Sometimes your team has bad injury luck, sometimes you have a few guys suspended, but at some point in every season, your team is going to find itself shorthanded. For a minor league player, this is the glorious call-up phase of the schedule where opportunity flocks like the salmon of Capistrano.
It usually takes until around Christmas to get there, and suddenly you find that guys who used to log six minutes of ice time a game are getting 16. That’s gonna be a problem if it goes on for too long.
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, the injury bug bit them during the first 2-3 weeks of the season where they play a whopping 10 games, the most in the league by two. As they keep winning, I can’t stop myself from thinking: is that team just really damn good?
When your fill-in guys start playing more minutes, a few things happen: for one, they’re fired up. They know it’s a big opportunity to show “hey coach, if you always use me this much, I’ll be a better player for you.”
Secondly, they actually do play better for awhile. You can’t get into a rhythm playing two minutes a period. Every time you step onto the ice it feels like you’re trying to sprint across a busy freeway. You’ve been standing on the curb for way too long.
So you have excited, motivated guys giving it their all, filling the holes and carrying your team through in the absence of stars.
But as it is in almost all walks of life, eventually people start to take things for granted. That, and nobody can stay throttle-down forever. With laziness and less preparation, mental errors start to creep in.
Also creeping in is the fact that most guys who play six minutes a game do so for a reason. When I was a rookie call-up in Bridgeport, the Isles had a rash of injuries, meaning more AHL guys were sent up. I spent a few games with better linemates and more minutes. I scored and played pretty damn well at first. But the longer I was asked to play those minutes, the more I got exposed. I was a rookie that wasn’t good enough to keep up my initial balls-to-the-wall pace.
The same things are supposed to happen in the NHL, but with Pittsburgh….they just keep winning.
Dan Bylsma is obviously a great coach, but that can only take a team so far. You can’t just plug 18 bloggers into Bylsma’s system and get it done. At some point, we have to stop and acknowledge that at 6-2-2 and without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the uber-dominant Washington Capitals might have cause to be nervous about the black and gold when they’re at full power.
The drop-off you expected to see by now is past due. Maybe their roster is really that good, and it isn’t coming. A scary thought.
The guys seeing the increased minutes have been money so far. It’s about that time where we find out if they can keep it up, or if those soft spots on the lineup card will start to be exposed soon.