SPORTS

Playoff back-to-backs a rarity with different kinds of challenges

05/07/2015 03:18 EDT | Updated 05/07/2016 05:59 EDT
TAMPA, Fla. - Back-to-back games are a regular-season reality in hockey. In the playoffs, they're a rarity.

The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning finish the first back-to-back set of these Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday night at Amalie Arena. It's the result of a previous scheduling conflict with a motorcycle stunt show that made the NHL jump through hoops to set up games on consecutive nights.

"I can't say I'm a big fan of back-to-backs, especially in the playoffs," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "But when it is back-to-back and both teams are playing in those games, it's probably not an advantage to anyone."

With the Lightning up three games to none in the series, they have the edge. In 2011 they used this same circumstance — back-to-back games because of a graduation ceremony at the arena — to finish off the Washington Capitals in a second-round sweep to move on to the Eastern Conference final.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper pointed to American Hockey League experience as preparation for this. The AHL often has three games in three days, and the Lightning are full of players who thrived in those spots.

Goaltender Ben Bishop has done the AHL gauntlet before, but he didn't play two full games on back-to-back nights this season. He brushed it off and so did his coach.

"Ben's played three in three in the American League," Cooper said. "He's done the old Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and played all three, so this won't be new to him."

It's not really new to any NHL player, given the frequency of back-to-back games in the regular season. Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman were part of last year's New York Rangers team that played five games in seven days.

"(We're) athletes that train really hard and have a lot of information and technology to help us recover," Boyle said. "We're smart enough to know nutrition, and we're fortunate enough to play professional sports, so we'd better be able to recover and play well on back-to-back nights."

Habs defenceman P.K. Subban said back-to-back games in the playoffs provide a test for who trained well last summer.

"I like it. I just like playing a lot," Subban said. "So you figure we play one game, not a lot of time to rest, go back out there and play."

But to borrow an old Yogi Berra line about baseball, hockey is sometimes 90 per cent mental and the other half physical.

Former winger Mike Knuble, who was on that 2011 Capitals team that the Lightning swept, said it was difficult to go from being on the verge of getting back into the series to out in 27 hours.

"Things really escalated fast in a negative way," Knuble said in a phone interview Wednesday.

The same happened for Montreal after losing Game 3 on Tyler Johnson's goal with 1.1 seconds left. That's even more of a rarity, as it was just the fourth time in NHL playoff history that a game was decided with under two seconds left in regulation.

That kind of demoralizing ending adds another variable to the Habs' precarious situation.

But from a psychological standpoint, Knuble said playoff games on back-to-back nights are a better place for adrenaline than too much over-thinking.

"Some players will find that when you do play back-to-back like that in a stressful situation, you never really snap out of game mode," Knuble said Wednesday in a phone interview. "Going game-to-game you're on a temporary permanent state of being jacked up."

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