When the Islanders and Flyers both lost their first-line centers, Mathew Barzal and Sean Couturier, late in Game 5 of their second-round NHL playoff series, it provided a stark reminder: It still is dangerous out there!
Both teams were hoping for the best from the centers as they prepared for Game 6 on Thursday night, but preparing for the worst. Barzal was in the lineup, but Couturier was not.
Such uncertainty is part of Stanley Cup playoff hockey and has been for more than a century.
But there is something different about this year’s tournament, and it has served to elevate the quality of play in the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. It also might lead to an even more worthy champion than most.
While injuries have been and will remain a factor, the 24 teams that began the postseason journey did so fresher and healthier than perhaps any time before in the history of professional hockey.
That was thanks, of course, to a 4 ½-month break forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was not a pause most people wanted, but it was what everyone got, and it led to some positive consequences.
The Islanders, for example, got back Casey Cizikas and Adam Pelech from what might have been season-ending injuries had the season concluded on schedule – almost certainly so in Pelech’s case.
Pelech has provided a huge boost on defense, seemingly unaffected by an Achilles tendon injury he suffered in early January. Without him in the lineup, the Islanders might not have gotten this far.
“This is such an unusual playoff, where you don’t have to go through the grind of 82 games,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said earlier in the Flyers series. “A lot of teams after the 82 games head into the playoffs and guys are banged up, worn out, emotionally drained just to get there, that it can affect who’s going to be the Stanley Cup champion.
“This is about as close to fresh teams [as you can get], everybody healthy for the most part, going at it, and the competition is tremendous. So you’re seeing the parity in the league and the parity is because everybody was healthy, everybody came back at the same point.”
There was an extra playoff round for 16 of the 24 teams invited to the event, so even though the Islanders made relatively short work of the Panthers and Capitals, Thursday night was their 15th game in Toronto.
So some on-ice banging has begun to add up, just not as much so as in a normal postseason. It doesn’t hurt that unlike in a normal year, there has been no added fatigue from playoff travel.
“I think you go through an 82-game season grind and into the playoffs, there’s certainly going to be a little bit more wear and tear,” said Josh Bailey, who entering Game 6 led the Islanders in playoff scoring with 15 points.
“That being said, it’s a grind out there still every night. You get your rest as much as you can and stay ready.”
Speaking of rest, Trotz seemed to sense on Wednesday that after an overtime loss the night before in Game 4 that his team needed a mental break as much as a physical one, and instructed players to get away from the game for a day.
Before Game 6, Anthony Beauvillier endorsed the idea, saying, “It feels good, just getting some rest. Obviously, it’s crucial at this time in the playoffs, and it felt good last night just to get our heads off the game and just relax and do whatever.”
Both teams were anticipating the best from one another, which is something hockey teams always say during the playoffs, but this year is more true than usual.
Most of the best players in the game have been rested and ready from the drop of the first puck, and those who remain will try to stay that way through two more rounds.