Sunday, May 18, 2008

The ups and downs

Hockey's a weird game. I was watching Dallas and Detroit's game five yesterday and boy, how things have turned around since the beginning of the series. For the first three games, Detroit looked like an indomitable less than the class of the field and the best team in hockey. People were talking about Chris Osgood as the Conn Smythe winner and expecting a Wings' sweep of the Stars. Two games later, and there are visible chinks in the armour. The mighty Lidstrom is making errors, Osgood looks human and Datsyuk and Zetterberg can't score.

I don't get it. How can a team that looks so impressive one day look so vulnerable the next? It underlines how very difficult a task it is to win the Stanley Cup. Even the very best can look like chumps on occasion. I guess the difference between a contender and a wannabe is the best teams are able to stop the slide before it's too late. That may be what it really means to "learn to win." It's the experience of playing badly as a team, as every team does sometimes, but in the process, not forgetting what made you good in the first place. It's being able to think about what you did right, and then do it again, even in the face of adversity.

That's the lesson I hope the Habs took from this year's playoffs. They started to make mistakes and it seemed like they forgot what got them there in the first place. The Red Wings, on the other hand, made mistakes, but I believe we'll see them come out tomorrow and calmly get back to the fundamentals that made them the number one team in the league. That's what I think the young teams need to learn the most.

We'll see if Pittsburgh comes out and ends Philly's season today. They played a poor game in game four, and looked rattled at the end. They've had a year on Montreal to learn how to put things in perspective and win when it counts. If they can pull it together convincingly, it'll give me hope the Habs can do it next year.

The other alternative is to be another Ottawa. A regular-season powerhouse and postseason choker. That's a team that's never learned to put a bad game behind them and remember why they were good. They panic and sweat and mentally collapse every year. Which seems to underline the fact that mental resolve may be the most important factor in building a winner in hockey.

Detroit's a great team. So is Ottawa. But one can pull it together and look within to find solutions to their problems before it's too late. The other dwells on the problem and sinks deeper and deeper into it without finding an answer. I think the Habs are building to be more like Detroit. Gainey has made no secret of preferring players who have been chosen to play for their national teams, and who have been captains of their minor and junior teams in the past. He believes, and I have no reason to doubt him, that those are indicators of players with resolve and determination. They're the kinds of players who can put the brakes on a slide and who have the mental strength to look beyond their immediate problem and focus on the truth of their abilities.

I hope that's what well see next season. Unless, of course, Detroit founders in the next couple of games and blows this theory straight to hell. Then I don't know what to expect, because hockey's a weird game.

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