BUFFALO — The Bruins will face the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Sunday (3 p.m., NBC), the start of a final kick toward the playoffs in which they’ll play 10 times (COVID-19 permitting) over the next 17 days.
It’s an exhausting pace, one even more rigorous than the typically grueling postseason, that has become de rigueur in the shrink-wrapped, pandemic-defined, body-and-mind-challenging regular season of 2021.
The Bruins looked flatter than a Zamboni’s scrape blade in their 6-4 loss here Friday night, in part because they were without their captain and fix-all glue guy Patrice Bergeron (lower-body injury) centering the top line.
Fun stat of the night: The distant sons of the Big Bad Bruins landed a mere nine hits against the Sabres, roughly one smack (yawn, stretch) every six or seven minutes. Boston forwards delivered only five of those. If you can wring a tone-setting forecheck out of a hit every 12 minutes from a forward corps, then provide address here and QVC will ship a Scotty Bowman coaching medal of honor your way overnight.
But it was also the Bruins’ second game in as many nights, their third back-to-back booking this month, and in a sport where no one ever dare yell, “Uncle!”, sometimes the reservoir of energy simply runs drier than a frat house’s backyard keg.
To make the grind even more onerous, the Bruins spent Saturday, a rare day off for everyone, essentially sequestered in their Pittsburgh hotel. Again, that’s not new. That’s the gig in 2021, as agreed upon by the league and its players. In an attempt to keep COVID-19 at bay, and keep the games going, even much-needed days of R&R on the road must be whiled away in lockdown.
No team golf outings. No zipping out to see a movie. No meeting up with an old high school pal. No team dinners at a Michelin-rated eatery with rookies stuck ponying up their signing bonuses to cover the tab.
On a recent trip to Washington, Bruins players and staff expressed gratitude that during their day off they at least could meander a bit in their hotel’s outdoor courtyard, soak in some spring sunshine, and luxuriate in the smell of cherry blossoms.
Ah, the wonders of the great outdoors, just beyond the fake ficus trees and sliding doors of the hotel lobby.
“Hockey players are creatures of habit — hockey people are,” coach Bruce Cassidy, asked here earlier in the week about the challenges of the 2021 schedule. “So you’ve got to try to find that routine that makes you tick, while knowing that you’re probably not going to be able to stay in it consistently.
“The other challenge is obviously the social part of it — on the road guys love to go to dinner. That’s where the stories are; that’s where the camaraderie is … coaches do it, we do it all the time ... and you just miss out on some of that, enjoying being at work with your colleagues. Not every team has that, but I know the Bruins have it, and we miss that part of it. Because I think our guys like going to work, they like being around each other, so that part of it is a little bit more difficult.”
Again, not unique to the Bruins. It’s the same across the entire Original 31. But just because everyone has to do it doesn’t remove the stress, frustration, the everyday ennui of hockey, hockey, hockey … and hotel.
“We just have to live with it,” added Cassidy, “suck it up, and find a way to sort of mentally check out from hockey.”
Not easy to exit when all one can do is check into a hotel and stay there. The Bruins will fly home Tuesday night, following their trip wrapper against the Penguins, having spent eight nights going from hotel rooms in Buffalo and Pittsburgh to nowhere else other than the arenas in each city.
After last summer’s extended playoff sequestering in the Toronto bubble, that may not sound like a big ask. Yet it’s a drill they’ve experienced now off and on for some 100 days, since the Jan. 14 season opener, an added mental tax paid (higher in Massachusetts, no doubt) along with the physical demand of the schedule.
“The schedule has been pretty crazy, but … yeah, obviously, it’s physically challenging,” said veteran center David Krejci. “But we are professional athletes and we work hard in the summer to get ready for the season. So that shouldn’t be much issue.
“But sometimes, yeah, it’s nice to get away from hockey — in a normal season you have a bye week, some days off — but now with so many games it’s just hockey all the time and sometimes it can get to you. But it is what it is. I would say it is harder on our families than it is on us.”
The league has not revealed the postseason schedule, and it’s worth keeping in mind the Bruins have yet to clinch a playoff berth The typical postseason grind is a game every other day, a touch easier than what the Bruins will face over the next two-plus weeks — and substantially easier than a couple of sets where they were forced to play five games over seven nights. They were dealt an 8-1 shellacking by the Capitals on April 11, the parting gift to their most recent five-in-seven stretch.
“We’ve got to get in, right? And then see what they give us,” said Cassidy, pondering if life after the 56-game schedule could prove a touch easier on mind and spirit. “It might [be easier] for players, honestly, it could be less taxing than some of the stretches. Though I say that, and who knows, they may schedule back-to-backs in the playoffs. They did that in the bubble; they weren’t shy with it.”
With a healthy 6-point lead over the Rangers upon arriving in Pittsburgh, and with two games in hand over the Blueshirts, the Bruins are all but certain to enter what will be their fifth playoff dance with Cassidy as bench boss. The start date could be as early as the weekend of May 14-16.
“Yeah, let’s get in the playoffs,” said Krejci, seeming to perk up just as the mention of the second season, “and get it going.”
For the most part, it has felt that way since mid-January. Game on … and on … and on …