For Penguins, a rough home stretch to regular season
Welcome back to the NHL regular season, Penguins.
Shutting down the league for three weeks with half the team idle and the other half flying to the other side of the planet for an emotionally draining tournament? That was the easy part.
For the Penguins, the Olympics were just the beginning for this peculiar and grueling stretch.
“The Olympic guys might need a day or two of rest here, and then they've got to get back to the NHL game,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “And for the rest of us, we've got to get back into playing real hockey again. And we've all got to click.”
There isn't much time.
The Penguins will gather as a full squad for the first time in almost three weeks when they practice Wednesday. A day later, at home, is their first game since Feb. 7.
The return to normalcy will be short-lived: The Penguins head to Chicago for an outdoor practice Friday and game Saturday at Solider Field.
Part of a stretch of five games in nine days, the game against the Blackhawks starts a five-game road trip that spans the country, stopping in four time zones. By the time the Penguins arrive home to play the Washington Capitals on March 11 in the second end of a back-to-back, home-and-home, they will have covered about 6,000 miles.
That's roughly to the distance between Pittsburgh and Sochi, Russia, where the Olympics just wrapped.
Soon after, the Penguins endure a six-games-in-10-days gauntlet — all against teams currently in playoff spots. In all, the Penguins play 13 such teams in their 16 games in March.
It's all part of a post-Olympics stretch of 24 games in 46 days before the playoffs.
In a 32-day span beginning Thursday, the Penguins play 17 games in nine cities in addition to 11 scheduled practices in six different venues.
Counting Finland's run in Sochi, rookie defenseman Olli Maatta has played 63 games since the Penguins' season started. He never has played more than 66 in a season. But if the Penguins advance deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, Maatta might have 50 or more games left to play by mid-June.
“It's more about your head. It's more about mental,” Maatta said of fatigue.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said ice time and minutes will be monitored, particularly for the Olympians.
He noted the Penguins spent the stretch leading up to the Olympics evening out ice time among lines to not overtax Olympians or allow the others to get stale.
“We'll count on the guys who were back here practicing so we're able to play four lines and have distribution among minutes,” Bylsma said.
With a 16-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins have the luxury of not worrying about a playoff race and can focus on preparations for the postseason. Come mid-April, the goal is to have Olympians and non-Olympians on the same page.
“After a three-week break, we're not going to be perfect out there on the ice right away,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “But we've got (24) games to get our P's and Q's together and make sure we have the right mindset heading into the playoffs.”