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Stanley Cup Final

Bruins, Blues must ramp back up for Game 1 of Cup Final, McKenna says

Extended layoff has benefits, challenges, especially for goalies Rask, Binnington

by Mike McKenna / Special to NHL.com

Mike McKenna has been a professional goalie for the past 14 seasons and played for seven NHL teams and 13 minor-league teams. Most recently he played in the Philadelphia Flyers organization, playing one NHL game with them this season. He also played 10 games with the Ottawa Senators in 2018-19.  

He knows about the most important position in the playoffs and a lot about the men who play it and those trying to score goals against them. So NHL.com asked him to share his insights during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In his most recent column, McKenna talks about the long layoffs for the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues, who meet in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS), and how it might affect what we see. 

When one team has 10 days off and the other has five going into the Stanley Cup Final, it's inevitably a conversation starter. Will the Boston Bruins have a difficult time coming off ten days between games? Will the St. Louis Blues carry momentum from their Western Conference Final win against the San Jose Sharks?

 

[RELATED: Complete Stanley Cup Final coverage]

 

Each is a valid question, to be debated now and probably again after this best-of-7 series is decided and one team lifts the Stanley Cup in triumph.

The extended layoff caused the Bruins and Blues to take stock and formulate plans of action leading up to the Final. 

I can't remember the last time a team held an intrasquad scrimmage that was open to the public during the regular season, much less in the playoffs. But there were the Bruins on Thursday, playing amongst themselves at TD Garden to keep some semblance of normalcy during the break.

It wasn't just about staying sharp and game-ready. The scrimmage had just as much to do with providing a normal game-day routine for the players. Get up. Morning skate. Nap. Game. Get to bed. Rinse and repeat 82 times. To go 10 days without following this routine would throw the body clock off and have a player's mind asking, "What's going on?"

Video: Rask on goalie tandem with Halak, preparing for Blues

This deviance in habit can be especially stressful for a goaltender. A starter is used to playing games and seeing as many -- or as few -- shots as he wishes in practice. To have 10 days between games is not typical, and there are so many ways to approach it. 

I've never enjoyed practicing more than three days in a row mid-season, and I suspect many goalies have a similar mindset. You want to get the proper amount of reps, but you also don't want to grind your body down. It's the reason why some teams have elected to have their starting goalie occasionally practice on his own with the team's goaltending coach and a small group of players. Finding the optimum workload is a delicate balance.

Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask (12-5, 1.84 goals-against average, .942 save percentage) has won seven games in a row. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington (12-7, 2.37 GAA, .914 save percentage) has allowed two goals in his past three games. Each team is hoping its goalie remains as sharp as before the extended time off.

Video: Binnington on mindset heading into Cup Final

I can say this, though, having some downtime is fantastic. Professional hockey is a grind. Any opportunity to rest, to take your mind off the game, and, hopefully, do something other than hockey that you enjoy is to be savored. For players with children, off days are invaluable family time.

For a goaltender, the mental break can be rejuvenating. Our position is stressful. It's why having a quality backup during the regular season is so important: the occasional night off is so beneficial to stay fresh mentally. It's an opportunity to relax and enjoy the sport without having to feel the constant anxiousness associated with our position. 

Playoffs are different. Generally, one goaltender plays all, or most of, the minutes. It's a challenge, but the best ones enjoy the crucible. Having five or 10 days off could potentially dull a goaltender's effectiveness. 

As odd as it may sound, maintaining constant drive and desire can be difficult when the games are spread out, even with so much on the line. It will be interesting to see if Rask and Binnington each look sharp in Game 1. 

Playoffs are a special time. Since the longer breaks tend to happen between series, it allows a team to get together and celebrate its achievement. 

Video: Krejci on previous Cup runs, team spirit

For instance, last season with the Texas (of the American Hockey League), we held barbeques after wins in the first and second rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs. Not only did it give us a chance to let our hair down a bit, it helped foster the tight-knit bond that is associated with winning teams. 

I can't remember why, but for whatever reason we weren't able to have one before taking on the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup Finals. Maybe if we had, Game 7 would have turned out differently.

Did I ever think having a few days off hurt us? No way. On top of the additional team bonding, we were also afforded a chance to thoroughly pre-scout our next opponent. But most importantly, it allowed players to get healthy. Every team has players nursing injuries in the playoffs, and an extra day or two between games can be the difference between being able to play and sitting in the press box. 

Here's the elephant in the room: momentum. There are countless examples of teams that caught fire at precisely the right moment and eventually won a championship. Could the St. Louis Blues fall in this category? Perhaps, especially given their record from early January.

Two seasons ago, I was playing with Syracuse (AHL) and we had just knocked off Toronto in Game 7 of the second round. The next day, we were on a bus to Providence to play the following evening. We beat Providence 4-1 in the series, and people were quick to attribute it to the momentum we seemed to be carrying. But what wasn't mentioned was that Providence had just endured two dog-fight series and looked to have run out of gas, while we kept our foot to the floorboard. 

Was it a case of momentum working in our favor? Probably to a certain extent, but I don't think it was nearly as important as it may have seemed.

And that's my point. You can analyze rest, rust, momentum, and other variables, but nobody knows for sure what will happen in a seven-game series.

I don't think the extra time off is going to negatively impact either team, but once the Stanley Cup is lifted, you can be sure fans will be talking about the ramifications for years to come.

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