Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mental Toughness Quote

"Is it pressure? It's fun," he said. "I grew up watching playoff hockey when I was a kid and I always dreamed that one day I'd have the chance to play in those big games. When I have the opportunity, like I have right now this year, like I've had the past few years in the playoffs, you try to make the best of it, try to enjoy it as much as possible. It's not really pressure; it's actually a fun time, an exciting time." 
Danny Briere on pressure in the playoffs from April 29, 2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rangers vs. Capitals Preview

The Rangers survived a seven game battle with the Ottawa Senators. The Capitals also survived a battle and upended the defending Stanley Cup Champions in OT. Who has the edge in this series? It sure is a tough call.

New York must feel like it woke from a nightmare just in time. A huge second period push in Game 6 allowed the Rangers to win in Ottawa, and then in a tight Game 7 Lundqvist was solid and the Rangers survived. I am biased here; I think pressure-tested teams often go on to have success. However, the critic in me wonders where is the dominant Ranger team from the regular season? New York is a balanced team with a very good defense and all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers will likely not dominant the Caps, and will need to hold their composure in close games. Lundqvist gives the Rangers tons of confidence and I expect him to continue to frustrate the opposition.

Washington came up big time. How happy are the fans in DC? After several years of being considered playoff underachievers Ovechkin and gang pulled off a big upset. Braden Holtby was huge for the Caps to say the least. If the Caps are to pull another upset they will need Holtby to continue to play like a playoff veteran and not like a rookie. Furthermore, the Capitals must continue to play physical, desperate hockey that earned them the victory over Boston. There can be no letdown against the Rangers. Winning either Game 1 or 2 will be crucial to a second consecutive upset.

In the end Holtby must win the goaltending match up against Lundqvist. If the Caps can get leads and shut down the Rangers attack they have a chance to frustrate NY. If, however, the Rangers are able to mount a consistent attack on the Caps defense

Predators vs. Coyotes Preview

Alright, so you knew that Phoenix and Nashville would be meeting in the second round of the Playoffs right? The surprise Coyotes may be should not be a surprise. They won their division despite being dogged by the Kings and Sharks. Now they take on the stingy Nashville Predators who shut down the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. This will be a great goaltender battle between Pekka Rinne and Mike Smith.

For Nashville this is the second time in two years they made the second round. Are they ready to take the next step? The Preds play a strong team game and get great goaltending from Pekka Rinne seemingly every time out. When I watch the Predators I see a very confident team that believes it not only belongs in the second round but that they will be going even deeper in the playoffs. If the Predators can score enough against the hot Mike Smith they will be at a big advantage because Rinne is not going to give much up. Moreover, having Weber and Suter on the backline is a huge advantage. They are two of the best defenders in the game and can steady the Predators when things are not going well.

Phoenix has been impressively resilient against the Hawks and in a Game 1 OT win versus the Preds. Consistently they give up the lead but go on to win anyway. These results have convinced me that the Coyotes believe in themselves even if nobody else does. They play an excellent team game and do not rely on one or two guys to do the scoring. Of concern was how badly Phoenix was outshot by Chicago. Nashville also has the ability to take over the game and possess the puck. In my opinion the Coyotes need to continue to get the first goal, they do not want to play from behind against the Preds. Ultimately, Mike Smith will be the key for Phoenix. If he continues to stand on his head they will win this series. If Nashville can get on top early it will be real trouble for the Coyotes.

This series will be close, low scoring, and be characterized by strong defense and goaltending. The team that composes themselves and stays out of the penalty box has the advantage. Furthermore,  both teams have played well in one-goal games. The team that can get the lead will have a big edge in this series.

Mentally Tough Performer for Week 2 2012 NHL Playoffs: Mike Smith

The first round of the NHL Playoffs was full of overtime games. Two of the three Game 7's went to overtime with the Devils and Capitals coming up with the victory. The first round was also full of great performances, especially from the goaltender position.

No one was better, though, than Goaltender Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes. He helped the Coyotes post their first playoff series win over the Blackhawks. Check out these stats (courtesy of Smith allowed four goals in Game 2, but then he bounced back and only let in two per game for the next three games. His impressive Game 6 effort saw him make 39 saves in a shutout of the Hawks to close the series. Then there is this stat: the Coyotes were outshot 241-159 in the series, but outscored the Hawks 17-12. Amazing. That is an average of 40 shots per game but only 2 goals per game.

