The effects of high altitude are well known in professional and amateur sports. On the plus side, the thin air means the athletes will be able to move with less drag and greater efficiency. However, unless trained or acclimated to altitude, most teams will not be able to perform at maximum level when playing in Denver. This is especially true when the athletes are hockey players. Hockey requires prolonged high level aerobic activity, which means the athlete's performance is dependent upon maximum amounts of oxygen.
The oxygen level per breath is approximately 20 per cent lower when one is a mile high than at sea level. Athletes start to adapt immediately, but acclimation to a reduced oxygen atmosphere is not instantaneous. To compensate, the body increases both the heart and breathing rates. As a result, fatigue sets in more quickly. This is particularly true for teams that are just stopping in Denver for a one-day road trip.
None of this is news. But it makes one wonder if the NHL looks at anything other than a calendar when planning the schedule. One would have to do the research and pour over all the previous schedules to see if there really is any statistically significant advantage to the Avalanche when teams come into town to play - especially when they arrive in town less than 24 hours before game time.
Last night, the Red Wings played an entertaining game against the Avalanche. However, the Wings were not particularly sharp in the first period. Although they don't make excuses, the travel schedule has to play a part. The Wings did not arrive in Denver until 2:30 a.m., after finishing a game in Nashville. Because of the late arrival the team did not have a morning skate. Being tired or road weary is certainly not the same thing as becoming quickly fatigued because of oxygen deprivation. Back-to-back games with significant travel inbetween favor the team not traveling. It takes a while for the team that played the night before to get its legs going. Taking the red-eye (even if it is the Red Bird) to play at high altitude adds to the degree of difficulty. (And, let's face it - number 5 was out of the lineup). So, full marks to the Wings for coming back, making a game of it, and getting a point.
But, full marks to the Avs, as well. They are certainly playing with lots of intensity and purpose this year. Of course, if they didn't have a multitude of injuries to key players right now one would expect them to do even better. That's because conditioning at high altitude is not only a scientifically measurable and major physiological advantage, but is a legal performance enhancer, as well. So, all things being equal, the Avs should not only routinely have the best home record, but the best road record - more often than not.
Of course, all things are not equal. So, don't expect me to be cheering for the Avs.