RALEIGH — Rod Brind’Amour is in his fourth season as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only one of his first three years resulted in a full 82-game schedule.
After playing 56 regular season games last season and 68 the year before, the Hurricanes are 50 games into this season but still have 32 to go before the playoffs.
“It’s very noticeable,” Brind’Amour said on Valentine’s Day after his team had followed a weeklong break with four games in six days. “Coming out of this little break, it kind of felt like, ‘Hey, we should be getting near the end.’ And then you look up and go, ‘Wait a minute: It’s not even close to the end.’ We’re just kind of halfway home.”
While the league is back to its usual number of games, 2021-22 has been nothing but normal. The break built into the schedule for players to compete in the Winter Olympics meant condensing the 82 games into a tighter window. And even when the NHL backed out of Beijing due to COVID-19, the number of games that had been postponed due to the virus quickly filled up any breathing room the schedule might have had.
Carolina just played three games in four nights, winning all three, before getting a brief respite with three days without games from Tuesday through Thursday. There are two more three-day windows for rest and recovery — March 7-9 and March 14-16 — but otherwise, the schedule is a blitzkrieg of games until the regular season finale April 28.
Starting with Friday’s home game against Columbus, the Hurricanes will play 32 games in 63 days. There are six sets of back-to-back games, and all of them are part of three games in four nights.
Next week, Carolina will play four games, starting at home against Edmonton on Sunday with trips to Detroit and Washington on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. Then the Penguins will be waiting for them in Raleigh on Friday. The Hurricanes will play at least three games in all nine of the season’s remaining weeks, and in four of those weeks they’ll play four games.
While veterans like Jordan Staal — who has played all 82 games five times in his career — know what it’s like to grind through a full schedule, it’s different for several of the Hurricanes’ younger players.
“Actually, I’ve never played 82 games before,” Martin Necas said. “This is my third season and first full season in the NHL, which is just kind of weird. It’s exciting. It’s a long season. You have ups and downs as a player (and) as a team, for sure.”
Brind’Amour seems to worry the least about his younger guys, shrugging aside a question about 19-year-old rookie Seth Jarvis perhaps hitting the proverbial “rookie wall.”
“Everyone talks about that, young guys getting used to it,” Brind’Amour said. “Young guys are the guys that have all the energy. They’re the guys that don’t have nothing else to do but play hockey. They don’t have families to worry about. They’re the ones that I think can just plow through it.”
This is also the time of year that injuries often start mounting — and they have for the Hurricanes.
Carolina has had players leave each of the last three games. Vincent Trocheck exited Friday’s home game against Nashville but was able to play the back-to-back games in Pennsylvania.
On Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Brendan Smith went down to block a shot and was hit in the head with the puck. He left the game and did not play Monday. Then in Philadelphia, Tony DeAngelo did not return after suffering an upper-body injury.
It’s all part of navigating the NHL’s treacherous 82-game regular season that Brind’Amour knows will challenge the body but even more so the mind.
“The great teams find a way to just keep going, keep playing the same way,” Brind’Amour said. “And that’s the hard part of hockey. It’s not physically for me. It’s not a physical demand because guys get enough rest. No, it’s that mentally answering the bell every night. That’s the challenge.”