While Quick of Los Angeles, Rinne of Nashville, and Elliott of St. Louis may have been more dominant throughout the series, no one was under more pressure to win the series for his team. Both LA and St. Louis limited their opponents opportunities. Chicago peppered Smith and he was brilliant. While carrying the load for this team Smith came up big time. For that he is the Mentally Tough Performer of Week 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why Closing Out a Series is Difficult

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". 

Giroux and "The Shift"

Claude Giroux's opening shift of Game 6 on Sunday had Flyers' fans reminiscing of "The Shift" inspired by then Captain Mike Richards in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. Not only did Giroux send a physical statement by blasting the Pens C Sidney Crosby, he then ripped a puck off the post and in the net to let Fleury know that it was Game 5 no more.

Now it is coming out in the media that Giroux asked Coach Peter Laviolette to put him on the ice for the shift and he told teammates to watch him. Clearly, Claude Giroux was looking to change the momentum of the series. And, he did just that. The first 30 seconds gave the Flyers the lead and sent a clear message that the Flyers were going to close out this series. The comeback was over for the Pens. It inspired the fans and his team. The Flyers played the best defensive game of the series. While Pittsburgh outshot them and Bryzgalov was good, when the game was close the Pens were unable to muster grade "A" scoring chances.

Friday, April 20, 2012

In the Playoffs Players Must Control Emotions, Not Let Emotions Control Them

How often have you heard players talking about staying disciplined, not taking penalties, and controlling their emotions? Just about every night. The Flyers credited their 3-0 lead to being more disciplined, but in Game 4 they were the team that took the penalties and lost control. Likely they became overexcited by the opportunity to close out the Pens in a sweep and lost their discipline. Daniel Briere suggested that they got complacent, maybe after getting the 3-2 lead, but then the frustration set in as the Pens pounded home four power play goals.

"One of the things that we did a really good job of since the beginning of the series was staying composed and disciplined," Briere said, "and those two things we completely threw out the window [Wednesday]."  (From

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Signs of Pens and Canucks Struggles Visible in Game 1

Sometimes you can see the cracks in a team's mentality that gives you the ability to anticipate bigger problems coming down the road. Pittsburgh and Vancouver revealed cracks in Game 1 that are leading to their struggles.

On Sunday the Flyers and Kings won on home ice to deal a fatal blow to the Cup hopes of the Pens and Canucks. Prior to the 2012 NHL playoffs Pittsburgh and Vancouver were favorites to win the Cup but are now on the brink of elimination. What has gone wrong? There were signs early in Game 1 that both of these teams were in trouble.

Pens Losing Emotional Control

For Pittsburgh the breakdown has been as much emotional as it has been defensive. The way the Pens started Game 1, and how the Flyers had come back on them in the last month of the regular season, made the Pens emotionally charged up but also fragile. Losing Game 1 in overtime after having a 3-0 lead put the Pens emotionally on “tilt”. They have been unable to manage the extreme intensity of this series. Good starts all three games, but they lose focus, breakdown defensively, Fleury gives up rebounds, and they are again on an emotional rollercoaster.

Mentally Tough Performer for Week 1 2012 NHL Playoffs: Sean Couturier

Just as in 2011, each week during the 2012 NHL Playoffs the Hockey Edge Blog will choose one player as Mentally Tough Performer of the Week. This is a player that exhibits toughness and performs well under pressure, bounces back after a big mistake, stays positive in the face of adversity, deals with pain and continues to perform, and/or leads with their performance. This player performs at a high level in a tough situation.

