Alex Pietrangelo, Victor Hedman, Kris Letang and Brent Burns stymie stars, quarterback power plays, kill penalties and eat minutes when stakes are highest.
This story appears in the May 23, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
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From his perch behind the Blues’ bench, assistant coach Brad Shaw easily recognizes the signs that Alex Pietrangelo wants back into the game. First comes the fidgeting. Next, the defenseman might rise and jiggle his legs, partially to stay loose, partially to let Shaw know, All right, joke’s over; that’s long enough. If time continues to pass—on the order of seconds, keep in mind—Pietrangelo might fling an impatient stare at his position coach. “There will be the occasional head turn if he doesn’t hear his name or number,” Shaw says, laughing. “He’s like a thoroughbred at the starting gates.”
To be clear, none of this bothers the Blues. Quite the contrary, in fact. They cherish Pietrangelo’s limitless energy—his steady chatter on the ice; the occasional postvictory dance in the dressing room; what winger Ryan Reaves calls “that s--- eating grin.” And since no one in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs has skated more than Pietrangelo, whose total postseason workload eclipsed seven hours during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals earlier this week, such tics let the Blues know he has plenty left in the tank. “I don’t know how he’s always in a good mood playing 30 minutes a game,” Reaves says. “If that was me, I’d be in bed every day, miserable.”
Welcome to the postseason plight of the NHL’s premier blueliners. Through the first two rounds five defensemen had averaged 29-plus minutes per game, a workload only Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (28:58) and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter (28:36) sniffed during the regular season. Now that the field is down to the final four—Pittsburgh–Tampa Bay in the East and St. Louis–San Jose out West—even greater responsibility will fall to Pietrangelo and his peers. Between the increased physicality, shortened benches and the high-end offensive talent left, they just might have the most difficult job on ice. “I personally don’t think about it that way,” Suter says. “But I wouldn’t disagree.”
Games in which Kris Letang hit the 30-minute mark in these playoffs, more than any other player.
Though they may share similar loads and responsibilities, these workhorses span the gamut of body types. Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman uses his 6' 6" frame to belt slap shots and frustrate opposing puckhandlers with his long reach. At 6 feet flat, on the other hand, Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang relies on sleek mobility and an endurance that teammate Ian Cole describes like this: “Obviously, Tanger is a freak.” In this way Letang more resembles Chicago’s Duncan Keith (6' 1", 192 pounds), whose whopping 31:28 average led defensemen in the entire first round, than San Jose’s resident Sasquatch, Brent Burns (6' 5", 230).
They all boast common traits, though—efficient skating, strong outlet passing abilities, the competitive desire for voluntary exhaustion, and tremendous value to their teams. Before the Penguins began their Eastern Conference finals with a home loss to Tampa, for instance, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford declared that he wouldn’t swap Letang for any other defenseman in the league. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, meanwhile, judged that the 31:07 Keith averaged last spring, when Chicago beat Tampa Bay in the Cup finals, was “one of the best performances by a D-man that I’ve ever witnessed.” Given that Yzerman played for years in Detroit with Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner and history’s gold standard of the clock-gobbling defenseman, this says a lot.
Teams have won with middling top-line centers, forgettable special teams and serviceable goaltending, but nearly every Cup-winning roster in the last decade has included a stud defenseman, including Keith, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year. And few carry more respect than those who kill penalties, quarterback power plays, anchor coverage, mark opposing top liners, and hurdle over the boards every second shift.
“It’s like the offensive lineman in football,” says retired defenseman Adam Foote, who averaged 28:22 during Colorado’s 2001 Cup run. “It’s so important, and it makes things work, but someone’s got to do it. Someone’s got to work in the mud.”
If Pietrangelo’s desires on the bench come through in subtle body language, Hedman is more obvious in expressing his moods. “It usually starts with a couple bad words, and then after that it might be a thrown water bottle or maybe a broken stick,” says Anton Stralman, a fellow Swede and Hedman’s usual defensive partner. “He blows his steam off, then he’s good to go. That’s a good thing about him. He lets it go after that point, refocuses and does his thing.”
Beyond the physical stamina required to handle the job of No. 1 defenseman—more on this later—the emotional fortitude to flush mistakes is just as critical. “That’s the tougher part,” Hedman says. “A lot on the line.” Letting out frustration helps him focus when it matters most. “These players doing it now, whether it’s Brent Burns or Kris Letang, you’ve got Victor, Pietrangelo, they’re smart players,” Yzerman says. “They don’t waste a ton of time getting caught up in arguments or pushing and shoving after the whistle.”
Postseason assists for Brent Burns, tops in the league and three more than any other blueliner this spring.
Though likely none can claim to be experts in physics, these NHL defensemen follow their own law of conservation of energy, knowing when to pick the right battles. “I was never an elite skater, but you can just figure how to get there, when to get there, how to bump a guy, when to bump him,” says Adrian Aucoin, who twice averaged more than 30 playoff minutes with the Islanders in the early 2000s. “You’re not going to see super physical D-men play a ton of minutes.” For similar reasons Blues coach Ken Hitchcock advised Pietrangelo to become “the fourth attacker” on the rush during St. Louis’s first-round win over Chicago, instead of spearheading the charge like he might during the regular season. “That’s when the risk is really high,” Hitchcock says. “So by moving the puck first, joining from behind, he uses his mobility as a real weapon.”
Indeed, during the seven-game series against the defending Cup champions, Pietrangelo was instrumental in limiting Blackhawks forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to six total points and one goal at 5-on-5. In the Western Conference semifinals, when Pietrangelo opposed Stars winger and Hart Trophy finalist Jamie Benn at even strength, St. Louis outattempted Dallas by 20. The biggest challenge, the defenseman says, comes from managing the natural peaks and valleys of a heavy workload. “You’re out there 30 minutes, you’re going to make mistakes, unfortunately,” Pietrangelo says. “Sometimes your body’s feeling good, but mentally you’re making mistakes because you’re tired and overextending yourself more than you need to.”
