Blue Jackets race to finish line with NHL’s busiest schedule
"Adrenaline is really kicking in right now. This is what they live for and what they play for — these are exciting times for them."
That was Columbus Blue Jackets strength and conditioning coach Kevin Collins, responding to a question about possible fatigue, as the Blue Jackets sprint to the end of the regular season playing what seems to be a game every day.
It isn’t quite that kind of pace, but it’s close. Beginning with Tuesday’s last regular-season home game against Phoenix, Columbus finishes with four games in five nights, this coming in a sport that requires a grueling amount of aerobic capacity sprinkled with an abundance of physicality for success to be realized.
How will they stay fresh playing a contact sport that many times over such a brief stretch of days?
"Obviously, rest and nutrition are huge," said Collins. "We’re trying to provide as much food here (at Nationwide Arena) as we can. That’s not taking away from anything that they may have at home, but it makes it more convenient for them to eat something here, then go home and eat again. The more proper foods they can get in them, the better. And Richie (head coach Todd Richards) is doing a really good job scheduling optional skates, giving guys rest where it’s needed.
"But at the same time, there are guys that aren’t playing that do need to put in the work, so it’s kind of a ‘you do what you need to do to prepare yourself,’" he continued. "And that applies, as well, to different recovery methods. Some guys might like a cold tub, where somebody else wants a massage. There are different techniques that guys have found work best for them."
To a man, the players downplay the compressed schedule. According to defenseman Jack Johnson, the ability to handle this seemingly arduous final push is just an extension of the maintenance players have been practicing for the past six months.
"Most of it is just the preparation you’ve had up to this point to get you through it," he explained. "If you’ve been taking care of yourself all season, working out in the weight room and everything, you should be fine."
Forward Mark Letestu says a lot of it is just a mindset.
"Words like ‘tired’ or ‘fatigued,’ you’ve got to get those out of your mind," he noted. "It’s four games to make the playoffs — it doesn’t matter if it’s five days or 10 days, maximum effort has to be there. We have plenty of bodies here that are rested and are willing to come in and give us fresh legs. So you have to be focused. We’re paid professionals — if it’s four in five, you’ve got to be able to throw the hard hat on and go to work."
Letestu credits his wife, Brett, for allowing him to get his rest when he’s at home, even with a young family.
"Family life certainly helps," he said. "Having a wife that knows the situation and takes care of things so you can get your rest has been a key for me.
"It’s also important to keep an even keel," he added. "Frustration is a draining emotion, so it’s best to keep an even keel no matter how things are going. Keeping your mind at ease goes a long way in recovering energy."
Collins called sleep a primary factor in recovery and also paid tribute to the wives of those players with young children at home.
"The wives deserve some credit for that, because I’m sure they’re keeping the babies quiet and giving the guys a chance to get as much rest as they can. Sleep is critical. That’s where a lot of the recovery process occurs, so we try and schedule things early to let guys get a full eight to nine hours of sleep. You try to respect that, and Richie’s been doing a really good job structuring their days to allow for proper rest."
Whatever they’ve been doing, it seems to be working. The Columbus Blue Jackets continue to draw rave reviews around the NHL for their collective energetic and relentless style. It’s been impressive to watch, considering the frenetic pace of the schedule, and Collins said part of is simply young legs.
"One, we’re a really young team, so the guys can bounce back pretty quickly," he noted. "And, two, that’s the makeup of our team. It’s just a hard-working group. Management has done a really good job of putting together the players that have those characteristics."
Good to hear, because there is still a lot of hard work to be done.