Teams face second-half marathon toward playoffs

Updated: March 1, 2006, 12:09 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

"March Madness."

That's what Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff calls it, and he's not talking about the dressing room basketball pool.

No, Ruff is talking about what awaits his Sabres and the rest of the NHL now that the Olympic break is over and the NHL race to the playoffs moves into high gear.

The NHL returned to action Tuesday after the 15-day Torino Olympic break. For teams from coast to coast, the next 50 days between Feb. 28 and the final regular season games on April 18 promise to be a blur. Teams will play anywhere between 23 to 26 games during this period, essentially one every other night. It is a schedule that will test the resolve of players, the depths of organizations and the wherewithal of coaches and their staffs, to say nothing of the training staffs who will have to patch together lineups every 48 hours or so.

The Sabres play 26 games, a double-edged sword for coach Lindy Ruff, who would like to see his team finish no worse than fourth in the conference to secure home-ice for at least the first round of the playoffs but who would also like his injury-riddled team to have as much rest time as possible.

"I don't see any practice days in there. I mean true practice days," Ruff said prior to the break.

Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesCoach Lindy Ruff's Sabres sit one game behind the division-leading Senators and are looking to secure home advantage in the playoffs.

"It's more of a playoff-type atmosphere," Ruff added, referring to the high intensity dynamics of a playoff series that generally sees teams using off days to rest and restore as opposed to working on systems or doing any form of teaching.

"I think the players like the playoff part, they don't like to practice too much," Ruff said.

And what of the players from every NHL team that took part in the grueling Olympic schedule?

"That's a whole new ballgame," Ruff said.

Take Saku Koivu, whose Finnish national team dropped a heartbreaking 3-2 decision to Sweden in the gold-medal game Sunday afternoon in Torino, and whose reward is a six-game road trip that began the 28th in Long Island and wraps up March 9 at Boston.

"It's just going to be unbelievable," Colorado head coach Joel Quenneville said of the post-Olympic sked.

Unlike other years where the top teams in the west -- Detroit, Colorado, Dallas -- had by this point in the season separated themselves from the pack, there is motivation and challenges facing almost every team, from first-place Detroit, battling Nashville for the Central Division crown and Dallas for the top seed in the conference, to the other nine teams that still have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.

"You can't sit back and think, 'Oh, we've made the playoffs' and just cruise into the playoffs," Quenneville said.

The schedule, which features only games within the respective conferences, represents different challenges and obstacles depending on the team in question and their place in the standings.

The Mighty Ducks, for instance, are pretty much in the middle of the 'Will-they-make-it? Bet-they-won't road' with 25 post-Olympic games, 13 of which are away from home. But they end the season playing five of six on the road, a stretch that will likely determine whether they qualify for the postseason.

The Flames, engaged in a long war with Edmonton, Vancouver and Colorado in the Northwest Division, finish up with 11 of their last 18 games on the road, a stretch that could not only affect the Flames' ability to win the division, but even make the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

Not that it's a piece of cake for the Avalanche, who have exceeded expectations this season but who will play 13 of their 23 post-Olympic games away from Denver, including 10 of 14 March games on the road. The Avalanche also have a quirk in their schedule that will see them enjoy six days between games in the middle of the month. That will be the time, said Quenneville, to give the big ice-time guys, Rob Blake, Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk, some time to rest.

The key when it comes to practices during a stretch of playing pretty much every other night is to make your point and then get off the ice, Quenneville said.

"You have to accomplish something. You have to have a point when you do get out there on the ice," he said. "It's all feel."

Dallas, which has its sights set on the top seed in the West, will also have its work cut out for it playing 14 of 24 post-Olympic games away from Big D although the Stars are the league's best road team.

Of all the Western Conference teams hoping for a playoff berth, the Phoenix Coyotes face perhaps the biggest challenge with 14 road games of their remaining 23. It's a daunting task that could spell the end of playoff dream for first-year coach Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the plucky Coyotes.

The Sharks, likewise, have the schedule cards stacked against them as they have a handful of teams to jump over if they want to return to the postseason and they'll have to play 10 of their last 16 games away from the Shark Tank.

The Oilers, on the other hand, will have the benefit of playing just 11 road games of 24 which could be crucial in earning home-ice to start the postseason.

In the East, the Florida Panthers still harbor playoff hopes. And while it's a long shot given their injury situation, they will enjoy one of the best schedules of the teams. They'll have to leapfrog to make the playoffs, playing 15 of their last 25 games at home, a bonus given that the Panthers are one of the worst road teams in the league.

The Atlanta Thrashers, winners of two of three road games before the Olympic break, have already adjusted their workouts to reflect the heavy schedule, establishing days off on their schedule days in advance and sticking to that schedule even if their play doesn't necessarily warrant a day off.

"I know it's more of a mental battle than a physical battle," Hartley said. "You can't get overwhelmed by the schedule. Looking at the schedule you're putting excuses in your back pocket. I don't want excuses."

The Bruins, who have crawled back into the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference, will play only 11 of their 24 games away from home, a quirk of the schedule that could mean the difference in the Eastern Conference, where there looks to be one playoff berth for six hopefuls, the Islanders, Bruins, Panthers, Thrashers, Leafs and Habs for the last playoff berth.

The Montreal Canadiens are on the opposite side of the games ledger with the maximum 26 to play. They will enjoy 14 home dates, another bonus for a team that figures to be scrapping to the final weekend to secure a postseason berth.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.