The regular season put a remarkable strain on the human body. For the players who play a lot of minutes night in and night out, it is important to make sure they take care of their bodies so they have enough left in the tank for the post season. They took this approach last season as well, after it became clear they were going to win the Presidents’ Trophy.
This is generally regarded as a smart move; give players time to recover when your position is pretty much set and let them prepare for when games start to really “matter” again. In theory it is the best way to go, but it doesn’t necessarily work the way it should.
Right now, Alex Ovechkin, Jason Arnott, and Mike Green are all out for the Capitals. Each of those players has had a key role on the team, both on the ice and with the chemistry of the team. All three have played precious roles on the power play, a unit that was shut out (along with the rest of the offense) by Ottawa Friday night.
The last few games before the playoffs should be used to fine-tune the team and the systems. It is difficult to do that with key players out of the lineup. There is certainly something to be said for rust, and the first round isn’t the time to shake rust. When you’re a team with first-round issues that needs to make a statement about its playoff viability, it’s really not the time to be shaking off rust.
The last two seasons, the Capitals have rested their top players prior to the second season starting. Last season it didn’t seem to phase them, but in the 2009 first round series against the Rangers, they fell into a quick 3-1 hole. They appeared unprepared for the series. In both years, they lost their first playoff game in sloppy fashion.
There has been similar concern in other sports as well. In the 2009 NFL season, the Indianapolis Colts were undefeated through 14 games. They rested their starters the last two games in preparation for the playoffs. The strategy appeared to work out for them, as they made it to the Super Bowl.
Granted, football and hockey are very different sports with different needs. Hockey has much more flow, and getting out of game shape is more of a concern. Football has a much higher probability of serious injury, so keeping starters away from danger is more of a concern.
With mixed results, it seems as though preparation by resting players may have less of an effect than everyone assumes. It may even hurt team flow and rhythm in the process. However, if the key players are out in the playoffs because of injuries that had been going on a while, it doesn’t matter much that they were able to prepare with the team. Ultimately, the players need to be healthy. But, it may not be the best message to send to the other players that these final 6 games don’t matter when tuning up for what may be the most pressure-filled playoff series of their careers.