The games, slowly and steadily, are starting to pile up for the Blues.
First, there were the 82 from last regular season. Then there were 26 from the playoffs, matching the most any team had played. (The Bruins played only 24.) On Saturday, the Blues played their 56th game of this season. Add 'em up and that’s 164 games played over the course of 17 months, more than any team in the NHL and an awful lot of hockey.
The concerns, which have been piling up even more quickly than the games, are that sooner or later for a team such as the Blues, all those games will take a toll. One reason NHL teams find it so hard to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, as the Blues are discovering, is that the energy expended in winning one title makes the second that much harder to attain.
The Blues took a breather on Sunday, not holding a practice, amid their roughest patch of the season — a 2-5-2 stretch that has spanned their bye week and the All-Star break. And as they look at what bedevils them as the Central Division race tightens, they agree that whatever the issue is now, it’s not one of fatigue.
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“I think since the break, I’ve seen a ton of energy,” coach Craig Berube said. “I think that for the most part the energy has been really solid. The guys feel really good. There’s a lot of good stuff, but the No. 1 thing is wins. Nothing else really matters right? We’re not getting that, we’re not getting the results. But there’s a lot of good hockey being played, a lot of good stuff going on. We’ve just got to find wins. That’s important. But energy’s not a problem.”
“I just think it’s one of those times in the season where it’s kind of a lull,” defenseman Colton Parayko added. “We’ve played some good hockey, and the one in Calgary, we definitely didn’t play a very good game and we ended up winning. I don’t think that fatigue would be in the question. We’re good. We’re fine.”
If the Blues haven’t hit a post-Stanley Cup wall, it’s because Berube has been guarding against this from Day One. Going back to training camp, he gave his veterans more off time and that has carried on during the season. While the NHL collective bargaining agreement mandates four off-days per month for players, Berube has gone well past that. While the team usually takes Sundays off, unless the game schedule dictates otherwise, Berube has worked in more midweek off days.
After the Blues win over Carolina on Tuesday, he gave the team Wednesday off, which initially had been scheduled as a practice day. And morning skates, the short practices the team takes on the day of a game, are increasingly optional. And increasingly, the team’s veteran players take that option. (Even Ryan O'Reilly has been taking off optional skates.) Before the past two games, goalie Jordan Binnington has taken the ice early for the skate, gotten shots from goalie coach David Alexander or a player who is on the ice early, and been off the ice by the time the organized part of the session begins.
And that’s how it’s probably going to be the rest of the way, as Berube prioritizes keeping his team well rested.
“He helps us a lot,” forward Mackenzie MacEachern said. “He gives us like (Saturday), an optional skate, he gives us time to rest and then be ready to go when the puck drops.”
In most cases, players would rather play than practice.
“I think nowadays you don’t practice as much as you used to,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who began his NHL career in 2002. “I think there’s more of a focus that you don’t waste the energy, you kind of save it for the games. Lots of guys will say they’re tired for practice but there’s not many guys who will say they’re tired for games. It’s been fine.”
But with that in mind, Berube has been concerned about in-game playing time. He blamed himself for some higher than desired ice times in the Winnipeg game, even though the game situation — the Blues trying to come back from being down 2-0 early in the second period and players such as Jordan Kyrou and Troy Brouwer getting only about six minutes — forced his hand.
February won’t be easy. The gap between the Dallas game on Saturday and the Blues’ game on Tuesday in Anaheim is their last two-day break until the beginning of March. The team will practice Monday before flying to California and already has scheduled Friday, the day after they play in Las Vegas, as an off day. That leads right into a run of five games in seven days.
“This is a busy month, our busiest month, and next month is not that much less busy,” Berube said. “It’s going to be important that we do a real good job with the energy and minutes played during games. I wasn’t thrilled with the minutes (vs. Winnipeg) with some players. I got them up there too high, that’s my fault, I’ve got to do a better job. But that’s going to be important, managing minutes played.”
The Blues still have eight players who have appeared in every game this season, including four of their seven defensemen, and hockey is not a sport in which players get days off to stay fresh. Going 82 for 82 is every player’s goal.
Parayko missed seven games right before the break, more contests than he had missed in his entire career up to that point. He hated missing games but, having been through the long run last season, knows what lies ahead. And if a long run and a lot of games is the price for winning a Stanley Cup and having a chance at another, he’ll gladly pay it.
“It’s definitely a lot of hockey but it’s fine,” he said. “A lot of teams haven’t made the playoffs in the four years I’ve been in the league, but it’s fun. I’d rather be on a winning team and a team that has a chance to win and get a Cup. I’m happy.”