Friday, May 27, 2011

Mentally Tough Performer of the Week (Week 6) - Nathan Horton

It was a very tough choice this week. Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson were brilliant in Game 7. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Siedenberg were absolutely shut down D. Steven Stamkos took a shot to the face, probably broke his nose, and returned to the game quickly and was productive. Stamkos showed mental toughness coming back from that injury. His effort had to inspire his teammates. It is amazing what players will play through to win the Cup.

I am going to give the recognition as Mentally Tough Performer of the Week for Week 6 Bruins forward Nathan Horton. Horton became the first player in NHL history to score two Game 7 game winning goals in the same playoff season. A big part of being mentally tough is to come up big in the biggest games. And, Horton most definitely did come up big for the Bruins. It wasn't just the Game 7 game winner, Horton showed consistent effort and production throughout the playoffs, and was a force against Tampa. He will have his work cut out for him against Vancouver. It will be essential that Boston control the puck in the Vancouver zone and Nathan Horton with his size and skill should be up to the task.

Lapses in Emotional Control Determined the San Jose-Vancouver Series

I heard more than one media person saying how they were somewhat disappointed with the SJ-Vancouver series. Game 5 finally lived up to the kind of tempo, speed, and play that was expected. I would have to agree. And, I think the main reason for the lack of tempo was the number of penalties that were taken. Both teams had players taking amazingly large risks which cost them.

I do not blame one player for a loss, but Ben Eager played a starring role when he went ballistic in Game 2 after Marleau fought Bieksa. Several Vancouver power plays later because of Eager's aggressive penalties and San Jose had not only lost moment, but were losing. They ended up losing their grip on the game in the third, badly. Eager was clearly unable to corral his emotions which ended up with him running several Canucks players.

So, you would assume that the Canucks got it together, they are emotionally in control, and would keep their cool and make good decisions. The bad penalties and meltdowns of playoff seasons past was finally happening to their opponent. Well, the poor decisions resurfaced for the Canucks in the first period of Game 3. The Canucks continually took penalties allowing the Sharks to control the game especially in the first period where the Sharks converted 2 of 3 power plays and at one point outshot Vancouver 15-1. Later in the game, however, the Sharks' Jamie McGinn took a 5 minute boarding penalty to give the Canucks a golden opportunity to get back in the game. Vancouver came up one goal of tying the game, but the Sharks really were holding on at the end.

This series was surprisingly affected by undisciplined play. In Game 4, Vancouver had 3 consecutive 5-on-3 power plays! When does that happen? And, they converted on all 3 taking a 0-0 game totally under control despite the Sharks controlling the play prior to that point in the second period.

The lack of flow and tempo in the series can be directly blamed on the number of penalties the teams were taking. And special teams made the difference in the outcome of the series. While San Jose relied on their potent power play through the first 3 games, the Canucks shut them down in Game 4 while scoring on their power play chances. Bad penalties made all the difference in this series. It was a physical series, but too many times guys crossed the line and were out of control .They were more focused on crushing their opponent than playing solid hockey. This is surprising in the Conference Finals, but it has happened in past years, too. Why did Zinedine Zidane of France headbutt an Italian player in the World Cup Final and put his team at a great disadvantage? Because he wasn't thinking rationally. And, the same could be said for the Sharks and Canucks throughout the series. They were acting off of emotion not rationale thinking. When this happens you will have bad decisions and penalties.

Vancouver definitely played with fire in this series by taking so many penalties. They were fortunate that the Sharks were willing to return the favor. If the Canucks continue to take penalties will it be their downfall? I believe this is one way that they are vulnerable, especially if they face the Lightning's effective power play. The Canucks need to manage their emotions better and stay focused in the Finals. If they don't it may be 0 for 3 in the Finals for the Canucks franchise. I do have faith that they will reel in their emotions and begin to play more disciplined in the Finals because they won't have the intense rivalry with either Boston or Tampa Bay that they have with San Jose. Ultimately, it comes down to each guy on the bench checking himself and making sure he is composed. Composure likely will be the determining factor in the outcome of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mentally Tough Performer of the Week (Week 5) - Joe Thornton

For Week 5 Joe Thornton captain of the San Jose Sharks is the mentally tough performer of the week. While things have not started as they would want in Vancouver, the Sharks showed courage to come out in Game 7 vs. Detroit and play with aggression and confidence. Joe Thornton led his squad by playing what I think was his best in the playoffs ever. Thornton showed the grit that is needed to win against great teams. And, his pass for the first goal of Game 7 was not only awesome but kick started the Sharks on their way to securing some playoff history and not becoming history.

