Perhaps he was trying to justify his team’s uninspired performance Saturday night, but Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf bucked the conventional wisdom about games that are supposed to be easy wins.
The Maple Leafs had just lost 3-1 to the Montreal Canadiens, a team that by all accounts should have been easy pickings for the home side. That’s because while the Canadiens were having their energy sapped with a 5-4 shootout loss in Pittsburgh on Friday, the Maple Leafs were cooling their heels and waiting in their own beds.
“I don’t think back-to-back games have any effect on the team playing the second game in a row,” Phaneuf said after the loss. “I don’t buy into that.”
Perhaps Phaneuf would be able to explain, then, why the Maple Leafs have a 2-4-1 record in the second of back-to-back games compared to a 21-15-4 mark in stand-alone games. But when you examine the numbers more closely, Phaneuf actually might have a point. Yes, teams playing the second game in consecutive nights don’t fare as well statistically as those who don’t, but the difference isn’t as stark as you might think.
So far this season, teams playing the back end of back-to-back games have an overall record of 96-105-28 for a .480 points percentage. That compares to a 618-452-129 mark for teams playing games in non-consecutive nights for a .569 points percentage. Of the 30 teams in the NHL, 10 actually have a better record in the second of back-to-back games than they have in the remainder of their games. Here’s the breakdown (PP DIFF represents points percentage differential):
As you can see, a good number of teams are not much better or worse in back-to-back games than they are in other games, with 14 of the league’s 30 teams having points percentages that vary by .100 or less either way. Some of them, though, are brutal in back-to-back games. In fact, if either the Winnipeg Jets or the Dallas Stars don’t make the playoffs this season, they will be able to point to their record in games on the back end of consecutive nights as the main reason.
But when you think about it, having games on consecutive nights shouldn’t really represent that much of a hardship for players. If you’ve ever been on an NHL charter it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for these guys and in reality, most of the trips they make under these circumstances are short-hop flights, such as Calgary to Edmonton when they’re on a Western Canada swing. Even the Jets, whose travel in these kinds of games you’d think would be the most brutal and might explain their record, isn’t all that bad.
Only one of Winnipeg’s back-to-backs could be considered onerous. That one occurred Dec. 9-10 when the Jets played at home and jetted to Detroit for a game the next night. Aside from that, one of their back-to-backs was played at home, while the others consisted of flights from Toronto to Ottawa, Carolina to Boston, Montreal to Toronto and Ottawa to New Jersey. They also had one New Jersey to New York trip, which consisted of a bus ride.
The players are in such good physical shape and are so well taken care of that playing and travelling on back-to-back nights is less of a challenge than it’s been in the history of the game. Yes, players often arrive at their destinations in the wee hours of the morning, but they also usually don’t have a morning skate the next day and have pretty much the entire day of the game to rest and decompress. One team video meeting, along with meetings for the power play and penalty kill units, are usually about all they have to do on those game days.
It’s also interesting to note that the two best teams in the NHL this season – the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, are a combined 13-4-1 in the second of back-to-back games and both are slightly better in those games than the others.
Which, generally speaking, basically means that the teams that are good and doing well are going to be almost as good in games when they’ve played and travelled the night before. So to expect a guaranteed win or to use it as an excuse for coming up short is based more on perception than reality.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.