There are many deserving candidates in the first week of the NHL Playoffs, but no one is more deserving than Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers. Couturier, a 19-year-old rookie in his first playoffs, is playing a starring role for the Flyers. Couturier has been assigned as the man to mark the league's leading scorer Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins. He has not only stopped Malkin from scoring a goal, but also had a hat trick in Game 2. Philadelphia gave Couturier a very difficult role, one in which most players in the NHL would have not succeeded. At a young age Couturier has the confidence and mental toughness to play a key defensive role and provide offense. Many 19-year-olds are just finishing the first year of college, but Couturier is shutting down world class players on the big stage. A big stage that could have easily froze him.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hockey Edge Quote of the Week

Don't play the game just to let it go by. Play the game to make a difference.
Peter Laviolette

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hockey Edge Quote of the Week

"When you're able to come back in a game like that, again, I think it speaks volumes about the character in the room. Fighting back like that is not easy, and the players were just so resilient that it's unbelievable, really." -- Flyers coach Peter Laviolette on Philadelphia's comeback win against the Pens Friday night (

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Myth of Mental Toughness Column Focuses on Semantics

Dr. Denis Boucher wrote a column for The Hockey News entitled "The Myth of Mental Toughness". Dr. Boucher made some excellent points about managing thoughts and feelings by using mental skills training. There is no doubt that a hockey player that is able to control how he thinks and feels on the ice will be more confident, focused, and motivated.

Where I take issue is that Dr. Boucher, an exercise physiologist, suggests mental toughness is a myth. His argument is that focusing being tough means hiding from how you feel and not admitting your are anxious or need help. I totally agree with the idea that you don't want players to avoid their feelings and thoughts. This is what I call fragile confidence. Awareness and acceptance are the foundation of resilient confidence.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Team Resiliency Bounces Back Again in Game 1

The Philadelphia Flyers have made it a habit of getting behind in games. More importantly they have made it a habit to bounce back and win from behind. The Flyers have the most comebacks in the NHL. Their aura of never stopping, always sticking with the game plan, and constantly pressuring their opponent is paying dividends. 

The Penguins are a tough team, no doubt about it. However, how many times can you watch the same team come back on you? Three times in the last weeks of the season the Flyers were behind 2-0, 2-0, and 3-0 in Game 1. All wins. The only time Pittsburgh maintained their early lead was when Claude Giroux and Danny Briere were out of the lineup in Game #82 to close the regular season. That win likely gave Pittsburgh little confidence; when both teams bring their full lineup the Flyers have found a way to frustrate the Pens.

Western Conference Mental Game Breakdown: #3 Coyotes vs. #6 Blackhawks

#3 Coyotes vs. #6 Blackhawks

Advantages Phoenix: Good performance down the stretch, Defensive approach

Similar to Florida, many pundits think the higher seeded Coyotes are the underdog in this series. However, Phoenix was hot down the stretch and owns the season series against Chicago. The Coyotes are getting excellent play from Mike Smith with an amazing .930 save percentage. This gives the Coyotes confidence that their goalie will come up big and can possibly free them from the nerves of playing at home. Phoenix also relies on a more defensive approach and will attempt to limit Chicago’s potent offense which should make for an interesting story throughout the series. The Coyotes are good with leads and will need to get in front early in games and withstand the Hawks ability to create scoring chances from skilled forwards and defense.

Western Conference Mental Game Breakdown: #2 Blues vs. #7 Sharks

#2 Blues vs. #7 Sharks

Advantages St. Louis: Energy of crowd and youth, Disciplined style, Goaltending

Who could be more excited about the upcoming playoffs than St. Louis? The Blues had an amazing season after Ken Hitchcock took over the reigns as head coach. The Blues bought into Hitchcock’s disciplined, defensive style and have a lot of confidence from a better than expected regular season. The Blues will get tons of support from a loud home crowd and will want to have good starts to their home games to keep that energy in the building.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Western Conference Mental Game Breakdown: #1 Canucks vs. #8 Kings

#1 Canucks vs. #8 Kings

Advantages Canucks: Experience, So close in 2011, Goalie tandem 

For the defending Western Conference champs it is all about how they look at the pressures that exist. The Canucks have the spotlight of Canada shining on them. The only other Canadian team in the playoffs is Ottawa and they are not expected to contend for the Cup. If the Canucks can seize the energy of the attention they will be receiving and use it, they can go deep in the playoffs. My guess is that the experience of the Canucks will pay off big time, especially in this series against LA that will be harder than many expect. Goals should be at a premium, and the Canucks will need to be strong in one-goal games.

