Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to the start of Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
During their stay in Washington last week, the Pittsburgh Penguins adorned their locker room with yellow-and-black banners and towels, an effort to create a familiar, comfortable atmosphere. Some of the placards boasted about the Penguins’ consecutive Stanley Cup titles, reminders of both their recent achievements and, perhaps, the high price of them.
A lot can be said about the Penguins’ playoff superiority the last two years, none of them simpler or truer than this: They have played a hell of a lot of hockey. The fruits of that labor are two towering trophies. If there is a cost – and the Penguins insist there isn’t – it could be surfacing this spring.
Saturday night back in Washington, in Game 5 of their second-round series against the Capitals, the Penguins will play their 60th playoff game of the past three seasons. In less than three years, they have played an extra 73 percent of a full season in playoff games, which far outpace regular-season games in both physicality and intensity.
Only the Nashville Predators, whom the Penguins vanquished in the Finals last year, come within shouting distance. They are set to play their 47th playoff game of the past three years Saturday night. Only four teams – including the Capitals, who have played 35 – have played half as many playoff games as Pittsburgh.
The accumulation of hockey has led many to wonder if, or when, the Penguins would be penalized with fatigue. History shows the difficulty of Pittsburgh’s task, whether fatigue serves as the primary obstacle: No team since the 1985 Edmonton Oilers has appeared in three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.
Still, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said he expected no carry-over effect. If anything, he believes the Penguins’ past two playoff marches taught them how to handle the many stresses and to appreciate the associated grind.
“To win championships in this league, it’s a physical and mental and psychological challenge, an emotional challenge,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to challenge you in every capacity. That’s why it’s so rewarding, because it’s so difficult to win. I believe the success our team has had over the last couple seasons has motivated the group to be hungrier, to want it more.
“As I’ve said all along here, one of the things I really like about our team is, no one’s looking for excuses. We’re looking for answers. We’re looking for the next challenge we’re looking to overcome as a group. I see a team right now that’s hungry to win, and we know how hard it is.”
Sullivan said the Penguins would focus on the next opponent, the next game, the next period only. The question of fatigue has hovered around Pittsburgh all season, and the Penguins may be growing tired of rejecting it.
“We’re not really giving any sort of thought into all those things you guys think about,” Sullivan said.
Those outside the team believe an effect is inevitable. NBC analyst and former Chicago Blackhawks star Jeremy Roenick connected the Penguins’ workload with the early-series absences of stars Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, saying both had “taken a beating” over the past seasons. Any hockey season, for any team, is going to produce injuries. But the Penguins may be more susceptible than an average team.
“It definitely takes a toll,” Roenick said. “There’s no question. You can’t play as long as they have and take the punishment that they have for three seasons and not have it catch up to you at some point. I think they’re extremely well-prepared. I think they’re extremely well-coached. They take care of themselves. But the body can only take so much. I think what they’ve done so far has been amazing.”
If deep playoff runs affected the Penguins, it may have already happened. The Penguins stood at 19-18-3 after 40 games, and some players said adjusting to the monotony of the regular season after the fervor of the postseason led to inconsistency.
“I think it’s more mentally a factor,” Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta said. “You’ve got to have that mind-set going into every game, there’s never an easy game. If you don’t bring your A game, it’s tough to win in this league. In the regular season, we were struggling a bit. I don’t think we started turning around until January, December time. So I think that’s when we realized how tough it is to win.
“I don’t think at this time of the season it really matters. It’s the playoffs. Everybody is so excited to play, I don’t think you feel any fatigue at all.”
The Capitals, as a team, know nothing about recovering from a deep playoff run. But veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik won the 2009 Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh, which came after the Penguins’ loss in the 2008 Finals. He agreed with Maatta’s assessment – the mental hurdle is more meaningful than a physical toll.
“Guys are in such good shape, I think maybe the mental fatigue plays in as a factor more than the actual physical fatigue,” Orpik said. “They’ve won it two years in a row. They probably didn’t feel that tired last year. From their coaching staff, they probably did a good job, had a good game plan going into last year and this year, where they probably knew they wouldn’t be full energy going into the season and kind of pace themselves. You hate to ever use that terminology, but you come off those runs, that’s probably the smart thing to do. I’m sure they pick their spots when they can push their guys and when they need a little rest.”