January and even into or through February used to be considered the doldrums of the hockey season. Then, perhaps after the NHL’s trade deadline when roster makeup is more settled, boom.
The stretch run.
That train, with all of its urgency and momentum, gets rolling earlier now, at least according to several Pittsburgh Penguins. They believe that, coming back from the downtime of a bye week and the All-Star break, their stretch run is here.
“I think it’s now. I think it’s moved up so much,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen, who, as the oldest player in the league, can remember when things were a little sleepier in the dead of winter.
“The parity in the league is so strong. You look around, the standings are awfully close. After the break you look at the schedule and you have to hit the ground running because it’s going to be over in a flash.”
So the Penguins’ stretch run can be marked down as starting Monday night when New Jersey visits PPG Paints Arena, the first game of a three-game homestand and the first of four games in six nights.
“I’ve always felt it’s kind of the stretch run from here because I feel like the month of February goes fast and the next thing you know it’s March,” said another Penguins veteran, defenseman Jack Johnson. “There’s one week in April that you play, regular season. So there’s not that much time left.
“Games get ramped up, tighter checking, all those things. You’re racing for the playoffs. There are teams that are fighting to get in; there are teams that are fighting to stay in.”
With 58 points, the Penguins sit in the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, but they are just five points behind the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Islanders and four points up on playoff-chasing Buffalo and Carolina.
“It’s anyone’s game now, or anyone can make the playoffs,” Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said. “It’s kind of crazy that way. Now teams are going to start making pushes.”
The All-Star weekend in late January has always marked a significant point in the season. It has been casually called – and is still referred to as — the start of the second half of the season, even though that’s not really accurate since teams have already played more than half their schedule.
Penguins winger Bryan Rust recognizes the difference in urgency after the break, but he’s a bit old school. He doesn’t think the stretch run starts now.
“Not quite there yet, but I think it’s that kind of middle area where you’ve got to be starting to play your best hockey and start putting some games together because you see the standings,” Rust said. “It’s becoming more of a sprint, more that things have to happen in the now. The first half of the year we’re trying to build. There’s going to be ups and downs. When you get after the All-Star break is when you want to be hitting your stride and you want to get things going.”
Certainly, the Penguins aren’t waiting for a certain day on the calendar to refine their game for the stretch run, no matter when that might get revved up. There already has been an urgent call for the team to play to its identity.
“It’s not really the second half, but it’s kind of the final push,” Oleksiak said. “Not the final push, but now there’s no more breaks. It’s just go, go, go. It flies by. It feels like there’s not many games left and you’re going every other day playing a game.”
Games in the stretch run just feel different, Cullen said.
“There’s a new added level of excitement here as you get headed down the stretch,” he said. “These are the games that are so important. You start watching other scores a lot more closely and keep an eye on the standings. That and the intensity of the games make it more fun.”