Thornton has always been skilled but at times in big games was not always noticeable. Not the case this year. He has been dominant at times and has provided the leadership his team needs to move past the Conference Finals. Is it possible that having the "C" on the jersey has helped Thornton in these playoff games? Cannot be sure about that, but I would speculate that it may help him focus more on the team under pressure and he can get the focus off of his own game and pressure to play well.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On-Ice Decisions are the Difference between Winning and Losing

Decisions, decisions. Make the right one in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and you could be a hero. Make the wrong one at the wrong time and you will be a goat. Pros are faced with many tough decisions at a high rate of speed. Should I pinch along the wall or stay back? Should I forecheck and provide puck support or hang back so we don't get caught? It's the end of the shift, maybe we could get a 3-on-2, or maybe we should dump it and go for a change. Should I go out and play the puck behind my net or stay in the crease and let my defense take care of it? Play it safe or not. Many choices to be made that decide the fate of their team.

A decision a player makes can turn the tide of a playoff series. In Game 2 of the Vancouver-San Jose series Patrick Marleau decided to fight Kevin Bieksa, who is much more experienced at throwing fists. Why? To change the momentum in the game; give his team a lift. But, a few moments later Shark Ben Eager received a checking from behind penalty because he was fired up from the fight. Jeremy Roenick during the intermission said that if the Sharks come back Marleau's decisions to fight "a scary" Bieksa was the thing that made it happen. However, poor decision making from Eager muted Marleau's attempts to lead. Vancouver regained momentum, scored on a later Eager penalty, and dominated 7-3.

Coaches also make decisions that affect the course of a game and a series. Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette called one of the most important and famous timeouts in recent history when the Flyers were down 3-0 against the Bruins last year. Van Riemsdyk scored soon after and the comeback of all comebacks was on its way. Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault's decision to sit Luongo in Game 6 of this year's first round series versus the Hawks was widely criticized by the media as a move to protect Luongo's confidence. Chicago would win Game 6 in OT after Luongo had to come in to the net after an injury, but Luongo bounced back to play well in Game 7 and win (thus saving the organization from some serious second-guessing about goaltender moves).

On-ice decisions (and even pre game decisions) are certainly one of the most important factors in winning and losing. But, how can you train decision-making? How can a coach ensure that his team will make good decisions in pressure situations? Coaches pound a philosophy and a system into the brains of the players through constant repetition and communication. This consistent effort to coach and play a certain style creates habits that the players can fall back on during high speed affairs on the ice. It becomes a default method of making decisions. When Tampa won the Cup in 2004 the default was "Safe is death". Coach Tortorella's players new to attack and keep attacking.  This provided the Lightning to play an aggressive style even when under pressure.

Another method many hockey players use to make good decisions on the ice is to pre-play or visualize game situations and the "correct" play. A defenseman will visualize playing a 2 on 1 or 3 on 2. A forward will visualize their positioning in the defensive zone. A goalie will visualize coming out of the net and being aggressive. Visualizing prior to the game (and even during breaks in the game) helps players to make good decisions under extreme pressure and with very little time and space.

A very quick decision in tonight's game by defenseman Kevin Bieksa spurred the Canucks to a win over the Sharks. With the game tied 2-2 Bieksa was super aggressive when he decided to jump up through the neutral zone. He caught the Sharks by surprise and went in on a breakaway. It was an aggressive a good decision. Bieksa then made another great decision to shoot quick and low at goalie Niemi's feet catching him moving and off guard. The result a 3-2 lead. Vancouver may not have won handily if not for Bieksa's quick thinking.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tampa - really? The Lightning are ahead again

Where did the Tampa Bay Lightning come from? Many predicted them to make the playoffs, but the conference finals? Well, we shouldn't be surprised. This team had a great regular season. They have snipers, strong role players, and picked up an experienced goalie at the deadline. All in all, Tampa has a great shot of moving on and winning the Cup. St. Louis and Lecavalier have already won it and are playing like they want another one. Adding players like Simon Gagne in the off season should not be underestimated. Gagne is a solid 2-way player, and when healthy he can play on a shutdown line and score goals.

I don't want to say I expected Tampa to make it this far, but new coach Guy Boucher has been taking steps since last summer to create a winning environment in Tampa. And it is working. Check out this article from last summer talking about Boucher's efforts to adjust the culture in Tampa.

Game 2 is huge of course. Tampa wins and they will move on. B's win and it's all up in the air. The Lightning are beginning to make a believer out of me. Winning three straight against the Pens and then sweeping the Caps? That is just as impressive as Montreal's run last season.

Tampa has that feel to them. They are finding ways to get it done. For example, Bergenheim has 8 goals. He has almost matched his regular season total of 10!

Expect the Lightning to come out loose and flying in Game 2. The Bruins will match them early, but will need to get a lead. Otherwise the pressure in TD Garden will be palatable. Without Patrice Bergeron Boston is vulnerable and Tampa is ready to take advantage. If Boston stays out of the penalty box and can get their nose in front their chances are good. But, if Tampa gets on the power play this series could be shorter than expected.

