- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2013

For the second time in the past 20 years, the NHL regular season will consist of 48 games, a sprint that has players talking about every night being like the playoffs. Not quite, and as Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee pointed out, “It’s just a lot of unknowns.”

No one knows exactly how to prepare or what will happen in a lockout-shortened season with shootouts and three-point games. No one knows whether the teams that are supposed to be great, like the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, will live up to it with everything thrown out of whack.

“This is unchartered territory for the National Hockey League, contrary to what people are talking about,” NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk said. “Yes, this is the second time they have a 48-game schedule, but this is the first time where we are coming out of a work stoppage, practicing for five days and going and playing.”

In 1994-95, NHL teams had a training camp before the lockout began. This time, it’s a week of informal skates and then camps leading right up to Saturday’s grand league reopening.

Adam Oates played that 1994-95 season, and it’s so long ago that he can’t remember how the Boston Bruins responded or how anyone shook the rust.

For the Capitals, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, the teams breaking in new coaches, the learning curve is sharp. For everyone, the start won’t be pretty.

“Guys are still not in game shape,” Oates said. “Saturday night’s game is going to be sloppy. I expect it to be.”

It’s hard to confidently expect much else this season. The Southeast Division could finish in any order and it wouldn’t be surprising. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov could find his game for the Philadelphia Flyers instead of being “lost in the woods.” The Minnesota Wild could make a marked improvement with offseason additions Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.

Or none of it could happen. But it’s reasonable to expect some surprises. And the pressure is on, right from the start.

“The sense of urgency right off is to win games because, in a 48-game season, if you lose three or only get a point out of your first six possible, that’s the equivalent of getting two points out of the first 12,” NBC play-by-play man Mike Emrick said.

“If you lose three, you lose six, really. That’s the urgency of these times. They’re not going to have much time to get ready, but they still have to go hard right off the bat.”

Because of that, talk about a hot start is rampant all over the league. A slow start or a losing streak can be the end of a team’s playoff hopes.

“You know it’s going to be 48 games, hard 48 games, and it’s going to be playoffs,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “You can’t lose the points right away; you have to make some points because you never know what’s going to happen in the end. But you just have to try and take as many points as you can.”