Travel

Mishkin’s thoughts: On the exhausting stretch of the journey

Mishkin's thoughts: On the exhausting stretch of the journey

The Lightning opened their toughest travel segment of the season with a 6-3 win at Chicago on Sunday. This contest started a series of 11 consecutive matches to be played in 11 different cities, taking place in all four time zones. The stretch begins with the current six-game road trip, is followed by a single home game, and ends with four more on the road.

It’s not uncommon for clubs in the Western Conference to make long runs in succession, but it’s much less common for teams in the East. Ryan McDonagh was asked before the start of the trip if he had ever experienced such a busy segment of the trip. McDonagh, who has spent his entire NHL career playing for Eastern Conference teams, said he doesn’t remember anything like it.

The Islanders started this season playing 13 straight road games over a four-and-a-half-week span, but that was because their new arena at Belmont Park wasn’t ready to open yet. (Also, the Islanders were able to divide the 13 games into smaller segments, going home multiple times during that span).

I was trying to remember if, in my 20 years with the team, a Lightning club had had such a journey. In most Lightning season schedules, they will have multiple trips of at least four games. Often there is a five player in there. Rarer are moves in six games, but there have been a few. In 2019-20, the Lightning played six straight road games, but the first two came before the All-Star break in January and the last four after. The 2017-18 season featured eight straight road games, but similar to the aforementioned 2019-20 streak, the All-Star Game split the segment into two separate trips.

Going back to 2002-03 (my first year with the Lightning), I couldn’t find any trip – without a break in between – of more than six games. The last chance came in the 2016-17 campaign and the Lightning had two (!) that year. One at the end of October/beginning of November and the other in January. The second started with a trip to California, went through Arizona and Chicago, then ended in Sunrise.

This six-game trip has similar totals and time zone changes. But what separates this segment from that January 2017 trip — and the six other players the team has had over the years — are the five additional contests. Earlier this season, the Lightning played seven of eight road games – that segment included a two-game trip to Minnesota and St. Louis, a single home game against the Blues, and a five-game trip to Boston, Philadelphia and the Canada East Three Team. The Lightning did very well in those eight games, posting a 5-2-1 record. But they struggled in the last game of the trip – a 4-0 loss at Ottawa. They had a good first half that day but fell behind and never caught up. It’s not just that the Sens played well. It’s that the Lightning were feeling the cumulative effect of the schedule grind leading up to the contest.

This segment, of course, is even longer. So the Lightning will have to dig deep as the 11-game streak progresses. It will be new not only for McDonagh, but also for many of his teammates. But it’s also an exciting challenge, which got off to a good start on Sunday. Then, when it’s over, the rest of the schedule will be reduced in travel. The Lightning have played 12 of their last 17 home games.