Mind Meld from USA Hockey Magazine

This article written by Jess Myers for USA Hockey magazine discusses some of the important reasons why elite hockey players use sport psychology. Jess did a great job of writing this article!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mentally Tough Performer of the Week (Week 4) - Ryan Kesler

We continue to see great performances in these 2011 NHL Playoffs. Datsyuk has been dazzling with the puck. Niemi and Howard both have played outstanding between the pipes. But the Mentally Tough Performer of the Week for Week 4 is Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. He is doing everything the Canucks need on the run to win their 1st Stanley Cup. Winning faceoffs. Killing penalties. Scoring brilliant goals on the rush. Grinding down low. Scoring an OT goal. Playing with great energy and intensity. Kesler is leading his team.

Kesler is having an outstanding playoff season despite the talk about him not scoring in the playoffs and being a bit of a disappointment. I thought those comments were harsh since he usually plays against the other team's top line and has defense-first responsibility. No matter; against the Preds Kesler raised his game big time and played like a man on a mission. Nashville Coach Barry Trotz described Kesler's superior play as;"six of the most incredible games you will ever see". If you want to read more about Kesler's playoff efforts go to

The Sharks better be prepared to match Kesler's intensity in the Conference Finals or they will find themselves down early in the series. Kesler and the Canucks will be rested, but not too rested. The Sharks, on the other hand, played a physically and an emotionally draining series. It will be interesting to see their legs and focus in Game 1.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mentally Tough Performer of the Week (Week 3): Tim Thomas

Ok, so you are going to believe that I only pick goaltenders for the mentally tough performer of the week. But, let's give them credit. They play a pressure position and can feel like they are out on an island.

Tim Thomas, goaltender for the Boston Bruins is the mentally tough performer of the week. He has been spectacular for the B's in the first 3 games against Philly. In Game 2 Thomas made over 50 saves, many of them spectacular saves against a hard-driving James Van Riemsdyk. Thomas has remained cool and calm in the net, and created an air of invincibility that has given the Bruins extreme confidence, and the Flyers fits of frustration. If Thomas continues to make enormous reaction saves the B's could well be playing for the Cup.

Why are Road Teams winning more often?

The 2011 NHL Playoffs have been interesting to say the least. OT games almost every night. Four 7-game series in the first round. And, the road teams winning more than half of the games. Why are the road teams doing so well? Winning on the road in the NBA is a significant achievement and often leads to a series victory. In the NHL road wins have become a nightly occurrence.

In the first round of the playoffs home teams were only 23-26, highlighted by the Sharks-Kings where the home team only won one of six games in the series. In the second round road teams are at it again. Home teams have won only four of the first ten games, with the Sharks the only team to win two at home to start the series. In the East the one and two seeds lost their first 2 home games.

What are the reasons for this winning trend for road teams? Could just be luck or coincidence. In the next two rounds home teams could dominate. Even if they do I think there is something to this trend. The pressure of the expectations that a team is supposed to win at home could be the reason. Home teams feel they HAVE to win as well as entertain their fans.

Expectations are a funny thing. Good to have high expectations because that is how we achieve great things. However, expectations can feel like a 500 lb. gorilla on your back. Ask the Canucks in the first round against the Hawks. When they won in OT in Game 7 the release of emotion, mostly relief, was intense. One of the most emotional scenes in recent memory (for a first round game).

Expectations can create pressure. Home teams are expected to win, thus the saying that a series hasn't really started until a home team loses. Peter Laviolette of the Flyers attempted to add to the pressure the Bruins were feeling in their home arena going into Game 3.

"When you lose your first two games in your home building, I would say that there is a real expectation for the Bruins to win the series now," he said following Game 2. "So it relieves us of the pressure, I believe, a little bit, to just go in and play a game in Boston."

A day later, he felt the same way.

"We're going to go into Boston and have some fun," he told reporters Tuesday. "We just put our comfortable slippers on. … The pressure, it really gets alleviated a bit when you're down."
(Bruins a win away from another 3-0 lead on Flyers,,

The Bruins, however, handled it well scoring twice in the first minute of the game. However, when a home team does not get that lead you can feel the pressure in the building. The fans become less vocal and more nervous. The team may start pressing and making decisions out of the ordinary. The home team's power play tries to be perfect and fails to play a simple style of hockey that is more likely to lead to goals. The expectations start to become pressure for the home team. And pressure can lead to thinking too much instead of reacting, hesitating instead of being proactive, and being passive instead of aggressive.

Meanwhile, I believe professional hockey coaches have become experts at preparing their teams to play on the road. Teams play a simpler game, look to make fewer mistakes and get the puck on net. Often this equates to better performances.

Expectations are all about perception. If a team believes that they SHOULD or HAVE TO win then the pressure will increase. If, a home team can take a road team attitude into a game - believe in it's chances, but not place upon themselves the added burden of having to win - they can stick to a simpler style of play, and play a relaxed, confident hockey.

This is why coaches sometimes stay in hotels even though they are in their home city. To get the team away from any distractions, and create a road mentality. Right now the eight teams remaining could all benefit from a road mentality at home.