Normally there would be all kinds of breathless hue and cry about the Boston Bruins losing a game to the lowly Buffalo Sabres.
But the Bruins 6-4 loss to the Sabres on Friday night was much about the Bruins waging a losing battle with the NHL schedule in this unconventional regular season as it was about anything Buffalo did on the ice. The Bruins were playing their third game in four days, their ninth game in 13 days and one of a crazy 17 games they will play during the month of April, and they looked noticeably sapped of energy and snap to their collective game.
Some of that could have been about missing their heart-and-soul leader in Patrice Bergeron (day-to-day with a lower body injury), but it’s much more about their entanglement in an unprecedentedly busy regular season schedule.
It’s simply what’s required this season due to postponements and COVID-19 outbreaks within teams, but it’s going to lead to the odd 60-minute dud during the regular season. That’s exactly what it looked like with the Bruins, who were already missing Bergeron after blocking a shot on Thursday night’s victory. Clearly, it didn’t look like they were willing to pay that kind of price again for two points on Friday night in Buffalo.
Either way, this second-half schedule fatigue was wholly anticipated given that the Boston Bruins have had the fewest games played in the NHL pretty much throughout this season. There was a balance coming due at some point, and a game like Friday night’s turnover-filled slog in Buffalo was exactly that kind of cause-and-effect.
The mental mistakes, like David Pastrnak turning the puck over in the final seconds as the Bruins pushed for a game-tying goal, are indicative of a tired hockey team.
The disparity in energy levels can be particularly striking when talking about one of the NHL’s oldest teams (the Boston Bruins) facing one of the league’s youngest teams (the Buffalo Sabres).
“We’ve played a lot of hockey, so you can’t dwell on it. We need the points, and we didn’t get them,” said Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, who clearly saw a different brand of hockey than the six-game winning streak coming out of the NHL trade deadline. “Guys fell into different categories. You can make the assumption there [about fatigue], but on the whole it’s clearly not going to be good enough to win on most nights. Some of it was about us managing pucks and being cleaner and give them credit: Some of it was about them being a hungry team, they went to the net well, they shot [the puck] more and they were willing to block more shots.
“That’s what it takes to win. We had those blocks [on Thursday night] and some of our guys got hit pretty hard with some pucks. Those are the little things you’ve got to do to win hockey games in this league.”
Interestingly enough, the Stanley Cup playoffs might actually be easier in terms of schedule volume when it’s more of an every-other-day routine rather than the plethora of back-to-back games Boston has weathered down the stretch. Mix in that the majority of B’s players opted to get COVID-19 vaccine shots this week as well, and you can see exactly why this particular stretch might end up being the most difficult of the season.
“We may [see that], I guess. We’ve got to get in [the playoffs] first and then see what they give us. In the playoffs you are staying in the same city kind of like in this regular season, so you get accustomed to that. It might for players be less taxing than some of the stretches here,” said Cassidy, who gave the Bruins an off-day on Saturday ahead of Sunday’s matinee in Pittsburgh. “But who knows? They might schedule back-to-backs in the playoffs. They weren’t shy about doing that in the bubble last summer. I guess it depends on the timeline. How far are we pushed back when we do get going? Are we pushed back at all?
“Have we made up the ground [with makeup games] to just get going [once playoffs begin], play every other night, no back-to-backs and you just get your typical day for travel etc. I don’t know. We’re going into the unknown this year, but I could see where you could say [the playoff schedule might be] a little easier than some of those days where you were playing five games in a week. That’s probably never going to happen again in the NHL.”
Normally the Bruins have the kind of goaltending and roster depth to avoid prolonged fatigue during the regular season, and that will be the hope down the stretch this season as well.
Certainly, nobody wants to hear excuses from an NHL team about the grueling schedule they’re enduring when it includes five-star hotels, charter flights and all the accoutrements of being an NHL player. But there is a loneliness on the road this season that goes along with the stringent COVID protocols and more games packed into a tighter window of time than ever before during the NHL regular season.
For creatures of habit like NHL players, all of this can occasionally throw things off-kilter. The Boston Bruins are smack dab in the middle of that regular season gauntlet right now, and just have to hope it doesn’t have any residual fatigue impact when the Stanley Cup playoffs kick off just a couple of weeks from now.