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It was the second night of a tackle and the 10th game of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 18 days, and the defending Stanley Cup champion just didn’t have it.
“Everyone is tired,” said coach Jon Cooper after losing to Carolina. “Not just our team – all teams.”
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In the NHL, fatigue has increased as teams have played 50 games in just over 100 days. This is part of a shortened schedule that is proving to be even more challenging than players expected. The 56-game schedule squeezed between mid-January and mid-May has taken its toll, creating many mental failures and attrition injuries for those who have made their way through the grind.
Just in time for the playoffs too.
“We’re just trying to dig deep here,” said Vegas striker Alex Tuch. “We’re just trying to prepare ourselves physically and mentally for each game. The more you play game after game, the better it is.”
The teams in the playoffs all have a handful of games left before the postseason, which is just the trick to igniting the energy levels for even the most worn and battered veterans. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour is happy “that there is now a finish line”.
It was difficult to get there.
“We all agree it was pretty tough,” said Edmonton forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “Every team goes through this. We knew it was going to be a difficult season and we stuck with it.”
Not without a few stumbling blocks on the way. Virus-related postponements have messed up the schedule of nearly every team in the league, including Vancouver, which missed more than two weeks and has nine games to play through May 19.
The rest of the NHL will be in the first round of the playoffs by then, which is close enough to taste right now. The New York Islanders coach, Barry Spy, likened it to running a marathon and hitting that final corner.
“We’re getting more and more excited about (the playoffs) and I think that helps us,” said Minnesota’s Kevin Fiala.
The competitors hope to get well through the playoffs. Tampa Bay is expecting to get Steven Stamkos back from his injury and in 2019 MVP Nikita Kucherov could be ready to play Game 1 after missing the entire regular season following hip replacement.
Washington was without Alex Ovechkin for more than 39 seconds for over a week. Pittsburgh has just got Evgeni Malkin back from a six week absence. Florida had a laundry list of injuries and still managed to land a playoff spot for the first time in five years.
“The boys were very good at staying fresh and staying rested,” said coach Joel Quenneville. “We’re trying to make our ice age the best we can, instead of going to practice on a day when we know it’s not very exciting to put our skates back on. We chose the second half of the schedule here, to have a few days off and keep ourselves fresh, have ice skates in the morning and strengthen our team structure in video games. “
Part of the problem is mental and it’s especially challenging for the many players who left their families at home because the season started so late, there are travel restrictions and there are so many games in such a short time. Washington defense attorney Zdeno Chara is one of them, and he said his wife and children, who are staying in Boston, have been the toughest part of his season.
“I think we’re trying to do our best with the technology we currently have,” said Chara. “With FaceTime and phone technology, of course, you can stay in touch every day. It’s different not being home with you. These are the victims we talked about before I made that decision (to be signed in Washington) , and so far it has worked. “
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After a few seizures and starts and juggling the schedule, the NHL has done well enough to get through its season during the pandemic. There are still questions about how to deal with the four Canadian teams solving the playoffs and potential borderline problems, but the players and coaches are happy that they made it through the season.
“We like to do that,” said Brind’Amour. “The alternative is worse: don’t play. You just have to get by with it.”