Sabres/NHL Notebook: Playoff spots usually decided by early November; Ovechkin benched at key time
Thursday November 3, 2011 | By:Mike Haim, Special to Metro
It’s easy to dismiss the importance of early-season games in the NHL.
But while we may not hear hockey-centric terms as “desperation” and “grit” in the autumn, it turns out that playoff berths are often secured before the season reaches the one-month point.
Now I know that we don’t see those little x’s and y’s next to team names in the standings just yet, designating clinched playoff berths. But while teams don’t mathematically earn those spots by early November, they sure do in a practical sense.
In the six complete seasons since the NHL lockout (or the “shootout era”), the standings as of November 4 each season have been uncannily accurate in predicting who will make the playoffs. Of the 96 teams who have grabbed playoff spots, 88 of them were either in the top eight in their conference on November 4 or within two points of a playoff spot.
Last November 4, the Buffalo Sabres were dead last in the Eastern Conference with a 3-8-2 record. They made the playoffs, becoming the eighth team since 2005-06 to overcome more than a two-point deficit to qualify for the post-season. This year’s team is off to a better start (6-5-0 at this writing) and appears to be better prepared to weather the inevitable fight for a playoff spot as the season wears on.
“Trying to get in (last year) was a tough task,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “This is the time of year that if you can add to that cushion and get those games over .500, when you come up to parts of the schedule that are demanding and maybe you’re lacking manpower or you have key injuries, you can get through those stretches a little bit easier.”
Buffalo forward Ville Leino played last season for Philadelphia, which had a 8-4-1 record on November 4, good for first place in the Eastern Conference. He described the long-term luxury of a strong start.
“The season’s long and if you’re playing every day for a playoff position, it’s tough mentally,” Leino said. “You run out of energy sooner or later. A strong start helps a lot. … You get to train harder and get to stay fit for the playoffs. If you’re playing day-to-day just to stay in it, you have to focus more on games.”
Stephen Weiss, who has been with the Florida Panthers since being selected fourth overall in the 2001 draft, has yet to see playoff competition in the NHL. He knows how difficult it is to overcome that November gap.
“It’s very hard to make up ground in this league, with the way the points are set up, teams getting points in overtime,” Weiss explained. “We want to make sure we got our act together early and put points in the bank.”
It’s clear that we’ve come a long way from the days when some folks around western New York would live by this thought: hockey takes front stage after football season is over.
So you’d better be paying attention to hockey right now, because this is where the foundation for a season’s success is set.
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Bravo to Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau for benching Alexander Ovechkin at a key time on Tuesday night against Anaheim.
The Caps were trailing by a goal with about a minute to play and Boudreau called time out to set up a play. The Great Eight wasn’t part of the play and sat on the bench while the plan was being explained. He had several lapses earlier in the game and plenty of misplayed shots, and sat for the final 3:11 of regulation.
Nicklas Backstrom ended up scoring the tying goal, and Ovechkin fed Backstrom for the overtime game-winner, but Boudreau’s message was clearly sent.
“I’ve got to put out the guys that I think are going to score the goal, and 99 percent of the time Alex is the guy,” Boudreau explained. “I just didn’t think Alex was going to score the goal at that time. You go with your gut feeling.”
John Muckler, during Wednesday’s NHL Home Ice radio broadcast, said no superstar is exempt from benching and that he had sat Wayne Gretzky on some occasions. Muckler added that Gretzky usually played better afterwards.
Boudreau believed the same thing and got his payoff rather quickly.
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