By the time the puck drops in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have gone a whopping 10 days without playing in a game, easily the longest break between games over the course of their season. The San Jose Sharks, on the other hand, will be entering their series against Vancouver with just two real days off — they may as well be in the middle of a series.
So then the common question: Would you rather be rested and risk being "rusty," or stay fully submerged in playoffs until you have a chance to come up for air after being eliminated?
The answer should be obvious - you take the rest, every time.
Rest has it's minor downsides, of course, the worst of which is keeping up your cardio. It's amazing how quickly you lose it when you step away from constantly playing, so you have practice like hell to create something comparable to game play (it's never the same). Still, it's the most frustrating skating of the year, because it's playoffs. This isn't training camp anymore. You feel like you shouldn't have to be practicing like some rookie at tryouts.
During a long break between series, you can forget you're even in playoffs. After sweeping an ECHL playoff round, a group of friends from our team sat around at someone's apartment watching NHL playoffs, having a couple drinks — it had been days since our last game, and it was days until our next.
In that moment, you can't imagine throwing yourself back into the furious pace of a playoff game, sacrificing your body, fighting for every inch. It felt like summer for us then — I can't imagine being in Tampa Bay for a break of any consequence in May.
And that's where the idea of "rust" comes from — even when you get yourself all jacked up to return to playoff action, you can never quite replicate that pace in your mind. The team coming straight from the last series, however, can. Their wounds have barely stopped bleeding.
But after saying all that, there's the big picture: The things I just mentioned give the team that isn't rested the advantage for, oh, I'd say ten total shifts. And then there's 2.5 periods and potentially six more games to play, and one team is healthy.
Playoffs are a war of attrition, as the well-beaten-by-me cliché goes. By the time we get to the late rounds of playoffs, games are decided just as much by "whose team has the most regulars still in the lineup" as "whose team is better."
For Tampa, Simon Gagne has been practicing with them in a normal jersey (as opposed to a no-contact red one), meaning he's ready to go. He's been working the powerplay, doing the line-rushes, everything. Their goalie is 41, and there's no back-up plan if Dwayne Roloson gets worn down. Some of Tampa's best players — St. Louis and Lecavalier come to mind — are in their mid-30's. Now, those numbers aren't high for our society, but it's certainly not as easy for those guys to have the type of jump they need to succeed on a nightly basis as it was a dozen years ago.
If they were in a Mortal Kombat style video game, you'd see their life-meter bars restored to nearly 100 percent right now.
Unless Team Not-So-Fresh manages to pot a handful of goals in the first few minutes, rust shouldn't have anything to do with the outcome of a series, especially given how quickly you shed it — chunks fall off in a hurry thanks to adrenaline acting as a pressure washer.
That first time you get rocked hard, rust falls off. The first time you managed to put someone through the boards, more. If you manage to score a goal, or even get into a verbal altercation with someone, you find yourself right back into the swing of things, usually will the time clock still reads double digits.
And then just like it was in the series before, you're fired up, ready to dive in front of a slapshot at a moment's notice. It's the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and a rested team gets to go after it with less cuts, less bruises, and less pain. That's just not a level playing field for a team just leaving another brawl.
If a group that's been healing and practicing for a long time manages to lose to a squad that's just limping out of a previous series, be realistic — they lost because they lost, not because feeling healthier is somehow a disadvantage.