48 games means 48 thrills.

While it had been hinted at numerous times prior to the lockout finally ending, it seems clear now that the 2012-13 season will be a mere 48 games long. A longer season just isn’t possible at this point, according to Bill Daly. 48 games is how long the 1994-95 season was after that lockout ended, but that league had just 26 teams, making for a relatively balanced schedule.

So what will a 48-game season mean? Hockey fans have grown accustomed to an 82-game season being a large enough sample size to separate the wheat from the chaff. Is a 48-game season long enough to ensure that the best teams in the league get into the playoffs, rather than weaker teams that hit a hot streak at the right time?

In order to get some idea of how to answer this question, I took a look at last season to see how reducing it to just 48 games would have affected the standings.

I approached this problem in three different ways, as it seemed superficial to simply look at the first 48 games of the schedule. For a more comprehensive view, I also looked at the last 48 games, as well as the first 24 and last 24 games of the season, which eliminates the slog of the middle of the schedule. I theorized the latter approach would more closely approximate a 48-game season, since teams would have plenty of motivation to both get off to a good start and push hard for the playoffs.

I then arranged these 48-game chunks into conference standings and compared them to the actual final standings of the 82-game season.

First, the Eastern Conference:

Click twice to embiggen.

The first thing to notice is the abundance of ties. Hence what I said in the title: regulation and overtime wins are potentially going to be extremely important in the coming season, as they are the first tie-breaker. For teams that might end up on the bubble of the playoff picture, winning games before the shootout is going to be a necessity, just in case.

For instance, in the third scenario, taking the first and last 24 games, regulation and overtime wins are the difference between making the playoffs and finishing in 9th behind the Senators for the Washington Capitals. They also earn the Bruins the Northeast Division over the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres, actually are one of the surprises of this little experiment: they finished just a few points short of the playoffs in real life, but this makes it clear that was neither the beginning nor the ending of their season that was their downfall. They started and ended strong, but the early middle of the schedule made them miss the playoffs. In a 48-game season, however, that kind of slide could land them at the bottom of the standings, as the first scenario illustrates.

The biggest movements in the standings come when we look at the last 48 games. Carolina, who finished well out of the playoffs, instead wins the Southeast Division. The Florida Panthers, meanwhile, fall all the way to 11th. The defending champion Boston Bruins don’t win their division with 102 points; they finish out of the playoffs in 10th. Ottawa doesn’t just squeak in to the playoffs; they win the Northeast Division.

As for the basement dwellers, Toronto comes closest of the bottom three to making the playoffs, finishing two points back of the New Jersey Devils in the first scenario. Perhaps, with some better goaltending, the Leafs could be a playoff team in a 48-game season.

Now for the Western Conference:

Click twice to embiggen.

There are fewer surprises here than in the East. The Minnesota Wild squeak into the playoffs if we just look at the first 48 games, but miss the playoffs with the same point total by looking at the first and last 24 games. Instead of barely making the playoffs as an 8th seed, the Kings’ strong finish nets them the Pacific Division when looking at the last 48 games.

Phoenix doesn’t even make the playoffs looking at the first 48 games, but win their division if you look at the first and last 24. Meanwhile, the Red Wings win the Western Conference after 48 games and miss the playoffs by one point in the third scenario.

The regulation and overtime wins tiebreaker doesn’t come into play in any of the scenarios to determine who makes the playoffs, but it does determine playoff seeding. Also, in each scenario, just one point separates 8th and 9th place, emphasizing how close the standings will be at the end of this season. Compare that with how the season actually ended, with 5 whole points separating the Kings from the Flames.

The teams that will have to be especially aware of the regulation and overtime wins tiebreaker are the New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild, who won 12 and 11 games, respectively, via the shootout last season. Injuries could also play a major role in determining who makes it to the playoffs. Even short-term injuries could have a major impact compared to a full schedule.

A 48-game season is going to heighten the importance of every single game, but it’s also going to overemphasize the importance of hot and cold streaks. On the plus side, that means we’re likely in for a thrilling ride, particularly in the final few games before the playoffs. On the negative side, that means that there will be teams in the playoffs that wouldn’t make it in a full 82-game schedule and a few deserving teams will find themselves in the draft lottery.