Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mentally Tough Performer of the Week (Week 8) - Brad Marchand

The Bruins won their first Cup since 1972 and did it with a workmanlike, team approach. Their defense allowed Vancouver very few great chances and when they did Tim Thomas was outstanding. After the devastating loss to the Flyers last season the Bruins made a number of changes. Obviously the biggest change was making Thomas the starting goaltender. Also, grabbing Nathan Horton proved to be essential to their run. Horton scored two Game 7 winners.

Boston was led by a number solid leaders. Zdeno Chara, Dennis Siedenberg, Patrice Bergeron, Mark Recchi... these guys play the right way. Solid on both ends of the ice. Bergeron in particular was huge in Game 7. His goals I thought sparked the Bruins early on. As with any Cup winner the list is long for guys who competed and produced under pressure. Lucic and Krejci from the Flyers series on were excellent. McQuaid and Boychuk were better than advertised. But, the most surprising development only because he was a rookie, was the emergence of Brad Marchand. His energy, passion, and underrated offensive skills catalyzed the B's. In one very shining example, it was Marchand's goal in Game 6 that really turned the series back to Boston's advantage. It dented Luongo and Vancouver's confidence at a time when they were looking to finish off Boston.

While Marchand at times goes over the edge and comments about wanting to run around kill guys was inappropriate in my mind he provided the Bruins a swagger and an attitude that was missing from this team last season. Even though Marchand's a rookie, well was a rookie now, he made a huge impact beyond the 10 goals he scored in the playoffs. So, Marchand is the Mentally Tough Player of the Week because he, despite lacking Finals experience, played with intensity, with emotion, with physicality, and with aggression that poured in to the rest of his team. Marchand is played an impact game and was a difference maker for Boston.

Game 7: Why the Bruins should win

"If we win (Wednesday), we become legends," Ryan Kesler said on the eve of Game 7 from Rogers Arena  (June 15,

Game 7 Stanley Cup Finals, best event in all of sports. The dynamics of a Game 7 are so interesting. Elimination game for both teams. Now amplify the intensity. The Cup will be skated tonight. To borrow a tag line "History will be made." Who can handle the pressure and execute their game plan?

I am going to make a case based on observations from this series that Boston is the favorite tonight. Don't believe it? Read on.

This has been an odd series. The home team has won every game in a year where road teams were very successful. However, if you like back in history it seems like home teams perform very well in the Finals. Can Vancouver win a fourth game at home? Can they bounce back again at home after a drubbing by the Bruins? Boston has the momentum again, and feel they were unfortunate to not have a won a game yet in Vancouver. I agree with them. Tonight might be their night. 

It also has been odd in that it has been a penalty-filled series and even nasty at times. Usually Finals don't have as much bad blood or rivalry. It didn't take long for these teams to dislike each other. The Burrows finger-biting incident ignited things along with Lapierre's taunting of Bergeron. The B's responded by shoving their gloves in the mouths of Lapierre and Burrows. Rome injured Horton in Game 3 and both players are finished for the year. Luongo chided Thomas about coming out of the crease too far. Great series for the media. Not so much for the coaches that have to stomach penalty kills.

The biggest oddity of the series to me, however, is that Boston is outscoring Vancouver 19-8 and 17-3 on home ice. Low scoring games out west, back east big time blowouts. Why is this happening? Usually teams that get to the Finals are good enough to keep it close, but the Canucks have been all or nothing, just like Luongo. It has to make Vancouver fans super tight for tonight's Game 7. What team will show up? The large difference in the number of goals in this series has to give Boston confidence. They have been the better team for much of the series. Vancouver will rest their belief on the fact that they will be home and Boston hasn't been able to breakthrough. However, Boston was very close in each game. Again, you can base your hopes on whatever you want, but Boston is coming off another beat down of the Canucks.

This series does remind me a little of the Detroit-Pittsburgh Finals of 2009. Home team won the first 6 games all by at least 2 goals. Detroit was dominate at home and won Game 5 5-0. But then in Game 7 Pittsburgh did something that had not happened since Montreal in 1971, the road team won a Finals Game 7. So, you may argue that Boston doesn't have Crosby and Malkin, this is true. They don't have the offensive stars. However, don't underestimate the face that Boston has two of the best defensive players in the world right now - Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas. Both of these guys have been brilliant. The Bruins can win the Stanley Cup on defense on the road. Thomas could steal this game, and Chara has the ability to shut down the Sedins. Boston has what it needs to win the Cup.

The Bruins are super dangerous right now. They are playing aggressive and winning puck battles. They are winning the special teams battle. If Boston continues to be aggressive, use their size, and make good decisions with the puck they will be very difficult to beat.

Back to the Canucks. I believe there are at least 3 mental barriers that they must overcome to win the Cup. None of these barriers are easy things to dismiss.

1. Vancouver's self-confidence has to be somewhat shaken. Three blowouts in Boston? Wow. How do you mentally deal with that? The Bruins have dominated the Canucks 3 of the last 4 games. They have to be comparing themselves to Boston and the thought must come in to their heads sometimes, "If Boston plays like they did at home, we are in deep trouble. We haven't stayed with them when they play their best offensively". The good news for Canucks' fans is that rarely do teams play very offensive in a Game 7. Especially the road team.

