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Mike Harrington: Drawn-out schedule tough on viewers but a boon for players in Cup final

PITTSBURGH -- If it goes to seven games, the Stanley Cup final between Pittsburgh and Nashville will stretch from an opening faceoff on May 29 to a final buzzer on June 14. The NHL has its reasons for the schedule, from television interests to building availability to avoiding conflicts with the NBA Finals.

There was already one three-day break in the series, with Game Two here played May 31 and Game Three played in Nashville on June 3. There was a similiar respite before Game Five here Thursday night in PPG Paints Arena and that will be the pattern the rest of the way. Game Six is Sunday in Bridgestone arena, with a potential Game Seven back in the Pens' home on Wednesday.

So if the series goes the full seven, it will take 10 days to play the last four games.

Television ratings on NBC have been excellent thus far, up 24 percent over last year and spurred by the first-time appearance of the Predators and their rabid Tennessee fan base. Casual viewers might find it tough to stay engaged in the series with so much time off but the principals say it's a big help at this time of the playoffs -- and it produces better hockey.

"It gives both teams an opportunity to get the rest, which should result in a higher-quality game, a faster-paced game," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said here Thursday morning. "At this time of the season, both teams have played a lot of hockey. The NHL playoffs is a grind and I think that's one of the reasons why the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in sports: The grind of the playoffs. Both teams have gone through it to this point so any additional rest both teams can get will make for a higher-quality game.

"It should give us opportunities to utilize some of our top people more than we might if the schedule was condensed. Those are just obvious observations just based on the logistics of the schedule."

As Sullivan said, the schedule allows teams to push the envelope with their star players. In the case of the Predators, their top four defenseman can really go deeper into games. Heading into Game Four, Roman Josi led the way with a per-game average of 25 minutes, 25 seconds. P.K. Subban was at 24:38 while Ryan Ellis was at 24:11 and Mattias Ekholm was at 23:59.

The Penguins, meanwhile, had only two defensemen over 20 minutes (Brian Dumoulin at 21:07 and Ron Hainsey at 20:39). Nashville doesn't use its bottom pair much, as Matt Irwin was averaging 11:22 and Yannick Weber was at 10:19 through four games, so it stands to reason coach Peter Laviolette could feel comfortable pushing the 28-minute range, and maybe even higher, for his top four because recovery time will be at hand.

"It's huge," Ekholm said. "I don't know if you guys or anyone can really understand how much 24 hours extra rest means to us and to my body, speaking for myself. That brings the level of hockey and the speed up a little bit more. It's already at a high level but when you get that extra level, everyone is going to be at 100 percent."

"In the finals, you're all-in every game but it's good to have two days off and get some rest," added Josi. "It's going to be a long summer so you have to leave it out there. Guys will be a little fresher. We've been OK with our schedule in the playoffs. We were lucky to have almost a week off after every round."

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby led all forwards through four games at 20:45, and only the Nashville duo of Mike Fisher (18:30) and Colton Sissons (18:12) were even over 18 minutes. Crosby played 22:15 in Game Four, his highest regulation total of the playoffs.

"You're knowing there's extra days so it allows guys to really empty the tank," said Pittsburgh winger Bryan Rust. "You're down to the nitty gritty here so you're emptying that tank anyways because one bad play, one shift off can mean the worst. But the rest can make a difference."

The schedule, of course, can't be all things to all people. After the Western Conference final, Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle unloaded on what his team faced in its six-game loss to the Predators.

“I don’t think we played poorly in the series,” said Carlyle. “I think that the toughest part I have about the whole thing is that this was our seventh game in 13 days. Now, there’s various reasons for that, but I think there’s got to be some consideration in the scheduling in the future between series.

"We finished on a Wednesday and had to open again on Friday, whereas other teams had to open on Saturday. An extra day would have given us a chance to recover. And we know how tough these games are. And that was a tough hand that was dealt to us.”

"Other teams" was a reference to Pittsburgh, which had three days between its Game Seven win over Washington and its conference final series opener against Ottawa.

The Ducks, meanwhile, won a rugged Game Seven against Edmonton and then had to host the Predators in Game One just two days later. By eliminating St. Louis in six games, Nashville had gotten four days of rest prior to the series opener and, as Ekholm pointed out had already had a week off after its first-round sweep of Chicago.

In baseball, teams often get stale in the postseason if they have too much rest. Especially between series. In hockey, you can't get enough rest. Sometimes you earn it and sometimes the schedule creates it for you.

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