Before the start of last year, I remember talking to Mike Rupp and there was almost some wonder in his voice when he said, “I don’t know what your body feels like after two straight Cup runs.”
He went on to emphasize that playing so much hockey really shouldn’t be overlooked. It was no joke to play even once deep into the summer like he did in 2003 when he scored a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 game winning goal (not a big deal). So doubling that up with two years in a row, Rupp figured, would be quite a challenge for the Penguins.
I really think it’s more about how teams deal with the complacency though. These days in this league the mindset is more important than anything with how [the champs] handle moving onto the next challenge. So I would think the Pens should probably be alright since they already know what it takes and the challenges ahead.
However, you could say Rupp gave the Pens too much of the benefit of the doubt. From the beginning of the season in October through Christmas 2017, Pittsburgh was just 18-16-3 and out of a playoff spot looking very complacent, uninterested, sloppy, whatever word you want to use. And that’s 37 games deep, nearly halfway through the season.
Many times on a schedule loaded with back-to-back games and travel, the Pens looked like they wanted to be anywhere else but at a hockey rink. A couple of ugly losses (10-1 to Chicago, 7-1 to Tampa, 7-1 to Winnipeg) backed that up.
Without being a player who went through long playoff runs in 2016 and 2017, it’s tough to say how that feels to be able and find the energy and interest in a grueling regular season. The 2017-18 Pens showed that. However, they also hit the gas with a great month of January, comfortably made the playoffs and then were very competitive winning a series and then losing a close one. After every loss there would be talk of fear of “hitting a wall” but by April and May hockey players are conditioned and competing to leave it all on the ice.
It would seem more difficult for a Thursday night game in a Western Conference team when they played the night before rather than a playoff game against a rival.
Either way, a longer than normal summer break provided the opportunity for recovery and training. As Carl Hagelin told Josh Yohe of The Athletic:
“We certainly had some time to work on things,” he said. “Not just hockey specific. More just to get your body in shape, and heal all the injuries you had nagging. I’m energized now. And I’m happy to be back. I’m excited.”
Hagelin could probably use the break more than anyone in the world; he had been to Conference Finals in 5 out of 6 seasons from 2012-17, Stanley Cup Finals 3 out of 4 years from 2014-17 and suffered injury in the 2018 playoffs. Granted, everyone wants to play that deep every year if they could, but that’s a lot of hockey.
One player ready to go was Derick Brassard. “I feel fresh,” Brassard said yesterday, declining to talk much about his own 2018 playoff injury. “[The offseason is] about taking care of your body”
“The last five years I’ve played a lot of games like everyone here in this dressing room. I think it’s going to be good for our group to re-energize and come here,” Brassard said.
”After a couple of [long] seasons,” Brass continued, “you play almost an extra season [with the playoffs]. It gets tiring mentally and physically.”
Brassard mentioned that due to shoulder off-season surgery a couple summers ago that he was “this was my first summer I could do exercises I haven’t done in two seasons.”
Obviously when thinking of players able to train better in Summer 2018 than prior off-seasons, defenseman Kris Letang springs to mind. With the knowledge he wasn’t able to train or condition himself or even get on the ice until just before camp, perhaps it shouldn’t be too shocking he had an inconsistent season. That isn’t to say all mistakes vanish with off-season workouts, but Letang should be in a better place and more confident player, which is when he is at his best.
As always, while the tone of most teammates was almost a relief in having a longer summer to recover, train and prepare - it was of course Sidney Crosby sounding very Crosby-focused on the task at hand.
“It’s good to get a full summer in and train,” Crosby said. “Probably more mentally than anything; it’s coming in fresh and knowing you lost the year before and you want to prove something.”
How a guy like Crosby who has won everything multiple times still finds the reserve to have something to prove is a great thing for the future. That he and his teammates ought to have more gas in the tank should lead to a better start in 2018-19 than they got in 2017-18.