Western Conference Mental Game Breakdown: #4 Predators vs. #5 Red Wings

#4 Predators vs. #5 Red Wings

Advantages Nashville: Experience, wins the last two games against Detroit, Disciplined team game, Shea-Suter defense pair, Rinne

The Nashville Predators run into the Red Wings again in the playoffs; their playoff nemesis. All signs show that the Preds are ready to take out the Wings. They won the last two games in the regular season against the Wings, including a convincing win at Joe Louis arena. Nashville can now finally say that they have won a playoff round, and can focus instead on going deep in the playoffs. Their experience of beating Anaheim last year should help them; they know they can get it done this year. 

Western Conference Mental Breakdown: #1 Canucks vs. #8 Kings

#1 Canucks vs. #8 Kings

Advantages Canucks: Experience, So close in 2011, Goalie tandem

For the defending Western Conference champs it is all about how they look at the pressures that exist. The Canucks have the spotlight of Canada shining on them. The only other Canadian team in the playoffs is Ottawa and they are not expected to contend for the Cup. If the Canucks can seize the energy of the attention they will be receiving and use it, they can go deep in the playoffs. My guess is that the experience of the Canucks will pay off big time, especially in this series against LA that will be harder than many expect. Goals should be at a premium, and the Canucks will need to be strong in one-goal games.

Mental Game Breakdown: #4 Penguins vs. #5 Flyers

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia

Advantages Pittsburgh: Experience, Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Depth, Want it

This will be one intense series. The teams do not like each other and definitely are ready to get at it in Game 1. The Pens have the look of a team that can go a long ways in the playoffs. They are confident with getting Crosby back and Malkin having his best season that this is their time to win the Cup. The experience of previous playoff runs will help the Pens manage a very difficult first round match up against the Flyers and remain confident and attacking in pressure situations.

Mental Game Breakdown: #3 Panthers vs. #6 Devils

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey

Advantages Florida: Underdog and disrespected, not playing under bright lights

The Florida Panthers won their first division title in team history and were consistently in playoff position the whole season. It is no fluke that they made the playoffs. The Panthers ended a long absence from the playoffs, but they have some experienced playoff performers in Campbell, Versteeg, Jovanovski, and Bergenheim. Yet, no one is picking the higher seed to win this series. It is expected that New Jersey will win this series quickly and move on to the second round. Florida can use the fuel of being disrespected to play a high energy, disciplined game. From a mental game perspective, Florida is not under much pressure to win as fans will be happy to just see the playoffs.

East Mental Game Breakdown: #2 Bruins vs. #7 Capitals

Mental Game Breakdown

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington

Advantages Boston: Experience, Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Been there/done that, hot down the stretch

The defending Cup champion Bruins are coming in to the 2012 playoffs playing well. They finished the season winning 7 out of 10 games. During this stretch Goaltender Tim Thomas looked like the 2011 playoffs version of himself which is bad news for the rest of the field. If Thomas is hot in the playoffs it will give the B's the kind of confidence needed to go on another Cup run.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

NHL Playoff Mental Game Breakdown: #1 Rangers vs. #8 Senators

The NHL Playoffs kickoff April 11 and the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs have four interesting match ups. Many prognosticators are leaning heavily towards a favorite in each series. experts are pretty much picking the Rangers, Pens, Devils, and Bruins across the board. I believe there will be at least 1-2 upsets in the first round. Why? Take a look at the mental dynamics that are going on in each series.

Here is a breakdown of each series in the East and the mental dynamics that are occurring. This is, of course, at the start of the series. Getting down 2-0 on home ice is a mental dynamic that may emerge for one of these higher seeds but I cannot anticipate. Thus, the mental game breakdown will change each game, but these factors are existing from the start of the series. Let's start with the New York-Ottawa series.

#1 NY Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa

Sunday, April 1, 2012

NHL's Western Conference Race will Come Down to the Wire

The race for the #3, #7 and #8 seeds in the Western Conference will come down to the last week of the NHL season. Currently Los Angeles holds the Pacific Division lead and so they are in third place in the Western Conference. Dallas, San Jose, Phoenix and Colorado are all fighting to get in the playoffs. Only three points separate the teams.

Having watched all of these teams in the last few weeks I would say the Kings are playing the best hockey. LA picked up 15 points out of the last 20 and pushed past the pack. Jonathan Quick is playing amazing in the net and providing the Kings the confidence they need to play a solid game. They don't have to worry about making mistakes because they know Quick will be there to stop the puck. Trustworthy goaltending is crucial to the confidence of a team and right now LA has to be feeling great about their chances every night.