Putting the Skate Down: Why Conditioning Matters

With the article today in the Dispatch on how new Strength & Conditioning coach Kerry Collins is working to increase the team's overall conditioning this summer, I thought I'd take a look at how improving the team's conditioning might affect their overall production in the standings - as we all know, the team let quite a few games where they lead in the 2nd period go to OT, or worse, let the game slip entirely away from them last year. (11, in fact. 7 lost outright, 4 lost in OT.) That's (potentially) 18 points they left on the board - 18 points that would have been good enough to put them into a playoff spot.

Will better conditioning make the team magically able to hold onto their leads? No, not entirely, but it's hard not to imagine that a team in better physical condition will have an easier time skating with their opponents, particularly for players being asked to contribute more than fifteen minutes a game. Defensemen might find it easier to break up a late rush, or for a forward to keep up the intensity of his forecheck. 

First off, I felt that I should start by comparing Columbus to itself: Conditioning has been a fairly regular gripe for the team all the way back to when the team traded Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim in 2005, and then GM Brian Burke complaining that Beauchemin had arrived totally out of game shape. One of the promises in the Ken Hitchcock era was that he would work to clean up the "country club" attitude and whip the team into shape. So, how did he do?

Year

Leading After 1st

Leading after 2nd

Trailing after 1st

Trailing after 2nd

‘06-‘07

W-16 L-1 OT-3

W-21 L-1 OT-4

W-3 L-28 OT-1

W-6 L-36 OT-1

‘07-‘08

W-21 L-2 OT-4

W-24 L-3 OT-1

W-4 L-20 OT-2

W-5 L-27 OT-4

‘08-‘09

W-20 L-6 OT-2

W-21 L-3 OT-0

W-5 L-13 OT-2

W-4 L-25 OT-4

'09-‘10

W-13 L-8 OT-6

W-24 L-7 OT-4

W-5 L-18 OT-5

W-4 L-25 OT-5

Clearly, the team improved their ability to respond in the 2nd period from 2006 to 2009, with the number of games lost after trailing in the first period decreasing, but the team's ability to counter-attack later in the game doesn't seem to have dramatically improved - though the team wasn't losing as many games outright, it's still more likely than not that if the team is down in the 3rd period, two out of three times they're likely to lose. (And of that third chance, it's just as likely to be an OT loss as a win). Interestingly, last year, it seems the big issue was that most games were lost in the second period, with the team losing or going to OT in far more games where they had been leading in the first than before, and the general spike of games that were allowed to go into overtime (20 games - literally a quarter of the season, compared to the previous average of 9.) Though some of the team's struggles were certainly due to goaltending problems and the laundry list of injuries last season, it seems clear that the team's decision to allow players to work out independently, and not offer a summer workout program in Columbus as they had for the two prior seasons, was a painful mistake. 

With Collins' new program, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect some of those first and second period leads to stand up, and to bring the team's average number of OT games back down. No amount of weightlifting or wind sprints will give you a killer instinct, but it can certainly help you stay faster than an opponent on the ice.

Just to drive the point home, let's look at Columbus' numbers last year compared to teams in the Western Conference comparable to Columbus who made up the lower seeds in the playoffs, or were just beneath the bubble at the end of the season:

Team

Leading After 1st

Leading after 2nd

Trailing after 1st

Trailing after 2nd

CBJ

W-13 L-8 OT-6

W-24 L-7 OT-4

W-5 L-18 OT-5

W-4 L-25 OT-5

COL

W-25 L-5 OT-3

W-33 L-4 OT-4

W-8 L-15 OT-4

W-4 L-18 OT-2

LAK

W-22 L-3 OT-2

W-29 L-0 OT-2

W-10 L-13 OT-3

W-8 L-23 OT-3

NSH

W-23 L-1 OT-0

W-27 L-4 OT-0

W-10 L-9 OT-2

W-2 L-18 OT-1

CGY

W-20 L-4 OT-4

W-33 L-2 OT-3

W-4 L-17 OT-2

W-3 L-22 OT-3

STL

W-15 L-7 OT-2

W-25 L-2 OT-6

W-10 L-17 OT-1

W-3 L-23 OT-3

Between the three teams who made the playoffs, the average amount of games that were lost in OT sharply drops to 9, compared to 15 for the three non-playoff teams. Obviously, Nashville throws the average off a bit, only recording three OT losses, just as Columbus skews the numbers a bit for the non-playoff teams for the opposite reason, but it's clear the path to the playoffs in the Western Conference does not go through the charity point.

It's also quite clear that the teams who make the playoffs by and large finish their games. The average number of games won after leading in the first and second period, and the far smaller amount of games lost, speak for themselves. Equally clear is the amount of games lost after trailing in the first period - even if the team eventually lost in overtime - is the difference between the post-season and the golf course. Teams that can counter-attack and get themselves back into the game during the second period are the most likely to be successful. (Not surprisingly, the numbers also suggest that teams who can maintain or extend their lead in the third period are likely to win - even out of the three playoff teams, only one (LA) had more than four wins after trailing to start the third period, and even the #1 seed San Jose Sharks only won 5 games when they trailed after 2.)

If Columbus' conditioning improves, it isn't unreasonable to expect that their ability to counterattack will improve, and that their willingness to stay aggressive in the third period, rather than collapsing into a less aggressive style in an attempt to protect the lead, is likely. If the combination of Collins' improved conditioning regimen and Coach Arniel's new schemes can reduce the amount of games given away, it's reasonable to expect this team to compete much deeper into the season - to say nothing of perhaps returning to the playoffs.

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