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What the Penguins (and Hockey) Need to Learn from Tampa Bay & Montreal

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Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins

Somewhere on a stone tablet where hockey was founded by Mi’kmaq natives and Irish settlers in the early 1800s, it is written that hockey players must play through injury, play through all aches and pains and be there for their team. Few teams have suffered as many injuries as the Pittsburgh Penguins, and few have fought through more nagging pains than Sidney Crosby.

Looking at the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, one question arises.

Why?

Why do hockey players push through injuries, and why do coaches plug in their star players for as many of the 82-game schedule (or 56-games) as the player can wear skates?

At some point, proving toughness is counterproductive.

While Tampa Bay has a few star players who are Conn Smythe-worthy, the player with the biggest advantage is Nikita Kucherov. He missed the regular season after December hip surgery and is fresh as a daisy in the playoffs.

Look at the results. Kucherov has joined Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as players who have averaged more than one point per game in consecutive playoff runs.

The Tampa Bay winger has 32 points (8-24-32) in just 24 games–the only 24 games he has played this season. The burst in his skates is always noticeable, but it’s even more noticeable without the burden of being pummeled by the regular season.

Steven Stamkos also missed a chunk of time and got a bit of a rest at the end of the regular season when he too could have possibly returned. Stamkos has 18 points (8-10-18) in 22 games and has been pretty, pretty good, too.

Montreal’s best player is rookie Cole Caufield. The electric winger is going to be a superstar. He played just 10 games in the regular season after finishing his sophomore season at Wisconsin.

Remarkably, Montreal head coach Dominique Ducharme didn’t immediately insert Caufield into the playoff lineup. But Ducharme relented in Game 3 of the Round One series, and Caufield took off.

Caufield, 20, has 12 points (4-8-12) in 19 games for the low-scoring Canadiens.

Tell me again why Sidney Crosby has to play in every game? Or Kris Letang or Evgeni Malkin?

Why do hockey teams, not just the Pittsburgh Penguins, grind their best players in the regular season? Baseball and basketball have adopted resting strategies for their players because the math showed the players performed better.

The playoffs chase is more difficult in hockey. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has brushed aside questions about resting star players based on the difficulty of making the playoffs (I know because, in previous years, I’ve asked).

But the Penguins won the East division without half of their forwards crew for large chunks of the season.

Crosby will turn 34 in August. Malkin will turn 35 this month, and injuries have already taken a giant bite out of his last two playoff performances.

There are plenty of things to copy from Tampa Bay and Montreal. Defensive hockey, heavy defensemen, star players, and great goaltending. Teams will browse the buffet of things to take from the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

But one thing they should not overlook is fresh legs and the increased performance both in the regular season and the playoffs.

Scratch Sidney Crosby in the second of back-to-back games? Yep.

Scratch Evgeni Malkin on a Saturday night so he can get three days of rest?? Yep.

Juggle the lineup for a game and risk defeat? You betcha.

The Pittsburgh Penguins played some remarkable stretches in the 2020-21 season. They had 13 games in 24 days and 17 games in 33 days. It was grueling.

Their reward for winning the division was a Round One match with the New York Islanders. Yay. That made the journey all worthwhile, eh?

As the Penguins proved this season (and last, and the one before that), the energy of new players can be contagious. It can overcome the lack of a star player in short bursts.

And when the star players return, they are better, which gives teams a better chance to win those games, too. That’s a win-win.

Teddy Blueger proved to be a capable third-line center. Jeff Carter put up points as a second-line center, too. So, it’s time to rest Crosby and Malkin, especially. Perhaps a lesser workload will even lessen the injuries, too.

So, it’s time to step into the 21st century. Players grinding for 82 games may be necessary for shallow teams which fight and scrap to make the playoffs. Maybe it’s not the best solution for other teams.

For a team keeping a mid-30s core intact, some January or March rest may just reduce their offseason rest. And that’s what the Stanley Cup Final can teach the Penguins and the rest of hockey.

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Stephen Emeigh
Stephen Emeigh
24 days ago

Rule in the NHL should be if you don’t play in the regular season, you can’t play in the playoffs. Gave Tampa Bay too big of an advantage by going in with star players that had zero dings from the regular season.

Kurt Hartz
Kurt Hartz
23 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Emeigh

I don’t agree, for the simple fact they have the same rules as the rest of the league, the lightning built their young gritty speedy team for the most part through the draft, if you get stuck with a GM who is patient and doesn’t usually trade their 1st and 2nd rd.draft picks usually you have a team like Tampa Bay creating a good young team and then the job gets easier to just shape out and add the key veteran pieces needed to shape out a cup contender … Nothing showing that they cheated or anything? The Penguins did… Read more »

Donny D
Donny D
24 days ago

Fantastic insight! I was thinking much of the same, especially with an aging core. Even the 1A goalie gets regular rest, why not the guys taking a pounding?

Eric
Eric
24 days ago

Dan, very good article. I think Minute regulation makes good sense, specially for letang and Crosby due to their hard work ethic. The other observation that I take away from the Stanley cup is how many goals were scored 10 feet away from the net. Most of the goals were scored below and between the face off dots only a few feet away from the net. The team that gets to the net with more consistency typically wins the game. Montréal’s big tower and defenseman did not let Vegas get anywhere near the net in Montreal won the series relatively… Read more »

Lars Erik Nelson
Lars Erik Nelson
24 days ago

This is fascinating because it should also apply to minutes per game. Once we have a lead in a game we should be resting the stars. I know we do it when we have a big lead, but we should be doing it all the time. The 4th line guys should be closing out games. It would be even funnier to play the best guys against the other divisions and not against division rivals. Usually, the inter-divisional games are easier without a lot of hitting. The NHL sets up the playoffs so that having the best record does not necessarily… Read more »

John
John
24 days ago

It’s not as if Tampa used a strategy to keep Kucherov fresh. Stamkos too. The point is well taken but the examples are silly.

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[…] What the Penguins (and Hockey) Need to Learn from Tampa Bay & Montreal – (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

TartanBill
TartanBill
24 days ago

It won’t always work out. The first rule of long term survival is if you don’t survive today, there is no long term. Until the very end, the Pens weren’t far from being out of the playoffs. Rest a star, lose a game that costs the playoffs is the kind of thing that a coach assumes will get him fired. As a group, coaches are very risk averse. Moreover, rest Malkin on Saturday night is the kind of thing that disappoints fans who payed a lot of money to come to a game. In a gate revenue driven league, that’s… Read more »

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[…] It was an interesting Stanley Cup Final, and the Pittsburgh Penguins can learn a lot from it. Dan Kingerski details what the Pens can take away from the Habs-Bolts series. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

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[…] Pittsburgh Hockey Now’s Dan Kingerski examines what the Penguins can take away from the Stanley Cup Final […]

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[…] Somewhere on a stone tablet where hockey was founded by Mi’kmaq natives and Irish settlers in the early 1800s, it is written that hockey players must play through injury, play through all aches and pains and be there for their team. Few teams have suffered as many injuries as the Pittsburgh Penguins, and few have fought through more nagging pains than Sidney Crosby. Looking at the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, one question arises. Why? (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

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[…] What the Penguins (and Hockey) Need to Learn from Tampa Bay & Montreal […]

Uros
Uros
23 days ago

Yes, great point. Popovich rested his players even if the game was on national TV and they paid some fines for it. Sullivan should do the same. At the very least lower their MPG.

David
David
23 days ago

The comments about not needing to play everyday apply to an 82 game season. This last season was 56 games — plus getting eliminated the last three years in the first round lightened the work load.

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