There is a point, Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien admits, where much-needed rest turns into a rust-gathering exercise for the players.
He saw it first-hand four years ago, when the Bruins swept the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2009 NHL playoffs, earning 11 days of rest. By the time the next round started against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Bruins were in a wonky frame of mind. They won the first game, lost the next three in a row, won two in succession and then lost the seventh and deciding game to get bounced from the playoffs.
“We just weren’t ready for that series,” Julien said. “By the time we got ourselves going, the damage had been done.”
When the Bruins open the Eastern Conference final Saturday at the Consol Energy Center against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they will have been off for seven days since beating the New York Rangers in the second round.
Luckily for them, the Penguins have been twiddling their thumbs for even longer – by Saturday it will be eight days since they finished off the Ottawa Senators.
“You kind of learn from those situations as coaches and players and make sure it doesn’t repeat itself,” Julien said. “I think our guys have done a great job this week. I like the way our team has practised this week. To me, they look like a group that is ready to start the series.”
Julien played down the notion the early advantage in the series will go to the team that sheds the rust the fastest. He said both the Bruins and Penguins have a lot of playoff experience – one of the oddities of both conference finals is that the four teams involved are the Stanley Cup champions over the last four years (Los Angeles Kings 2012, Bruins 2011, Chicago Blackhawks 2010, Penguins 2009) – so both will be ready to play.
The main thing with a lengthy break, Julien said, is to teach the players how to switch in and out of playing mode. He gave the Bruins two days off after they beat out the Rangers, and then it was back to practice.
“It’s more for [the coaches] to make sure we take the right approach with the players, not let them slip out of that playoff mode,” Julien said. “You understand how to turn the page from playing to get some rest and you’re able to get back on pace when you start practising again, get right back in the groove.
“I don’t think we did that that year [against the Hurricanes].”
This has been an odd season for the Bruins when it comes to playing and rest even considering it was a lockout-shortened season for everyone.
They had most of their games crammed into the last half of the schedule, then had to make up a game postponed by the Boston Marathon bombings a night after the regular season ended for everyone else. Then, after a couple days rest, it was right to the first round, which turned out to be a tough, seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, before a week-long break.
“It depends how you use it,” defenceman Zdeno Chara said of the potential effects of a long break on the readiness of the players. “It’s not a bad thing to have a few days to rest and get ready for the next round.”
It did allow a couple of Bruins defencemen, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden, more time to deal with injuries suffered in the first round. Julien would not say if they will be back in the lineup Saturday, or if he will stick with rookie defencemen Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug.
Penguins centre Evgeni Malkin said he did not mind the long break, either. He said it allowed “a small injury” to get better and, of course, he declined to identify the ailment.
“It’s a little bit tough,” he said of the break. “But, of course, it’s good, because we get a little bit of rest and my small injury has a little bit better feel right now. But I’m ready. It doesn’t matter what day.”