The Pittsburgh Penguins called off practice Thursday, and their team meetings and video sessions were done by lunchtime. So, given restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, what did they do with a day off in Philadelphia between games against the Flyers to open the season?
A checkers tournament? Video games? Cheesesteaks in the hotel conference room?
Team captain Sidney Crosby wasn’t saying, perhaps because there wasn’t a lot to divulge.
“Not much,” Crosby said of the players’ plans. “I mean, we’re pretty much in our own little bubble here.
“But I think being in the same city playing a couple games is something that I think you like. … Not having to travel, it’s nice in that way. We can get set up here and get ready for the next one.”
The Penguins will often face this type of quirky schedule with a few days in a city and a couple games against the team there, thanks to a condensed, 56-game schedule all within the Eastern Division, and with an eye toward reducing travel.
For this opening trip, they also have to face coming back from a loss in a rematch Friday. The Flyers broke open the season opener in the third period Wednesday for a 6-3 win.
“As a group we didn’t give up a lot of chances, but the ones we did give up were fairly high quality,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “You’ve got to give Philadelphia credit – they’ve got a real good, quick-strike offense, very much like ours. And they can make you pay for some of the mistakes that you make.”
Sullivan said calling off practice Thursday in favor of team meetings and film work was made after a lot of thought as he and his staff try to balance the players’ workload with preparation. Like all teams, the Penguins are coming off a shortened, intense training camp with no preseason games.
Whether they take to the ice on the open date in these two-game, one-trip sets, the Penguins feel a need to handle things a little differently this season.
“You have to turn the page quickly,” Crosby said. “With a short schedule, you’ve got to make sure that you’re adjusting and getting better with each and every game. They’re all so important.
“But it’s fun in that sense. It is like a playoff series. It’s still fresh in your mind. There are things that you can change and figure out fairly quickly.”
Despite playing in precious few games over the past 10 months, it became pretty clear Wednesday that Crosby’s hand-eye coordination hasn’t gotten rusty. He intercepted a clearing attempt by Flyers goaltender Carter Hart from behind his net by batting the puck out of the air, then swept the puck into the open net with a one-handed backhand shot.
As for other aspects of his game, Crosby said, “It’s not a typical year for a lot of different reasons, but I think I felt pretty good. I thought we had some good scrimmages over the week, so I felt like we were ready. We played a pretty good game. I think personally, timing and execution, that’s something that’s going to come, but for the most part I felt pretty good.”
For now in some cities, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, there will be no fans in the stands, with crowd noise piped in.
In another nod to the pandemic, coaches on the bench must wear face coverings. Sullivan said that presents a challenge.
“It’s a little bit of a struggle,” he said. “It’s hard because the players have a hard time understanding, and the referees as well.
“I think the referees are probably the happiest guys of anybody on the rink that the coaches have to wear these masks. Maybe they can ignore some of our banter behind the bench. The referees in our league, they take a lot of heat from all the coaches.”