Monday, September 30, 2013

Re-Aligning the Habs Chances

There's a lot a coaching staff can control as it gets a team ready for a new hockey season. Coaches can plan systems and choose which players work best together. They can manage ice time and ensure the right guys are on the ice in a given situation. After that, though, most of the rest of it is out of their hands. Nobody can control injuries or poor officiating, for example.

The same is true of the schedule, which can give a team its toughest games when players are fresh early in the year and an easier run in the playoff stretch drive, or stack the deck against it with the toughest competition coming when key players are hurt. In this Olympic year, with re-alignment adding three new teams to the Habs' division, the schedule could end up being more of a factor than usual.

For the first time in years, the team's performance against the West will be really important. Players typically feel the divisional games they play are the most crucial games to win, and that will still apply in terms of controlling whether a rival picks up two points. However, 28 games against the other conference will go a long way in determining playoff positions this year. On one hand, having extra divisional games against Florida could help build up the points. On the other, facing powerful teams like the Blues, Kings, Blackhawks and Sharks multiple times throughout the season will certainly make it tougher to remain in the playoff hunt.

For the Canadiens, a lot of those vital western games come right at the beginning of the schedule. After opening against the leafs, nine of the remaining 12 games the Habs play in October will be against western teams. That could play one of two ways. Either the team will be relatively healthy with fresh legs that give the players their best chance against tough teams and a long road trip. Or, the team will still find itself coping with the early-season "gelling" period and struggle.The first  trip to the West will tell us a lot about this year's team, as it will be measured against some good, skilled opposition. A strong start there could set the team up for a playoff season. A poor road trip would have the opposite effect. With three-point games and league-wide parity, it's tougher than it used to be for a team to recover from a bad start.

This year, the schedule will be fairly compact because of the Olympic break stopping play for much of February. That means the playoff push for teams post-Olympics could be pretty intense, particularly for those whose star players went deep into the tournament in Russia. In the Habs' case, while the majority of Western games come early in the season, the bulk of games during the stretch drive will be within the division. Weirdly, after the opening night leafs matchup, the next intra-division game the Canadiens have is against the Senators in November. By March and April, when those divisional games start to pile up, every point is more hotly contested than in October and the competition more intense. With the Canadiens struggling last year against the leafs, Senators and Bruins, and with the addition of a competitive Detroit team to the division, the last 21 games...12 against Atlantic competition...could very well make or break the Habs' playoff hopes.

The schedule is always a factor in every team's fortunes. This year, however, with the Olympics, the new division alignments and the funny way Western games and divisional games pile up at opposite ends of the season, it could be more of an unseen hand kind of factor this year. The Canadiens will be pressed to be more than the fast, skilled team they tried to be last season. This year, the competition is going to be tough and the Habs will have to raise their game to meet it. The schedule is out of their hands, but their response to it is not.

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