Just a few days after the folks at Google reminded everyone in the world of the importance of the (very) late Frank Zamboni (who would've turned 112 on January 16), two of Mr. Zamboni's machines raced along the boards at TD Garden in Boston. It was pre-game of the Bruins versus New York Islanders game and two lucky fans were riding shotgun on the amazing machine that has made the term "hosers" a trivia question as opposed to an occupation or relegation for the losers of ice hockey pick-up games in Canada, the great country that happily calls hockey a religion rather than a sport.
The two fans were winners of a contest, one of the many Bruins Foundation charity raffles and the young fans were bundled up on a cold January night where the temperature inside the Garden was barely above the nine degrees in the shade outside the building, adorned with Black & Gold and larger than life posters of Zdeno Chara or Milan Lucic. The bars outside the Garden were jumpin', the Green Line "T" trolleys were packed with people, many wearing their favorite Bruins sweater. It was the third home game for the Boston Bruins and, quite frankly, there wasn't even a whiff of a hangover from the 113-day work stoppage that came so painfully close to taking down a business that will generate a couple billion dollars this year, and up to $2.9 billiion in the year(s) to come. Not too shabby for a group that was once led by a "do it the way we did it last year leader" named John Zeigler, the former NHL President.
So, the lockout is in the rear view. That's official. That's a fact. Done. Finee. Kaput.
You can bet your Tuuka Rask on it.
The fans are ready, the players are surprisingly primed and the games have been pretty damn competitive as 30 NHL teams crank-up the engines to play 720 games over a 99-day regular season. There is at least one game on each day of the season which wraps-up on April 27. The playoffs will begin on April 30 and the latest the Stanley Cup will be presented will be June 28.
Although NHL officials view it as a positive, the challenge will play out in the make-up of the season schedule as teams will play 18 games within their division: four games (two home and two away) against two of the teams in the division, five games (three home and two away) against another team in the division, and five games (two home and three away) against the remaining divisional opponent.
To complete the 720-game schedule, clubs will play three games against each of the 10 remaining non-divisional opponents in their conference. Outside the division, a team will face five clubs twice at home and once away, and play once at home and twice on the road against the other five teams. Unlike the lockout-shortned NBA season where back-to-backs became the norm and even a few back-to-back-to-backs made Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich cringe, the NHL schedule-makers were able to keep the basic grid together at the cost of the 48-game tilt and no cross-Conference action. Still, the grind of the season will strike home as each team, now, is playing its fifth or sixth game.
"The NHL players came into their mini-camps in condition, but the frustrations of the lockout, with the ups and downs, made it difficult for the rank and file to focus on game-fit conditioning," said John Gallucci, Jr, MS, ATC, PT, DPT & President of JAG Physical Therapy in New Jersey. "Physiologically, we know it can take approximately 4-6 weeks to progress into strength and stamina for any sport. But, as we witnessed with the NBA return from a lockout last year, too much, too quick can cause overuse injuries such as tendinitis, stress reaction and stress fractures. The strength coaches and medical staff of each team will have to monitor coach expectations and athletic conditioning progression."
So, the challenge ahead is the challenge right now for all 30 NHL teams, most of which have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. Ten or a Baker's dozen have a shot at the Cup. The grind will come from physical play against (very) familiar divisional opponents. From the early going, the gloves are dropping at high rates, making the Roman Coliseum atmosphere a regular occurrence, something those Canucks, Canadians, Blue Seats, Southies and Broad Street Bullies just adore.
Goalkeeping, as always, will be the difference maker, but a nagging injury to a key star, from a groin-pull to a stress fracture might end an NHL season and dump a contending team just as it starts.