Closing out a series in the NHL Playoffs is a difficult prospect because the team behind has nothing to lose. Rich Hammonds of the LA Kings insider reports that over the last two years teams in the first "close out" opportunity had a record of only 13-17. You might expect it to be the opposite.
Given the huge upsets that have either materialized, great effort Los Angeles, or are on the verge of materializing there has been a lot of talk about "closing out" teams. The team in the lead wants to finish it off and not let the other team hang around giving them hope that a comeback is possible. I have heard numerous times this week that "the fourth game is the hardest to win".
Darryl Sutter, coach of the Kings, talked about why it is more difficult to win that fourth game and close it out.
Sutter knows close-out games aren't easy
“What is tangible — and this is a fact — is, as series go along, how difficult it is to win games. That is what’s tangible. There’s no easy parts, or easy seconds, or easy shifts or any of that. It’s really simple. One is tougher to win than not winning at all. Two is a lot tougher to win than one and three is a lot tougher to win than two. Then there is no winning until you win four. Everything else, it’s just time. … It’s very difficult. The only way you can get that experience is to understand how difficult it is, and then actually end up doing it.’’
I wholeheartedly agree with Sutter's explanation of why it is difficult. But, what are the underlying psychological dynamics that make it more difficult? The first is not really psychological at all. The law of averages and the level of parity that exists in the NHL makes you realize that when a team is ahead 3-0 or 3-1 it is really a commanding lead, but how often do teams win four straight or four out of five? For sure not the majority of the time. In theory every game is a 50-50 contest and so we should expect that winning a series prior to Game 6 will be lower odds. Winning four out of five against another playoff opponent is a great effort. In fact, there was not a single sweep in the first round this year.
While the odds are in favor of a losing team being able to win a game there is a psychological dynamic that is occurring. When a team gets behind they often loosen up because they have let go of their high expectations. Now all they want to do is to survive to play another day. This is why teams find it easier psychologically to come from behind than to hold a lead. You have nothing to lose, especially if you are an underdog and trailing in a series. Therefore, it is easier to play unburdened by expectations when you are on the verge of being knocked out early in the series. Part of it saying "the heck with it, let's just play hockey", the other part of it is that you have lowered your expectations.
Teams that are down in a series become dangerous when they begin to play loose and just go for it. They play very aggressive, attacking. The Penguins in Games 4 and 5 played some seriously fast, aggressive hockey which caught the Flyers off guard a bit. According to Peter Laviolette the Flyers had to match the desperation of the Pens, and when they did in Game 6 because they desperately did not want to go to Game 7, they were able to close it out.
While the team that is behind will often play aggressively, it also plays in to the natural tendency for a team ahead to play more defensively, more passively. The team ahead just wants to get the series over and move on. This can lead them to focus too much on the future and what if's. "What if we can win in 4 and get a week to rest and heal?" Past and future thinking do not lead to great hockey performances. Thus, in a winning position teams will often become more defensive so they don't make mistakes. This gives the attacking team the opportunity to begin controlling the play in their opponent's offensive zone. This why I believe a team being dominated the first three games is able to "flip the script" and start controlling play later in the series. It is the interplay between two teams. One becomes passive and the other can gain control making it more difficult to close them out.
So, how should the team ahead approach the "close-out" situation? First, the they should expect their opponent to pushback harder than ever. They will be desperate and dangerous. If the team ahead can weather the storm of the desperate team's push early in the game, and begin to re-establish puck possession by a strong forecheck, backcheck, good breakouts and so forth, they can "break" the team that is down. The team ahead must match the desperation level of their opponent. They need to play with intensity, focus, and effort to win board battles, net front battles and basically do the little things well.
The team behind needs good feedback especially in the first period of the game that momentum is shifting their way. They are desperate to get ahead and will play attacking and with energy. When the team ahead gets the lead it can finally break the will of the team behind. To have pushed that hard to only get behind again is crushing. In essence what the team ahead is doing is taking away all hope of a comeback. If you give them hope that creates belief and then the team behind becomes dangerous. Also, showing frustration when ahead fuels the hope of the opponent. To borrow from King Leonidas from the movie 300, "Give them nothing, but take from them everything!"
To close out a series the team ahead needs to remember what they did to get ahead and keep doing it. Stay aggressive, keep playing your game. Cups are not won by sitting on your heels. Finally, do not make one or two missed attempts to close out an opponent as a catastrophe. Remember the law of averages? Losses are going to happen in the playoffs. The best advice may be to have fun and enjoy the ride.
“The best way to approach it always with those guys — always — is to have fun with it. If you’re playing against top players, then have some fun with it, instead of `I don’t know.’ That’s the best way,’’said Darryl Sutter.