It may have been the most optional practice of the year for the Buffalo Sabres. There were just six players on the ice. One was goaltender Chad Johnson. One was Tyler Ennis, a member of the team’s injured reserve list. They joined Cal O’Reilly, Jake McCabe, Nicolas Deslauriers and Carlo Colaiacovo for about a 45-minute session with the assistant coaching staff.
Heck, even head coach Dan Bylsma took a day off from the skates.
It was a needed break for the Sabres, who are in the midst of a brutal schedule. However you slice the segments, December has been a lot of games in not many days with a western road swing thrown in for good measure. When they host the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday in First Niagara Center, it will be their third game in four nights. They finish the week hosting Chicago on Saturday afternoon for five games in eight days before a luxurious six-day holiday break that includes five days with no practice scheduled.
“I feel like we’re in an Olympic year with the number of days in between games,” Bylsma noted.
In an ideal world, the Sabres coaching staff would moderate players’ minutes during these scheduling streaks. But when you’re down 1-0 in Detroit and it’s late in the game and you feel a goal is near, there’s not much thought to the reality of getting on a plane back to Buffalo to face New Jersey the next night.
“You’d like to get in games where you can manage everybody’s minutes and spread them out. You get a game in Detroit where you get down, you’re really pressing and you lean on 10 or 12 guys an awful lot,” Bylsma said. “Then having to come back and play against New Jersey and see that situation where we’re playing back-to-backs and five-in-eight nights, and I think you saw it a little bit in the team.”
There may have been a lag to the Sabres game in the 2-0 loss to the Devils on Tuesday but regardless of the outcome, it was likely the Sabres would have followed that game with an optional practice.
That doesn’t mean, however, there’s no work.
Bylsma called it a “get what you need” day. Players had off-ice recovery sessions or worked rehabilitation exercises on nagging injuries or stiff and sore body parts. While the visible skills and strategies are done during practice, perhaps the most underrated component for players’ ability on the ice is what they do after the game.
In the hockey vernacular, it’s “taking care of your body.” In the sports science world, it’s called “recovery” and involves replenishing the body – with food, fluid and sleep – to be at optimal performance the next game day.
“I like to take my time. I usually try to eat right away but then stretch,” said Ryan O’Reilly who leads all NHL forwards averaging 21:52 of ice time per game. “Some guys like to stretch right away and then maybe go eat. So you have to find what works for you and I think it developed early in my career when I wasn’t playing a lot of minutes. It was more, I’d be trying to stay in shape, try to keep weight on and strength and maintain it. Now, playing these minutes, it’s about taking care of myself, making sure I can maintain the energy and the pace I need.”
So what’s most important to O’Reilly after a game?
“Just eating the right things right away and stretching,” he said. “I’ve gotta make sure after a game to calm down and relax my entire body so I can sleep and put myself in a spot where I can recover.”
Sleep doesn’t come easily after games. That’s something McCabe has learned. Two years removed from his collegiate days at Wisconsin, the defenseman is on another new learning curve on how to best take care of himself off the ice so he can be his best on it.
“I think last year was the learning curve and even this year is another learning curve between the AHL schedule and the NHL schedule,” McCabe said. “It’s a little bit different but you know it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to be prepared every single game. You’ve got to stick to your same routine and really just be dialed in when that puck drops.”
His postgame go-to is a chilly soak.
“I’m a big fan of cold tubs,” McCabe said. “I’ll go in there for five or 10 minutes. Stretching. Our training staff is great so if we have bumps or bruises we work with them with that. Kinda just sleep too. Try to get as much sleep as possible. It’s not easy to fall asleep after games but you’ve got to try to calm yourself down and get to bed.”