TORONTO – The bubble is working so well, it’s incredible.
The bubble is working so well, for some, it might just be intolerable.
Each Monday the National Hockey League announces the weekly number of positive COVID-19 tests among the thousands administered. Each Monday, for three weeks running, that number has been zero.
The virus can’t squeeze in. And — barring elimination, serious injury, or a difficult personal decision that’ll leave you open to some insensitive takes — the players can’t duck out.
“That’s the biggest thing that’s probably not getting talked about enough. It’s the biggest thing that wasn’t talked about enough when the format came out,” Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday, prior to an epic 4-3 Game 4 collapse at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
“It sounded all great four months ago just to get back to playing. But this, to me, was going to be the greatest challenge. Everybody wants to play. We’d play on the street if we had to. Everybody is dealing with the same. It’s not (only) the players. Everyone who’s here, we feel it. It’s a long time to be away. We’ve been away now three weeks, and we’ve played three playoff games.”
Life in the tightly monitored, snitch-hotline-equipped NHL bubble has been described by some inside as a “posh prison.” Breakfast buffets straight out of Ron Swanson’s dreams. High-tech golf simulators. Touch football at BMO Field. All the poker hands, spikeball and Fortnite tournaments a big kid can handle.
Awesome thing is, you get to hang with the boys and talk and watch and play hockey 24/7.
Challenging thing is, it’s hockey 24/7.
“Here, there’s no getting away from it. Anytime you’re at the hotel, there’s a lot of downtime to think about what happened. There’s hockey on TV all day long. So that’s one of the challenges we’re facing,” said Torey Krug, defenceman for the Bruins and father to one-year-old Saylor.
“It’s tough. We’re reaching the point of these playoffs where it’s wearing on you — not seeing your family, your kids, your wife. It’s starting to kinda wear on you.”
Krug and the Bruins have taken centre stage in recent days regarding the case for bubble fatigue.
Their Vezina-finalist goaltender, Tuukka Rask, left Toronto hours before Saturday’s Game 3 victory to be with his young family, granted the blessing of the organization.
“We’re here as one family. There are things more important than hockey in life,” assured Rask’s battery mate, Jarsolav Halak. (The veteran backup has supported the cause the best way possible, posting back-to-back Ws, giving Boston a 3-1 stranglehold on the series.)
The drain that comes parcelled with sport’s hardest trophy to lift has hit later in the calendar, but earlier in the tournament than usual.
What’s always been a physical war of attrition has been complicated by an elevated mental test.
To think: We’re only halfway through Round 1, and the cracks are showing.
“This whole bubble thing,” said Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, after his own tough loss Monday, “it’s about who wants to stay. You can tell who wants to stay and who wants to go home. For this game, it looked like we wanted to go home.”
In this Boston-Carolina rematch of the 2019 Eastern Conference final, the Bruins have now endured three consecutive games without Rocket Richard co-winner David Pastrnak.
On Monday, the sudden 4-seed white-knuckled its way through some twine-bulging shots Halak would like back, then mounted a championship-calibre third-period comeback in which it pounded four unanswered goals through James Reimer and made the net sing like it was 2013 all over again.
Gutted Carolina leader Justin Williams, life sucked out of his gaze, said: “It was, quite frankly, as ugly as a period I’ve seen us play.”
Adding injury to insult, the rally was ignited when Charlie McAvoy rocked Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal with a hit so hard, it would give anyone with concussion history pause. (There was no immediate health update on Staal.)
“It really demoralizes the other team. When one of your veteran players, a leader in your room, or really a respected player in this league, takes a good, hard, clean hit,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.
“So it affected us positively, and probably them in a negative manner. They lose a guy that’s a shutdown centreman and had been doing a real good job against (Patrice Bergeon)’s line that game, so for us it really helped.”
Brind’Amour spoke post-game as if he’d let everyone with a Raleigh mailing address down.
“Even taking over as coach, I wanted to make people who support this organization proud of how we play. I think we’ve done that for most of the time being here, and today we didn’t. And that’s the most disturbing thing for me,” said Brind’Amour, assuming blame for not preparing his guys for the onslaught that would come in the final 20.
“Win or lose, you gotta be proud of how you play — and that didn’t happen tonight.”
Yes, the Hurricanes made fast work of the New York Rangers in the qualification round, but they’ve now been tasked with the unenviable hurdle of generating offence with their top post-season scorer, Andrei Svechnikov, watching from the near-empty stands. The sniper’s right foot twisted in slushy ice late in Game 3 and has since been jammed in a boot that rises halfway up his right shin.
Now they might be down Staal and, worse, that plucky confidence that can make the Jerks look like giant-topplers.
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) August 18, 2020
Picking up the pieces and defeating the Presidents’ Trophy winners thrice in a row, starting with a Wednesday-Thursday back-to-back?
That’s a tall order. Surely, in the idle moments, the mind will wander beyond the bubble, to home.
“Guys are feeling it. It’s a long road,” Brind’Amour said.
“The team that can hunker down the best and mentally channel all your positive energy to why we’re here is the team that’s probably gonna be able to hoist the Cup when it’s all done.”