The NHL pace is never leisurely, a typical season blending 30 teams into a 1,230-game schedule played across six months. Add on 7-8 weeks and twentysomething games for the clubs that reach the Stanley Cup Final, and you have what may be the most grueling schedule in pro sports.
Grueling gives way to gruesome Saturday when the NHL finally goes Game On! with the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. This time around, it’s a 720-game slate, compressed into a 99-day stretch that ends April 27, all clubs to enter what amounts to about a game-every-other-night playoff-like pace from the first drop of the puck.
“We are going to have to react more quickly,’’ said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, busy Thursday afternoon tidying up his 23-man roster after a mere five days of training camp. “I generally have been a patient guy. You [normally] have 82 games, or segments within the 82 games to see how things work out.
“I’m just going to have to make those segments smaller or react a little more quickly. That doesn’t mean that at any sign of distress that you go out to make a trade. There are other things you look at first, but I have to tweak my mind-set to this year.’’
Typically, NHL teams would have opened camp around Sept. 20 this season. The Bruins would have played a half-dozen exhibition games over 12 days, Sept. 25-Oct. 6, and then had a convenient — if not leisurely — four-day respite before the Oct. 11 season opener in Philadelphia.
Now? Faceoff vs. the Rangers is 7 p.m. Saturday on Causeway Street, less than a week after the team’s first official practice.
“There’s no letting down, mentally,’’ said team president Cam Neely, who was still working as a Black-and-Gold right winger the last time a work stoppage shortened the schedule to 48 games (1994-95). “An 82-game schedule has its peaks and valleys, places where you can rest, maybe recover from a bad streak.
“But with 48 games, you can’t lose focus because every game is so important — maybe even more now with games [potentially] worth 3 points in the standings and how hard it is for clubs to move ahead or catch up.
“I just think with the condensed season you’re going to see more teams in it right to the end.’’
Amy Latimer, who was promoted to president of TD Garden over the summer, noted that the compressed NHL schedule has had ramifications throughout the building, including an up-tempo work schedule. The 48-game schedule was only released Saturday night.
“Not that anyone’s complaining, mind you,’’ she said Thursday as she was about to board a plane in Buffalo following corporate meetings at Delaware North Companies. “We’re all thrilled hockey’s back.’’
With the lockout looming, noted Latimer, the Bruins never printed tickets for the 82-game schedule that was released during the summer. Tickets for the new 48-game schedule, with the Bruins playing all games within the Eastern Conference, would have taken upward of six weeks to print and distribute, she said.
Instead, season ticket-holders now must print their own tickets, and those purchased through the box office or elsewhere likewise will be generated electronically. No hard tickets.
On the ice, play at the outset could be choppy all across the league. Unlike 1994-95, when very few NHLers chose to play in Europe during the lockout, this time some 200-plus of the rank and file kept their games tuned in places such as Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Switzerland. Some 500 others were still over here, with some electing to play in lower professional leagues while others remained totally out of game action.
Everyone was pretty much working off the same prep sheet for the January 1995 start. Not so this time.
Asked if the first 2-3 weeks of play could be messy, Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said, “It’s tough to know, but it might be, yeah. We will see.
“We are expecting a big game on Saturday. We feel good, and I’m guessing [the Rangers] feel good about themselves, too. You never know until you see it.’’
Bergeron played in Lugano, Switzerland, during the lockout, with fellow Bruin Tyler Seguin not far away in Biel. They put up impressive point totals during their relatively short stints, and they’ll soon find out how that extra work at extended summer school translates on the smaller North American ice sheets, working within a compressed schedule.
“I felt great in the scrimmage, but thought I played garbage,’’ said Seguin, referring to the Boston-Providence scrimmage at the Garden Tuesday night. “I just felt like I was always cheating because of the ice size. I felt like I was always too far ahead of the play.
“Over [in Switzerland], I still had time to get [the puck] and go. I know it’s an adjustment and it looks like it’s almost cheating, but I know that I need to go back a bit lower and get more ice.
“It’s just about making the adjustments. I knew it in my head, but I didn’t know it was going to creep up like that in a game.’’
During his tenure behind the Boston bench, coach Claude Julien has masterfully sprinkled days off into the 82-game schedule. Rest and recovery, he figures, will be even more vital this time around.
“I think it’s going to be a tougher process because you are playing every second day,’’ he said. “You’ve got to give guys breaks somewhere along the way.
“Sometimes it tough, because you give guys a break and then the next day you are playing and you feel with just one day off it takes them almost a half-period for them to get their hands back in synch. And you don’t want to have a bad start.
“So it is something you are going to have to sacrifice and deal with at times — rest over early sharpness maybe. Forty-eight games is a lot different than 82, and 48 is not as forgiving, that’s for sure.’’