ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Lightning has today off, its third day in the past week without a practice.
No, it's not Club Med. Rather it's the coaches trying to avoid players turning into The Walking Dead.
When it comes to the daunting task of reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, there are several pitfalls. But Dan Bylsma, who coached the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Penguins, said the biggest challenge the following season is managing the players' energy levels.
"At some point, you're going to crash from the high of having success and playing so many games," said Bylsma, who now coaches the Sabres. "The surprising part, in 2009-10, was it happened somewhere in December.
"We were good in training camp. We (had) good energy levels in the first start of the year, and we got to December, and all of a sudden you had a group of walking zombies. Their energy level was so low."
The 2008-09 Penguins are the only team in the salary cap era (starting with the 2005-06 season) to win the Cup the year after losing in the final. Pittsburgh started off 2009-10 hot, going 12-3. But coming off back-to-back short offseasons, the Penguins then wore down, losing four of five in early November and six of seven around Christmas. They eventually lost in the second round of the playoffs.
The Lightning has struggled out of the gates this season, entering Saturday's game against the Wild 7-6-2, a record that includes a puzzling scoring slump and a four-game losing streak. There are many reasons for that, from a brutal schedule of 11 of the first 16 on the road to opposing teams giving the Lightning their best.
But with the Lightning yet to play a complete game, coach Jon Cooper is trying to feel the team's pulse — when to push, when to rest — in order to keep its focus sharp.
"(Bylsma) is absolutely right," Cooper said. "Until you go through it, you can sit here and talk to people about it and read articles on it, but nobody really knows the feeling of playing until the middle of June, coming up empty and then having to start right up again when everybody's had the summer off. Their batteries are able to recharge.
"It's when you come back, there's that excitement you're coming back to camp. It seems to end quickly, and all of a sudden, Game 10 feels like Game 40."
Captain Steven Stamkos said the coaching staff does a great job of giving the players the proper amount of rest and knowing "when to have tough practices, when to lay off."
"We have a lot of young guys, too," Stamkos said. "We should be as hungry as ever to come back this year and prove that we can do it again."
But the biggest issue is mental, said veteran center Valtteri Filppula, who was on the 2007-08 and 2008-09 Red Wings teams that went to back-to-back finals.
"You had a good playoff run that was the most exciting time. And now you're thinking you have to play 82 games really well to be able to have that chance to have a great time again," Filppula said.
The Lightning isn't the only team to go through this. As Cooper notes, most Cup final runnersup in the past decade got off to "mildly mediocre" starts the next season. The 2007-08 Senators were an exception. They were 13-2-0 in their first 15 games, but coach John Paddock was fired midseason and they were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
"We can't just play it off like, 'Okay, after Christmas, we'll just put on the afterburners and be fine,' " Stamkos said.
But how do you keep the players from getting burned out?
"We didn't have success," Bylsma said, "So I don't have the right answer for you."
The Lightning hopes it does.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.