If you’re anything like me, you occasionally forget that the Montreal Canadiens are still in playoffs. They last played on April 22nd, eight days ago, and have since been at home watching re-runs of Chopped while eating Haagen-Dasz straight from the container. (Or they’re eating something healthy and watching hockey, whichever. I prefer to imagine it the first way.)
In the meantime, the rest of the still-standing NHL clubs have been beating the bejezus out of one another on the daily, with another three games to go tonight to decide who gets to keep playing. That’s a pretty good situation for them to be in, as we all know rest in playoffs is key.
While the down-time allows your team to get healthy and ready to become the toughest foe possible in the next round, it also comes with a few…
* You lose your cardio surprisingly quick.
NHL (playoff) game cardio is not the same as person-reading-this-at-their-desk cardio. What’s the ideal rest-to-exercise relationship to allow your team to be the best in the next round?
* When you return to play a team that’s just finished battling an opponent into submission a few days earlier, it’s harder to instantly flip the switch back to MAX INTENSITY.
You can get a fast car to it’s max velocity quick, but as hard as you pin it out of the gate, you can’t match the speed of the machine with the rolling start.
* Too much free time.
Check the regular season schedule to see the last time the boys had 10 straight days without a game, at home. If the guys get three days off they’ll go out knowing they have time to sweat out the fun and feel fine come game day. It’s easy to lose focus, especially as the weather gets nicer.
And so, on to the solutions, on to the…
Most coaches looking at the Canadiens layoff would do the same thing: make a 10-day plan and stick to it.
By the time the Canadiens put down the Lightning they had been through 86 hockey games in about six months, with the Olympics compressing their schedule. The majority of players have been playing through annoying stuff - a swollen ankle from a blocked shot that won’t heal when you wear skates everyday, a slashed wrist that’s limited its mobility, a sore shoulder from the constant grind of getting pounded into the boards.
The obvious thing to do is start with 2-3 days off, depending on the needs of individual players. Hell, take five if you need them - there’s plenty of days to get the skates back on and get right.
Players still come to the rink as need be on the days off, with the exception being day one. Some will opt for a light spin on the bike (it’s just nice to avoid the ice for a day here and there), while others will come in for electrical stimulation, a massage, a light lift, or a stretch.
These first few days are glorious for a player. In late April the hockey season itself shifts from internal competition to US vs. THEM, and it’s finally time to be about us. For most guys the season is as much about the battle for roster spots, special teams time, and places on the depth chart as it is about wins and losses. Now it’s just time to win, together. And if you’re between rounds, you can relax and joke, and you can get your body right. It’s a fun time to be a hockey player. Your coach might even be curiously pleasant.
After those early days, the work really starts. Most coaches, not wanting all the physical gains players have made to go to waste will skate the guys for a short amount of time, and as up-tempo as possible. A 35-40 minute practice without stopping isn’t uncommon, usually with minimal battling, but a lot of skating.
That’s the norm as the week moves along until your next opponent becomes clear. At that point, you spend more time after practice studying and planning as a group, and the still up-tempo on-ice sessions have more breaks to discuss specifics about your opponent.
But somewhere around this point, you get over it. You’re with the guys in the gym. In the dressing room. On the ice. In the training room. And to make it all worse, because the excess free time scares the brass, someone has coordinated a few off-ice team events (dinners, bowling, or whatever). As long as the group is self-chaperoned by the group, they're happy.
It all amounts to spending so much time together it becomes a little grating. You want your hockey life back before long.
As Brendan Gallagher put it: “You wake up every day and you just want to be playing. The first couple of days were nice to get rested and recovered. But we’re there now. Now that we know who we’re going to play, we’re even hungrier for the puck drop. We just want to play games.”
As the days get closer and the next round sneaks nearer, the anticipation gets painful, like you’re getting in a fight after school and everyone knows it, but you’ve still gotta get through your last class.
For the Canadiens, class is almost over, and the bell’s about to ring. What comes next, who knows. You just want to get out there and find out.