Back-to-back games are a physical challenge for any NHL club... Or any road-traveling hockey club for that matter. It wouldn't be such a big deal in the tri-state area of New York with splitting games between the Islanders (Brooklyn), Rangers (Manhattan), Devils (Newark) or Flyers (Philadelphia) as there's only so much distance between the venues. Boston can even be thrown in. It's a different story when you have to split games two distant cities, with it made even worse when there's international border crossing as part of the post-game journey between Town A and Town B. Now factor in how Town A is a non-rival, throw-away game and Town B is the reigning champion of the league and facing them is a rematch of the championship. This is not an ideal back-to-back game pairing.
The Lightning had the last two days with no play. That's nice as it was also the first time since the season started on October 8 that Tampa Bay had two days in a row without play. They'll also have two days in a row off after Saturday night, with a shorter venture between cities. But that's a transition from Saturday night to Tuesday.
Traveling from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Chicago, Illinois is an hour-and-a-half plane flight (865 miles), not including the time it'll take to deal with border security at the airports that take a bit longer when passports and such have to be dealt with too. Suffice it to say tonight's game against the Jets is going to be a longer event than the game itself as the team will travel directly to Chicago afterward.
Who the hell put together this schedule? I don't mean the back-to-back elements or trying to put down that and the distance traveled or the border crossing stuff. While the Lightning has waning connection to the former-Atlanta Thrahers franchise, the game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night is something the league itself should try to highlight as well as have both teams flying under the best circumstances for the contest. Instead, the Blackhawks are off today (having played last night and beaten the Florida Panthers, 3-2) while Tampa Bay starts their back-to-back weekend series tonight against the Jets and then plays a rematch game against the Blackhawks tomorrow night? A game that should be under the spotlight and one of the opponents is under weakened circumstances? Way to go there, schedule maker.
Yeah, yeah, there are so many games and so many logistical elements that actually contribute to putting together the grand NHL schedule of all 30 teams. A lot of factors usually manipulate rosters of conference champions before they play a regular season "rematch" game the next season. Marketing the event to the masses is something you want to do in this, though, as well as have both teams playing under the best of circumstances you can control. That control is the schedule... And the powers-that-be of the NHL scheduling brass didn't quite seem to care that Stanley Cup Champion Chicago played that team from west central Florida under circumstances that may hinder competitiveness.
Nice job folks. Nice. (Sarcasm oozing)
This does lead to a major lineup question for the Tampa Bay Lightning going into tonight's game in Manitoba: Does Kevin Poulin get the start in the crease in order to make sure a rested Ben Bishop is in the best of shape for tomorrow night against the Blackhawks? It was pointed out in our piece on Wednesday that, with Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the clear to return to practice starting next week, Poulin's time in Tampa is probably nearing an end. His only participation up to this point has been as a bench-warmer. Does this stress non-confidence in Kevin Poulin (and Kristers Gudlevskis for that matter - the Lightning prospect goalie who seemed to win the backup job from camp-invitee Ray Emery up until Poulin was claimed off waivers from the Islanders) or too much confidence in Ben Bishop? Bishop has already started back-to-back games (October 12/13) and it's happened in past seasons as well. Up until he's worn down, Bishop owns the crease. That's not a sound tactic to keep the starting goalie at the top of his game.
Mind you, Winnipeg isn't exactly a brush-off opponent; they're 4-2-0 in 6 games played this season, starting it on a 4 game northeast road trip and going 3-1 in the process. They're now on a 6 game homestand that kicked off with a win over the Calgary Flames, followed by a loss to the St. Louis Blues. That loss, by the way, was on Sunday... That's another unfair aspect about this back-to-back series: a well, well rested club (that got many an hour to prep for their next opponent) against a more consistently tested club.
Blake Wheeler leads the Jets in points with 8 so far this season (3 goals, 5 assists), with Bryan Little and Mathieu Perrault next with 5 (assembled in two different point combos). Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson have shared the goalie role in the Jets season, with Pavelec drawing 4 starts to Hutchinson's 2. Hutchinson does have the more impressive numbers in his time in net (2 games, a 1.00 GAA and .968 save percentage compared to Pavalec's 2.52 GAA and .926 save percentage) but the sample size is awfully small. Both Winnipeg goalies' save percentage dwarf that of Ben Bishop for the Lightning in his 7 starts (.905) though the GAA between Pavelec and Bish are similar (Ben's posting a 2.56).