The Washington Capitals know it happens in other sports, but often, their best explanation is that hockey is just different. Defenseman Brooks Orpik has seen the San Antonio Spurs do it, and he wouldn’t dare question Coach Gregg Popovich’s methods. As someone who has played in 446 consecutive games, defenseman Karl Alzner struggles to understand it.
“I often hear that on the radio, that this guy is taking this day because he needs rest,” Alzner said. “I’m just like, ‘What are you talking about?’ That would just never cross my mind, to want to take a game because you need rest.”
Resting players in other sports is commonplace, especially for teams that have secured a postseason berth. In hockey, it’s taboo and rare, despite a bruising 82-game season. After becoming the NHL’s first team to clinch a playoff spot, the Capitals say they don’t intend to scratch any of their healthy stars.
Washington has 12 regular season games remaining, and the conversation will likely switch to whether star winger Alex Ovechkin should remain in the lineup after he has recently admitted that the undisclosed lower-body injury that kept him out of the All-Star Game is still bothering him. Beyond resting the last game or two of the regular season, it is unlikely Ovechkin stops playing, though rest may take on a different form.
“If they’re healthy, what I would consider game-worthy healthy, then they should play, and they should play hard,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I think when you start doing that, you’re asking for trouble. I really do. You’re going to battle. I’m a big Special-Ops guy; I really honor what they do. When they’re preparing for a mission, they’re not sitting back and going, ‘Oh, wait for the mission,’ and not prepare for it. They’re probably working as hard as they ever have because they want the mission to be easy. They don’t want it to become really hard that they can’t handle it.
“That’s what I would like our guys to have the mentality that let’s play hard, let’s play the right way, so when it comes to game time in the playoffs, it’s not a shock to our system that, ‘God, this is hard.’ I want it to be: ‘Okay, we’ve been here. Let’s do this. Let’s get it done. Yeah, it’s ramped up, and we’re okay.’ Trust what we’ve prepared for, and you know you’ve put yourself in the best place to succeed. If anybody has that thought that, ‘I’m just going to float through this part,’ then they’re absolutely wrong and they’re setting themselves up to fail.”
Orpik flipped on an NBA game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Cleveland Cavaliers this past week and saw star forward LeBron James on the bench in a suit, out of the lineup for rest. The Spurs are known most for it, with Popovich occasionally telling his veterans to take the night off. Despite both sports playing 82-game seasons, just 28 NBA players played every game last year, and only 10 of them averaged at least 30 minutes a game. Eighty-five NHLers played in every game.
Orpik had a similarly strong reaction as Trotz. When Orpik and fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen played for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013-14, Coach Dan Bylsma started resting star players in the last month of the season, including Orpik and Niskanen. That team had won the Metropolitan Division, but it then lost to the New York Rangers in the second round after initially taking a 3-1 series lead.
“It’s just like coming off an injury: You can practice all you want, and it’s just so different than being in the game,” Orpik said. “Me personally, I think you can reduce guys’ minutes, but you’ve got to keep them in the flow of the game and keep them up with the speed of the game. You always hear guys talk about the speed of the game and you’ll hear people talk about now it’s even up another notch in the playoffs. So if you go from just practicing and not playing any games to all of a sudden saying, ‘Okay, I’m just going to turn the switch on,’ you can’t do it. In Pittsburgh, we did it a little bit, and we had some ugly starts to some series, and I think it was directly attributed to that.”
Players preached the importance of staying in a rhythm, that one game off even when you’re still practicing may not seem like much, but you can feel it. If one player was rested and his linemates or defense partner weren’t, then the timing and chemistry may be off just from that short break.
Take the January blizzard that blanketed Washington and led to two postponements. The combination of the snow and the all-star break meant the Capitals played one game in two weeks. With too much rest, their record in February coming out of the break was still 10-4, but eight of their wins were by one goal.
“After that, we slowed down quite a bit and we weren’t blowing teams out,” Alzner said. “Things were harder for us, probably because things got more serious for other teams, too, and that might have had something to do with it. You have a big bump in the road, and it’s hard to get back from it.”
Orpik has heard coaches refer to “active rest,” chuckling at the oxymoron. Instead of giving players a game or two off, minutes might just become more balanced. For the top lines and defense pairs that often log the heftiest ice time, their minutes could be reduced if a focus on matchups is abandoned.
“I just think in hockey, there’s such a big timing element to it that if guys go from playing 20 minutes to, say, 17 or 16 minutes, I think that’s enough rest right there,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “You don’t really need much more than that. If you sit out full games the timing starts to go away, and the game is so fast these days, you can’t simulate it in practice or just by resting.”