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 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.