It might seem backwards to think that injuries could actually have a positive long-term impact on the Pittsburgh Penguins this year, given their clear Stanley Cup aspirations. It's that end-game goal of a fourth championship banner that makes Pittsburgh's struggles with various traumas and losses a good thing moving forward though.
Going back to last season, only three teams have played more hockey than these Penguins. Because of this, the "rest" that the injuries provide will eventually favor the squad as they attempt to make another run at the Stanley Cup.
The lockout condensed the 2012-13 regular season, making the string of contests more of a sprint-like gauntlet than a normal long-haul regular season.
From January 19 to April 27, the Penguins played through their 48-game schedule. That's an average of a contest nearly every other day—or 48 games in 98 days. They were then given three days off before the postseason began. In the opening round, Pittsburgh played a game every other night until May 11, when the New York Islanders finally gave way in Game 6.
The Penguins earned two days of rest before heading to the conference semifinal against the Ottawa Senators. That second-round series ran from May 14 to May 24—Pittsburgh eventually prevailed through five games.
After that, the Boston Bruins made quick work of the Penguins, downing them in four straight contests. That's another handful of games to add to the total, though. With Pittsburgh's entire 2012-13 campaign (including the postseason) running from January 19 to June 7, the team played 63 games in 136 days.
Or an average of a contest nearly every other night for almost half a year.
That grueling schedule led into an offseason that gave Pittsburgh 96 days to rest up and do their normal summer workout routines before reporting back for physicals on September 11. Like the 2012-13 season—but to a lesser extent—the 2013-14 schedule was compressed because of the NHL's participation in the Olympics.
No games will be played from February 9 through 25. The regular season schedule will resume on the 26th. The bronze medal game will go down on February 22, while the Gold Medal game will be played on February 23, and it seems safe to assume that at least two or three of Pittsburgh's participants will see action on those days.
That means that they'll have all of four days to recover from the intense Olympic tourney before facing off against the Montreal Canadiens in Pittsburgh on February 27. Then there's another 23 games to be played before the playoffs start over again.
If that seems like an awful lot of hockey in a short amount of time, that's because it is. Seven of Pittsburgh's top players will be giving it their all in Sochi while vying for gold. Olympic hockey isn't akin to All-Star game hockey. Games can get chippy and emotions run high.
Like the rest of the teams in the NHL, the Penguins are dealing with condensed schedules within condensed schedules at this point. The lockout made the 2012-13 season compact and pushed forward, which crunched the offseason a bit. Teams are forced to play catch-up again because of the Olympics this year, and they face some long stretches without breaks or time off.
This is why the Penguins may have an advantage once the postseason begins this year. According to ManGamesLost.com, Pittsburgh has lost 289 games to injury so far this season—far and away the most in the league.
While it's true that rehabbing from, say, a broken tibia isn't a vacation, the fact is that a lot of Pittsburgh's most important players have taken in more games while wearing suits than they have while wearing sweaters.
Anytime a player is close to returning from an injury, you'll hear the refrain about how being in practice shape is very different from being in game shape. That's because these contests require way more energy and mental exertion than bouncing back from various afflictions or taking part in practices.
The last time the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, only three of their top-10 postseason scorers played a full 82-game season. Sidney Crosby missed a bit of time, while Ruslan Fedotenko, Sergei Gonchar, Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy each missed a chunk of time because of injury.
That isn't to say that they were only effective because of the games that they missed, but it certainly helps things when your top puck-moving defender hasn't played his 40th game of the year until the conference final.
Pittsburgh could end up in that same position again this season. Early on in the year, the defense missed significant time with injuries. Now that same ferocious bug is chewing through the forward core. If the team ends up getting healthy just in time for the playoffs, it will be a positive thing.
Their top-end players will have potentially played less hockey than most of other Cup-contending counterparts. Considering the margin for victory is so slim in the postseason, that little bit of extra energy for the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang could be the difference between winning a series and losing it.
The injuries have also allowed the Penguins to become more familiar with what they have depth wise as an organization.
Would Olli Maatta be on the team at all if Letang had been able to start the regular season on time? Probably not. Players that normally wouldn't be asked to play important minutes have been forced into roles that were believed to be outside of their respective skill sets, and the team as responded incredibly well to a man.
Matt Niskanen is another prime example of a player that Pittsburgh now knows it can rely on in crunch situations. He wasn't considered a guy that could step into a top-four role prior to the start of the year. Now the Penguins know that he can answer that call.
Ditto for Joe Vitale, who has been a physical engine for the team while abrasive players like Tanner Glass have toiled on the IR.
While the regular season is going according to plan for the Penguins in the standings, they aren't playing for another division banner. They want the Cup, and whether it seems like it or not, they are actually a step closer to achieving that goal because of the early-season struggles with injuries.