2. Can Vancouver beat Tim Thomas enough times to win the Cup? Thomas has frustrated teams throughout the playoffs, but especially the Canucks. He goes on stretches where it doesn't seem like it is possible to score. The Canucks will have to stay committed to simple hockey and not try too hard to score and over commit. Easier said than done when the pressure is on and the home crowd is quiet and restless.

3. Can Vancouver count on Luongo? Can he rebound? He has shown the propensity for excellent games, especially at home, after being pulled. Marty Turco wrote a very insightful article about how Luongo must approach this game mentally -

It is likely that Luongo will be better tonight, but does his team fully trust that the great Luongo will show for Game 7? Philly knows the toll it takes on a team emotionally and mentally when the starting goalie is pulled multiple times in a series. That little bit of doubt can plant the seeds of anxiety and poor performance. Canucks forwards and D will have to remain stalwart in their belief of Luongo and trust that he will do his job so each man can just focus on his own role.

The pressure at home will be enormous for the Canucks. If you thought the exhale of relief and joy was intense after the Game 7 OT win versus Chicago, wait for the end of tonight's game. But, as I have listed, the Canucks have a number of mental barriers to deal with which in my mind puts the Bruins in a great position to win the Cup tonight.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Test of Focus: The Cup is in the House!

The Stanley Cup will be polished and ready for its annual ceremonial lifting to the sky and skate around the rink at Monday night's Game 6 of the Finals. Vancouver is one win away from reaching the ultimate prize. Boston is hoping that they won't see the Cup Monday night. Who wins?

The team that is able to stay focused and execute will win Game 6.

This is one of my favorite sporting moments every year. The anticipation of the Cup making its appearance. And teams fighting either to skate the Cup or delay its arrival one more game. The specter of the Cup lurking down the hallway can be a great distraction. Both teams will need to manage thoughts about the Cup and focus on the task at hand.

But, how can a player who has dreamed about the Cup since they started playing the game as a child not focus on the Cup? Just the thought of it being in the builidng creates excitement and butterflies in the stomach. The key is as much in refocusing as it is holding your focus. The Cup will inevitably jump in to player's minds before the game and during on the bench. Thinking about yourself holding the Cup and celebrating or worse the other team holding the Cup are natural thoughts that enter a player's mind. But, these thoughts must be washed away quickly. Every Canuck and every Bruin should have a plan for managing their thoughts so as not to get caught looking ahead and/or getting anxious because of the enormity of the situation.

Team mottoes are excellent for keeping players focused on the bench. When Tampa Bay won the Cup their motto was "Safe is Death". And, when Carolina won the Cup it was "Relentless". Having these simple reminders helps players and coaches refocus one another back on the game. In general, the talk that happens on the bench is important to keeping the focus. If players are reviewing their shifts and talking about what they are going to do next time they go out as a line or defensive pairing keeps the focus on the game.

Having a meaningful team motto and communication on the bench is helpful, but not always enough to help players refocus on the task at hand with the Cup lurking nearby. Each player should have several "focal points" that they review in their mind. These focal points are their goals or keys for success. For example, a player may have focal points such as "move your feet", "strong on the puck", and "simple plays" to focus their mind on effective hockey. This is also important for role players whom may not see the ice for long periods of time, and yet have to come out on the ice and play energetic, responsible hockey when called upon.

The Blackhawks were in exactly the same situation last year as the Canucks are currently in, going on the road in Game 6 with a chance to win the Cup, but in a series where the home team won every game. With a 3-2 heading in to Philadelphia the Hawks certainly needed to keep themselves focused with the Cup within reach.

Lifelong dreams could be fulfilled inside Wachovia Center, and somehow the Hawks have to block it out. It's got to be easier said than done. "We just have to treat it like another game; just go out there and have fun and play our game," Kris Versteeg said. "You've been waiting your whole life for this situation, so there is no need to be nervous now.” 

(Roarke & Rosen, 2010. Five keys for Hawks, Flyers in Game 6. Retrieved from

I agree with Versteeg, both the Bruins and Canucks need to go out and have fun, play their game, and keep things relatively normal. This can be hard to do with the media attention that comes with the Finals. However, by trying to keep the game in perspective before the puck drops players can minimize their nerves and focus on their game plan, not the enormity of the situation.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mentally Tough Performer of the Week (Week 7) - Manny Maholtra

Mental toughness is often seen as the player scoring the big goal or making the big save. The ability to execute under pressure is most certainly a key component of mental toughness. So to is coming back from an injury and providing inspiration to your team and city. Manny Maholtra's return to the Canucks lineup in Game 2 of the Finals not only reinserts a strong role player that takes face offs and kills penalties but it provided a lift to a team hampered by injuries.

Malholtra is the mentally tough performer of the week for Week 7. Malholtra won all but one of his face offs but also stirred an emotional response from the crowd. His return also energized a team dealing with the pressure of the expectation as the favorite to win the Cup and the distraction of Alex Burrows biting incident. Malholtra is the type of role player that every team needs in the pursuit of winning the Stanley Cup. While his contributions are not always easy to calculate, the return of Manny Malholtra and the toughness required to come back from a devastating injury are an inspiration.

Want to read more about the return of Manny Malholtra...