TAMPA, Fla. — It will all come out in the end. It’ll come out in the giddy wake of a championship, players suddenly feeling no pain as they deliriously talk about playing through a shoulder sprain, or a groin pull, or a broken finger, or a bruised foot. And it’ll come out in the gloomy quiet of the losers’ dressing room, deflated players lamenting a back injury, or a fractured rib, or a knee contusion, or a hip flexor.
Everyone’s hurting. But nobody’s talking. Not yet.
“Everyone’s banged up,” said Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who conspicuously hasn’t been taking faceoffs in the Stanley Cup Final. “When you play this long —I think it’s 104 games, already —you’re going to be bumped up a little bit. But it doesn’t matter right now. It’s the Stanley Cup. There’s a maximum of three games left, and then you’ve got all summer to rest.”
There’s nothing quite like the Stanley Cup playoffs, a grueling two-month slog that takes as big a physical toll as it does a mental toll. All those faceoff slashes, all those open-ice hits, all those board battles, all those punishing forechecks — they all add up. Guys who moments earlier were flying around the ice are slowly limping around the dressing room after games. Bloody lips and eyebrows from the first round never get a chance to fully heal; scar tissue is just another part of a players’ uniform at this stage. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s not even always all that fun.
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. With the series tied 2-2 entering Saturday’s Game 5 in Tampa, there are two, maybe three games left. That’s it. And that makes it a lot easier to cope.
“At the most three games left to do something great,” said Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose body is battered and bruised from the 185 times he’s thrown himself in front of an opposing shot, 58 in the playoffs alone. “It’s pretty easy to be motivated and forget that stuff.”
The Blackhawks have been fortunate; they’re as healthy as can be reasonably expected at this late stage. It helps that they’ve gotten a couple of breaks in the schedule —five days off after the first round and nine days off after the second round, and the extra day off between Games 4 and 5 of the Final couldn’t have come at a better time for either team.
But they’re not 100 percent. Not by a long shot. But nobody is. You could see the lag in everyone’s stride when Kris Versteeg —after playing just one game in more than six weeks — hopped on the ice for Game 1, looking fresh and fast by comparison.
Marcus Kruger scored the game-winner in triple-overtime of Game 2 of the Western Conference final, but didn’t take a single faceoff the next game, and has had his share of so-called “maintenance days.” Kruger is routinely plastered along the boards as he works for the puck against bigger players. It’s a mental battle to overcome the physical pain, but a sacrifice he’s more than willing to make.
“Everyone is playing through bruises and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s only three games left. You’re going to do everything to get through these games. No one wants to miss a game now.”
It takes something extraordinary to keep a player out at this point. That’s why Ben Bishop’s scratch in Game 4 was surprising, even for those who watched him struggle simply to stand up throughout a remarkable and gutty Game 3 victory. It took the loss of feeling in his foot for Marian Hossa to finally pull himself from the lineup for a game in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final after dealing with a painful nerve issue in his back throughout the playoffs.
Kruger said having gone through the grind before helps build that mental toughness. Andrew Desjardins, going through a full four rounds for the first time, can see why.
“It’s a grind,” he said. “It’s a battle every night, and it’s what’s expected. This isn’t something you just stride through, and go through really easily. It’s going to be tough every night.”
But it’s worth it. Oh, how it’s worth it.
If you win, that is.
“This is what you play for, right?” Kruger said. “You want to be in these kinds of games. And in the end, the reward’s going to be worth everything.”