The decision facing Derek Stepan and Steven Lorentz, staring down a long Saturday afternoon of nothing, was to stay in the hotel and hang out or meander through Manhattan like a couple of (very fit) tourists.
“We lost the last two we were here, so we may have to go for the walk in the city because we stayed in the hotel last time,” Stepan said. “Switch it up a little bit. Go people-watch for a little bit.”
These are the times that try a hockey player’s soul, when the team has a playoff game that night and the player does not.
Both Stepan and Lorentz have been in and out of the Carolina Hurricanes’ lineup this postseason, but barring food poisoning or some other catastrophe befalling a teammate, neither expected to be called upon for Saturday’s Game 6 against the New York Rangers.
So while the bus bearing their teammates back to the hotel for their meals and meetings and naps had long departed Madison Square Garden on Saturday, some already showered and dressed by the time Stepan and Lorentz and Ethan Bear had even left the ice, they still had an off-ice workout with strength coach Bill Burniston to complete before they could even contemplate how to kill the remaining six hours of the day before the late bus would leave the hotel to bring them back to the arena.
It’s not an issue Stepan, after more than 800 regular-season games, has much familiarity in addressing. He has typically, over the course of his career, been a regular in the lineup, no matter what time of year. Now he’s handling the dual burden of maintaining his physical condition and his mental edge at the same time.
The physical may be easier, with extra time on the ice and in the weight room. That is, as Stepan said, “science.” But the mental … after 12 seasons in the NHL, he’s still trying to figure that out.
“It’s difficult. I don’t think there’s a good, solid answer,” Stepan said. “Throughout the year I was trying to figure out ways and every day was kind of a day-by-day situation. It’s not an easy job and nobody wants to be in it, but in the world that we’re in, somebody has to on every team. You find ways on the ice, off the ice, just to kind of keep in it. But the only real way to get into it is to get back into it.”
Stepan got his chance during the Boston series when Jordan Martinook was injured, then was swapped out for Lorentz. With Martinook back, they’re both on the outside looking in. Bear, meanwhile, is still waiting for an opportunity, with the Hurricanes’ defense both healthy and performing well at the moment.
They have, at their varying ages — Stepan is 31, Lorentz 26, Bear 24 — defined game-day routines, preferred nap schedules, tics and preferences that may not be superstitions but probably amount to that in the end. Killing time on the road is an art, whether in the lineup or out, and veterans typically have it down to a science as well.
“Eight hundred and some odd games and I think I’ve napped for 800-some odd games,” Stepan said. “I don’t think there was a day I was in the lineup and didn’t have a pregame nap.”
They’re left to it on their own. The assistant coaches stay out with them on the ice for the extra work, but they’ve got an afternoon of film and planning ahead. And to the head coach, they’re barely his concern in the hours leading up to a game.
“It’s tough,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I don’t do a lot (with them) on a game day. They know if they’re in or out. It’s a tough spot to be in when you’re a guy that doesn’t get to play, for sure. But I think everybody understands it’s not because they don’t deserve to be in, it’s just the health of everybody. When you have a healthy group, you have to have depth. Everybody knows they’re going to have their chance at some point. You’ve just got to stay ready.”
Not playing, in some ways, is harder than playing, especially when the games start to stretch on and out. At the beginning of the playoffs, Stepan tried to keep to his normal routine. Just in case. But there’s also a balance, because it’s prohibitively mentally draining to prepare every day as if you might play when you are not, but there’s also always that small chance something might change.
Most nights, things proceed as planned, which means watching the game in a suit in the press box. Occasionally, a scratched player will be told to be ready to take warm-ups, if a teammate is ailing. Whether they end up on the ice before the game or not, at least there’s that warning.
“It’s almost worse if you’re kind of in limbo like that, because it’s the what-if,” Lorentz said. “You’re so jacked up ready to play but you’re also nervous at the same time.”
Strange decisions lay ahead: To nap or not to nap. To walk or not to walk. The only one that mattered, to play or not to play, was out of their hands, again. Their wait, Saturday afternoon and perhaps beyond, goes on.