December 07, 2010
Welcome to The Lull, the middle part of the NHL schedule where players are settling in for the long haul, and getting yourself amped up to play involves funnelling a Monster Energy Drink and huffing smelling salts from a paper bag like Charlie does glue in "It's Always Sunny."
Game 29 in Atlanta?
Color me thrilled.
We're officially passed the quarter-mark of this year's 82 games schedule -- that means trends have been established (Sidney Crosby(notes) awesome, Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) not so much), records are taking shape (Detroit Red Wings sweet, New York Islanders sour), and we're embarking on the stretch of the season where players get complacent and injuries start to pile up, but the points are just as valuable.
Good coaches find ways to snap their teams to attention during this oh-so easy time to drift. Think of the two references made by Elliotte Friedman yesterday: We recently saw Alain Vigneault make a fuss about the Chicago Blackhawks running up the score on them, and Davis Payne highlighting to his team an "Abuse the Blues" headline in the Vancouver paper. Anything to keep the team's eyes on the prize.
Everyone is reinvigorated and fired up at the start of the season. You know a hot start matters -- the depth chart is still malleable, and who knows, maybe you've got a Cup contending team this year.
Towards the season's close, everything comes into focus. You start seeing the ever-popular "bubble teams" graphic, and teams become acutely aware of the weight of each point. It's not so hard to get up for a win-and-in situation.
But those points are no more valuable than the middle-of-the-year, Game 36, cold Sunday in Columbus ones, even though the game might have the energy of Nyquil chugging contest. If you give away points now, you inevitably end up on the wrong end of that bubble teams chart.
From a player's perspective, you start to feel like your linemates might be Punxsutawney Phil and Bill Murray. You do the same damn thing from wake-up to sleep - I know that's common in a lot of jobs, but the weekend never comes in this one.
It becomes a blur -- spaghetti, chicken, game, sleep, spaghetti, chicken, game, sleep - what city are we in? And what is coach yelling about this time?
The difference in quality of play during the playoffs versus the regular season is obvious. In playoffs, each guy is geared right up, champing at the bit to fight for that puck, block shots and grind it out in the corners. They know "tonight matters."
But this time of year, the things that matter most are basic -- you just need to have more talent on your roster, and a coach who can find a way to motivate his Canadian team in Game 44 on a Tuesday in sunny Phoenix. If he can't, he might not enjoy his title for the next season, "analyst."
Unlikely guys come out and shine seemingly at random around now, as you can take advantage of the odd guy who's sleep-skating out there. It's why we see hat-tricks from players like third-liner Chris Kelly(notes) - sometimes a guy is just feeling it when the majority of his opponents aren't.
During this middle 50 percent of the schedule, a chunk of both teams are just trying to fight through some nagging injury and get through the game without ending up on video the next day. This is what happens when you make guys play a 64,000-game schedule.
Those injuries can play a big part in how these next couple months unfold: Andrei Markov(notes) is out for the season in Montreal; Marc Savard(notes) is just coming back for the B's. Mark Streit(notes) is a long ways off seeing a game in an Islanders uniform; Jordan Staal(notes) is getting close to a return in Pittsburgh.
Poor coaches fall into the Lull with their players and good ones have the wherewithal to give ‘em that occasional slap. Sometimes you need a little shock therapy to get the big picture back in focus.
It can be tough to roll out of your hotel bed, put on your winter's warmest, get on the bus and get excited to go to war with Edmonton in Game 51, but those points matter.
It's the coaches time to shine - let's see who keeps their team awake while the others drift off to sleep.