Shorthanded TOI averaged by Victor Hedman, just 25 fewer seconds than he spends on the power play.
Hedman, who anchored the Lightning with his 23:58 per game during their surge to the Cup finals last spring, was similarly outstanding during Tampa Bay’s second-round series this year against the Islanders, exploding for eight points in five games. In the clincher at Amalie Arena, the 25-year-old hammered two goals past netminder Thomas Griess, including a spin-and-shoot rocket from the slot that showcased surprising agility to go along with his unsuspected speed. On the other end Hedman excelled against Islanders captain John Tavares, who only managed one shot on goal that night—a 45-footer on the rush, far away from Hedman. “It’s frustrating to play against him, because you can beat him, [but] he can catch up to you,” Yzerman says. “At times it seems like he’s everywhere.”
Five days later the Lightning also snatched their series opener with the Penguins, 3–1. Hedman notched the primary assist on Tampa Bay’s first goal, whipping a pinpoint stretch pass off the boards that sprung Alex Killorn free at Pittsburgh’s blue line. Later, five and a half minutes into the third period, he squashed a breakaway chance in the opposite end by pokechecking the puck from Pittsburgh winger Tom Kuhnhackl, right as he was about to unleash a wrister inside the right face-off circle.
And so the water bottles and sticks were mercifully pardoned.
By now friends and relatives hoping to have dinner with Pietrangelo during the playoffs know that reservations must be made for the early evening, because his bedtime is not that of a typical 26-year-old. At home in St. Louis, his fiancée, Jayne Cox, a former Rams cheerleader, lets him sleep in by taking the dogs on their morning walk. The Blues even recently began spending home game afternoons at a local hotel. Anything to limit potential distractions and maximize rest. “Whatever it is, those little things add up,” Pietrangelo says.
The mental obstacles he and his peers face are mostly contained within the actual game. The reminders of the physical demands, however, follow them everywhere. In April 2002, hours before logging 37:42 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the highest total in a non-overtime playoff game on record—the NHL officially introduced TOI in 1998–99—Aucoin remembers sitting inside the Islanders’ team hotel with needles hooked into his arm and fluid flowing into his veins. Five weeks later, after skating 52:03 during a triple-overtime marathon in Carolina, Lidstrom recalls eating everything in sight, desperate to replenish fuel. “We were out of everything, out of Power Bars and fruits and pizza,” he says. “We were starving in that locker room.” Today, during intermissions, Pietrangelo often hustles onto the training table for abbreviated massages.
This is where dutiful off-season training comes in handy. Pietrangelo trains in 30-to-40-second intervals, an ideal shift length for late in playoff games. Last summer, before averaging a career-best 25:52 during the regular season, Burns prepared his body with 30-mile bike rides during his family’s cross-country road trip. Letang’s routine is planned with an eye toward the playoff grind; in Game 2 of the second round against Washington he logged 35:22, the most in a regulation postseason game since Aucoin. “Conditioning, that’s it,” Letang says about his off-season preparation. “I don’t go strength one day, power another day. We have conditioning every day to build tolerance.”
After the 2004–05 lockout, increased enforcement of restraining fouls like hooking and holding at once opened the ice and made life more grueling for No. 1 defensemen. “There’s no stopping, no standing still,” Aucoin says. “It was a tougher game back then, but it’s so much faster now that it really taxes your body.” Which, at times, makes defensemen easy targets for punishment. “There’s no question there’s a bull’s eye on their back too,” says Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens, now an NHL Network analyst. “There are more people trying to get a piece of them because they’re so valuable to their team.”
Letang got a brutal reminder of this during the first period of Game 1 against the Lightning, when he approached a puck in the corner of Pittsburgh’s defensive zone. As he played the puck along the wall, Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan delivered a crushing elbow into the back of Letang’s neck, launching him face-first into the stanchion. (Callahan received a five-minute boarding major, but the NHL issued no additional punishment.) As the Consol Energy Center crowd hushed, Letang remained prone for a minute before exiting into the tunnel with trainers.
Almost 10 minutes elapsed on the game clock before Letang returned to the bench. And yet, when the final buzzer blared, he had topped Pittsburgh with 27:34 of total ice time, 4:26 more than any other Penguin and only seven seconds fewer than Hedman for the overall lead.
Alex Pietrangelo's average time on ice this postseason, more than three minutes higher than his regular season mark.
The doors to the home dressing room at Scottrade Center opened and there waited Pietrangelo, standing barefoot on the carpet, hands jammed in his pockets, a few leftover beads of sweat clinging to his beard. He looked relaxed. The Blues had edged San Jose in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, 2–1, escaping as the Sharks unleashed a flurry of shots with their net empty in the closing minutes. Pietrangelo played 25:24, his lowest total of the playoffs. Asked if he could guess the figure, Pietrangelo shrugged. “No idea,” he replied.
In such ignorance Pietrangelo is hardly alone. “When you start playing that many minutes in the playoffs, it’s the last thing I’m wondering about,” Keith says. Besides, at this moment, plenty of other matters lingered on Pietrangelo’s mind beyond four digits in the box score. The 15-minute massage awaiting him. Then 10 minutes in the cold tub. The postgame spread, loaded with proteins and carbohydrates. “The hardest, most intense hockey I’ve ever played,” Pietrangelo had called these playoffs, and now the clock was ticking on Game 2, 45 hours away. He trots through the door to start getting ready.