The Penguins are in their final half of their regular-season schedule.
And, there is no relief in sight.
The Penguins are in the midst of a span in which they play 11 games in 19 days, including seven games in 13 days to close out February and four games in six days to open March.
While some may consider that a heavy workload, considering the intense physical demands each game requires, the players are all for it.
“Personally, I like playing every other day. It’s fun because, if you get on a streak, you can keep going. If you have a tough game, you can bounce right back,” Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. “When you win one, you can’t wait to play again. Sometimes when you lose, you can’t wait to play again either. I like it. Obviously, the coaches like to have three or four days without a game to get some good practices in, but the players want to play. It’s tough. It really is very grueling and demanding, but it’s fun, especially this time of year in the playoff race.”
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik agrees.
at this point of the year, we’d rather play a lot of games so we can kind of get in a rhythm, especially when you’re winning, it’s more fun,” he said. “I know at the beginning of the year, you’d win a game and then have to sit there for four days before you played the next one and that was a momentum killer.
“At this point in the season, everyone knows the system or should. It’s more or less just keeping sharp in practice and most of our practices are 30 or 40 minutes and then you’re done. I think most of the guys in this room prefer the schedule to be like this at this time of the year.”
This time of year is tough for NHL players, regardless of a busy schedule or not. Once the players go through the All-Star break, they can re-energize themselves for an intense finish.
“I think that point right before the All-Star break is the toughest,” Orpik said. “You only get two or three days off at the All-Star break, but you come back and it’s almost like you have a new set of legs for the second half of the season. You get a second wind.
“If you can get through January and February, it seems like you have a lot more energy for the rest of the season.”
Along with the physical exhaustion, mental fatigue is another obstacle the Penguins face. The intense race for the Eastern Conference playoff spots only escalates that factor. The players use the incentive of higher seeding as positive motivation.
“I think we’ve had about 15 games in a row for first place. It’s mentally tough, but it’s fun,” Whitney said. “It’s not like we’re worried about it right before the game. We’re excited and jacked up to play games that mean a lot. Pretty much everyone here remembers two years ago when we were out of the playoffs and it wasn’t fun. Last year, we got to experience a playoff race and now we’re in another one. It’s really fun.”
As of Feb. 25, the Penguins (77 points) and Devils (79) were battling for the Atlantic Division lead. However, the Rangers (72 points), Islanders (69) and Flyers (67) were all right behind, which meant no team could afford to have an off night – especially in games against divisional foes.
“You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. If you have a great game, you can’t be too high and if you have a bad game – who cares – the next game is probably two days away,” Whitney said. “You have to be ready for each shift and each game, but I think, mentally, it’s a lot of fun to be part of a playoff race and big games that mean a lot.”
The Eastern Conference race is just as tight. Only 12 points separate the conference’s top 10 squads. Eight teams from the conference qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Psychologically, I think that can wear on you to a certain point. That pressure of the standings can definitely work for you or against you. It’s a lot more fun, but it’s a lot more grueling mentally. Everyone here wants to win and get the highest seed we can for the playoffs. That’s the goal here,” Orpik said. “It’s weird, though, when you see the standings. This is what the NHL wanted; they wanted parity and you look at both the conferences and the standings are so tight between the first place team and the eighth place team.”
Normally, those playoff races change dramatically at the NHL trading deadline. However, since so many teams have a shot at the postseason, no one can predict what will happen by at this year’s deadline.
“No one has really gained separation in the Eastern Conference. With the start Ottawa had, it seemed like they were going to take right off and no one would catch them. They’ve slowed down a little bit with injuries and whatnot,” Orpik said. “About a month ago, a lot of people were saying that was the point where some teams would take off and some would drop off. Now with the trade deadline coming, it’s weird, because you usually get those groupings where you know who will be buyers or sellers and now there are so many teams that are right there that it’s a hard spot for general managers.
“I think it makes it more interesting for the fans and for us, too, to look at the standings every day and seeing how close the race is.”