By the third period of every game, Flyers defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon is ready to quit.
No, the opposition doesn't have him ready to scream "Uncle." A finely tuned athlete, Bourdon isn't ready to throw in the towel because he is too tired or worn down.
It's just that usually by that point in the game, Bourdon's ankles are burning and throbbing so bad in his skates that he just wants to hustle to the locker room to take the skates off.
Football players have turf toe. Construction workers endure sore backs. Secretaries and journalists end up with carpal-tunnel syndrome. Hockey players deal with a little-known injury called "lace bite," especially at this point in the season.
Lace bite is the colloquial term for an inflamed extensor hallucis longus tendon, better known as the lumpy tendon at the base of the front of the ankle that runs from the big toe all the way up through the shin to the knee. For hockey players, who are flexing, pushing and turning in their skates for an average of 18 or 20 hours per week, the constant friction caused by laces tied tightly on the same spot every day can cause a sharp pain or pressure.
"It's really painful," Bourdon said. "It's burning. Sometimes it goes up from your ankle to your knee, because your nerve is inflamed. It's really not a good feeling. Every time you move, you feel it, because it's right in your skate."
Bourdon estimates that nearly 80 percent of all hockey players experience lace bite at some point or another in their career.
For most, the pain is manageable. It comes up in rare instances without notice and dissipates after treatment and prevention. In rare cases, the inflammation can lead to infection or a quick outpatient treatment to cut out the damaged flesh.
Andreas Lilja, for instance, had lace bite pop up on his right foot on Wednesday.
"All of the sudden, it just shows up," Lilja said. "Now, anytime you tie them up, it's there. It feels like someone is taking a knife and stabbing you in your foot every time you are taking a stride.
"It can be a real pain in the ass."
Both Lilja and Bourdon had dealt with the injury previously.
"For me, it started last year," Bourdon said. "Once you get it, you really can't get rid of it."
Lilja said he's actually seen other players sit out a game or two because of lace bite. That's a rarity in the NHL. Flyers equipment manager Derek Settlemyre said he can remember that former Phantoms defenseman Jeff Staples came down with an infection. It effects every player differently.
Lace bite is thought to be a key contributor to Peter Forsberg's foot problems that caused him to hang up his skates prematurely after the 2007 season.
Unfortunately for players, the remedies are few. The only true fix is to stay off your skates, something that doesn't happen until the offseason. Luckily, the pain dissipates as soon as the skates are untied and removed. Since sneakers and shoes are worn lower than skate boots, lace bite is not a factor outside of the rink.
Some skate manufacturers have come out with an "anti-lace bite" tongue, which Bourdon says "does nothing." Lilja said a worn-out tongue can be the onset of pain, since there is less padding on the tendon.
That leaves Bourdon, Lilja and a slew of other players - such as Brayden Schenn, James van Riemsdyk, Danny Briere and even Chris Pronger, when he was playing - to put a gel "bunga" pad to act as a barrier. When that isn't enough, a dense foam "doughnut" - which has a hole cut in the middle - is placed between the bunga pad and the skate tongue. Players follow up with an antibiotic ointment to help prevent infection.
At practice yesterday, Lilja was wearing both pads under his right skate.
"Even if you have a pad there, it hurts," Lilja said. "There's just nothing you can do about it."
Bryz finding direction
Ilya Bryzgalov swears nothing is different. He worked on his conditioning during last weekend's All-Star break, but said he has made no major alterations to his game.
"Same," Bryzgalov said. "Nothing's changed."
Whatever the case, Bryzgalov has earned the Flyers at least one point (3-0-2) in five straight starts. His save percentage is still 40th (.898) in the league and his goals-against average is still 36th (2.87), but he's allowed only one goal per game in four of those games. The one exception in that streak was the five he allowed against Boston on Jan. 22.
So, Bryzgalov's goals-against average over his last five starts is only 1.74, including the shootout loss to Boston.
"He looks really sharp to me," coach Peter Laviolette said. "He seems focused in there. He's working hard in practice. His practices have been solid. I think that, often times, your practice reflects your games and your games reflect your practice. It's what you do on a day-to-day basis, you take that into the game. That's typically what you'll get from it. So he's been sharp in practice, and it's followed right through to the game."
The real question is whether Bryzgalov will be able to get on any sort of roll. There are nine weekends left in the season. For five of those weekends, the Flyers play on both Saturday and Sunday in back-to-back games. You have to figure Bryzgalov might get one of those games off each weekend.
For now, with his continued stretch of decent starts, that question can be tabled.
"I was sharp. I was playing very comfortable," Bryzgalov said. "We've all improved our play around the net, 'D,' forwards, and me."
James van Riemsdyk (out since Jan. 12) and Danny Briere (Jan. 21) remain out indefinitely with concussions. Both players practiced on Friday for the second consecutive day, though van Riemsdyk has yet to address the media about his status.
Briere, 34, had been concussed three of four times previously in his career but had never felt the day-after effects like he has over the last 2 weeks.
"It's the first time I'm dealing with it, so I didn't really know what to expect," Briere said Friday. "I'm trying to go with what I'm hearing around from the other guys and what they have gone through. But everyone is so different. Everyone reacts differently. That's the tough thing about concussions, that's why it's so tough to diagnose them."