St. Louis, where the Blues will start their defense of last season’s surprise Central Division title.
Jan. 22/March 9: Nashville at Minnesota/Minnesota at Nashville
It didn’t take long for the schedule-makers to have longtime Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter suit up against his former mates, as the Minnesota Wild host Nashville in the first week of the season. But the game we’re looking forward to is Suter’s first appearance in the Music City, which will be Saturday, March 9. On a side note, the Preds start with two games at home and then play seven straight on the road, which will provide an early test of head coach Barry Trotz’s ability forge instant karma in his locker room.
Jan. 26: Los Angeles at Phoenix
This first clash between defending Pacific Division champion Phoenix Coyotes and the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings in Glendale should be a dandy. It’s just possible the Coyotes’ longstanding ownership issue will be resolved, but remember the acrimony that accompanied the end of the Western Conference Finals in overtime in Game 5, when the Coyotes’ players pretty much lost their minds, prompting an investigation by the league? Bet the Coyotes and Kings do.
Feb. 1: Chicago at Vancouver
Vancouver and Chicago never have much trouble getting revved up for each other, but let’s imagine for a minute that the Blackhawks end up turning their covetous eyes toward Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo, who is expected to be peddled anytime now. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Feb. 5: New York Rangers at New Jersey
Never get tired of seeing Martin Brodeur, the winningest goaltender of all time, and his arch-nemesis, defending Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist, go mask to mask. This is the first of four meetings, including one on the final day of the regular season.
Feb. 15-17: Hockey Weekend Across America
This is one of the biggest weekends in hockey in the United States from mites to millionaires, and the NHL will have a big hand in it once again, with seven games on Sunday of that weekend. Pittsburgh will be in Buffalo, Los Angeles in Chicago, Washington in New York to face the Rangers, Calgary will be at Dallas, Detroit will travel to Minnesota, Boston will be in Winnipeg, while St. Louis will be in Vancouver to round out the weekend.
March 2: Pittsburgh at Montreal
Always a great buzz when Sidney Crosby and the Penguins come to visit the Habs, but this will mark the first meeting between the two teams now that former Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien is behind the Canadiens’ bench. Therrien guided the Pens to their first post-lockout playoff berth in 2007, and then to the 2008 Stanley Cup finals before being replaced by Dan Bylsma.
March 18: Carolina at New York Rangers
Used to be that we’d keep an eye on Pittsburgh-Carolina clashes to see how Jordan and Eric Staal made out playing against each other as opposing centers. Now they’re together in Carolina, but they’ll face off against third brother, Marc, of the New York Rangers three times -- the first of which will be March 18. At least the Staal family will be able to cut down on NHL travel costs this season.
April 3: The NHL trade deadline
In the past, teams could not retain any portion of a player’s salary if they wanted to trade that player. Under the new CBA (and thanks in large part to the determined efforts of recently fired Toronto GM Brian Burke), GMs can make a deal more attractive by offering to eat some salary in a deal. Will it spark more trades? Long term it will, but in a 48-game schedule it’s possible all but a handful of teams will have a shot at a postseason spot even with less than four weeks between the deadline and the end of the regular season, so that might blunt the trade market.
April 27: End of the regular season
Thirteen games are scheduled for the final day of the regular season, providing a nice bookend. Among the interesting matchups: The Penguins will welcome home old friend Jordan Staal and Carolina to Pittsburgh, San Jose will be in Los Angeles for a potentially pivotal Pacific Division battle, Montreal will be in Toronto, Florida will be in Tampa and Vancouver in Edmonton. Wonder how many will have playoff implications?