Bubble fatigue cited as mental challenge during NHL playoffs

The hotels might be posh, their amenities and service first rate, and yet life inside the NHL’s two playoff bubbles isn’t exactly glamorous.

Having spent nearly a month cooped up at the tunnel-connected hotel-arena complex in Edmonton, Alberta, Rick Bowness acknowledged there’s times he’s had to coax himself to step outside to bask in the sun and breathe in some fresh, non-filtered air.

”If people think living in a bubble is great, it’s tough. It’s mentally tough. And everyone’s making the best of it.” the Stars interim coach said after Dallas advanced to the second round with Game 6 victory over Calgary last week.

”It’s not your typical playoffs. It’s not, where, OK, you play, you jump in your car and you go home or whatever. It’s none of that. It’s play, go back to your room,” Bowness said, beginning to laugh. ”This isn’t as easy as you think it is.”

Bowness emphasized he wasn’t complaining, but simply noting the challenges that come with the NHL’s most unique of playoffs, which haven’t yet reached the halfway mark in a bid to award the Stanley Cup by early October – or sooner.

”Listen,” he said. ”Until you live in this, you have no idea what we’re doing, what we’re going through.”

The potential for NHL bubble fatigue is real.

The close confines, daily COVID-19 testing, lack of freedom to venture beyond the security fences surrounding hotels and arenas in Edmonton and Toronto, and the separation from family can weigh heavily on everyone. Teams have access to outdoor stadiums in both cities, and the NHL has also arranged golf outings on off days, in which players are bused to and from the facilities with no access to those outside the bubble.

”It’s hard when you’re in that type of environment because it’s almost like you’re in prison,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman after Chicago was eliminated by Colorado in five games in the first round.

”When the pandemic hit, you could still leave your house, you could walk outside and get some fresh air,” Bowman added. ”But here, I think it’s the mental toll that you’re kind of trapped. You can’t go anywhere. And over time, it does start to get to you.”

Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet noted the bubble-related challenges during his team’s three-week stay, which ended with back-to-back 7-1 losses to Colorado.

”It’s basically monotonous every day. We had two-and-half blocks with nothing to really do other than hockey. This is where mental will comes in,” Tocchet said. ”The teams that go far, obviously you got to have the talent. But you also have to have the strong mental fortitude to get through that for sure.”

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press that the league is ”actively trying to minimize the length” of the playoffs ”in part due to the dynamics and constraints of ‘bubble life.”’

That was evident Friday, when the NHL scheduled the second round of the playoffs to open before the first round was complete. And with the conference and Cup finals set for Edmonton, the two East finalists will likely have only two days to acclimate to their new surroundings upon traveling from Toronto.

”We will continue to pursue all ‘move up’ opportunities aggressively as we go forward,” Daly wrote.

He added the NHL is still seeking approval from health authorities on whether family members will be allowed enter the bubble before or during the conference finals.

In noting the bubble challenges, Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand said players can also use them as motivation.

”We’re all sacrificing to be here, so I think the drive is there to want to make it all worth it,” Marchand said.

”So when you get on the ice, you want to win, because otherwise this whole thing is for nothing,” he said. ”It’ll be worth it if we win. So it’s that fear of losing, I guess, that kind of drains you mentally, and being away from the family.”

Teams arrived at their hub cities on July 26, before playing an exhibition game, followed by a two-part preliminary round. The bottom 16 teams competed in a best-of-five elimination series, while each conference’s top four teams played a round-robin tournament to determine seeding.

The first round began on Aug 11 and lasted just 11 days.

There were no series sweeps in the first round for just the fourth time since the 2005 lockout, with no series going the maximum seven games – the first time that’s happened in the first round since 2001.

Overall, a combined 43 games were played, which matched the second-lowest total since 41 games were needed to complete the first round in 2000.

Though it’s unclear what those numbers reflect, Bowness said the notable momentum swings within a series or even a game were ”absolutely” the result of life in the bubble.

Columbus and Toronto each rallied from three-goal deficits during their preliminary round series. Dallas did the same in a series-deciding 7-3 win over the Flames.

”The way we’re living and playing, that’s going to lead to a lot of emotional swings,” Bowness said. ”Give our guys credit, they battled back.”

In a bid to break the monotony, Bowness scheduled a mandatory fun day for the Stars at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on Friday.

”We need to get out of the hotel. We need a mental break,” he said.

The players repaid Bowness with a 5-3 series-opening win over Colorado a day later. The only drawback was Bowness and his staff couldn’t join in because they had to spend Friday at the hotel prepping for the Avalanche.

”It would’ve been a good day for us to get out with them, but hey, that didn’t happen,” Bowness said. ”And we knew when we came into this bubble, you roll with the punches.”

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.