Dan Bylsma embraces back-to-back games. The Sabres coach expects his team to be well-conditioned and able to maintain a fast pace, so playing two days in a row should be no sweat.
There is one exception to his philosophy.
“Hopefully,” Bylsma said, “it’s not the one when you’re on the road and you’re coming back to play your second in two nights and they’re sitting there in your town and your restaurants and resting.”
Bylsma has good reason to dislike those situations. He also has good reason to dislike Buffalo’s schedule. The Sabres will be the tired team more than the rested team – by a lot.
On 13 occasions, Buffalo will have played the night before and face a team that did not play the previous day. Only Minnesota, San Jose and Toronto, with 14, are in that negative situation more frequently, according to Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz.com.
Making it worse for the Sabres is their lack of nights being the rested team. Only six times will Buffalo enter a game fresh against a tired team, tied for the fewest instances with Boston, Vancouver and Winnipeg.
Buffalo’s net of minus-7 is tied with the Canucks for worst in the NHL.
“You’re never going to make an excuse that you’re playing a tough schedule with three in four nights or back-to-back games and the other team is rested,” Bylsma said. “You kind of have it in the back of your mind as a coach, but you’re certainly not going to use it as an excuse for how we’re going to play or how we’re going to approach it.”
While the schedule may not be an excuse for Bylsma, it could be a reason his team finishes behind others.
According to the research of McCurdy, a mathematician, the team that has the rest advantage during the past nine seasons has a points percentage of .600. Therefore, teams with more games having a rest advantage should gain additional points through the 82-game schedule. In a league where two or three points make the difference between playoffs or not, each schedule quirk matters.
Several teams that figure to compete with the Sabres for a playoff spot have a major advantage in the rest/tired scheduling. In the Atlantic Division, Ottawa has 11 instances of being rested against a tired team, and it is the tired team seven times, a net of plus-4. Among teams that could battle Buffalo for an Eastern Conference wild-card spot, Carolina is plus-9 and the New York Islanders are plus-6.
In order for the Sabres to make up the difference, they obviously need to play well during the second night of back-to-back games. They laid the groundwork last year.
The Sabres had 15 sets of back-to-backs in 2015-16. They went 6-9 in the first game (.400 points percentage) and 6-7-2 in the second (.467).
“I’ve found later and later in my career I almost feel better in the second game,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “You’re a little bit on the fatigued side, so you tell yourself, ‘Let’s keep things simple tonight. Let’s do short shifts. Just make the easy play. Just do the smart things. Don’t over-complicate things.’
“Things seem to flow a little bit better.”
Aside from the tired/rest imbalance, the Sabres have a relatively routine schedule. They play 14 games in November, December, February and March. They play 13 in January. The Sabres open with eight games in 18 days in October, and they close with five games in eight days in April. Six of the final eight games are against division rivals.
The new addition to NHL schedules is a bye week, negotiated by the players’ association in exchange for making the All-Star Game a three-on-three contest. Buffalo will be off Feb. 20-24, giving the players a breather before the final six weeks of the season.
Of course, the week off condensed the rest of the calendar year, which created some of those back-to-backs Buffalo will endure.
"Being off for those five days makes a big difference in the schedule from a practice standpoint and a game standpoint through the year," Bylsma said. "It's not something we've done in hockey before where we just have a bye week. I'm not sure how to get my hands around it."