NHL playoffs success in players’ heads

Geoff Baker The Seattle
Times (TNS)
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins walks off the ice following their 3-1 victory in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round against the Montreal Canadiens prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 3, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario.

SEATTLE - Onetime Seattle Breakers junior star and NHL captain Ryan Walter still isn't sure what to make of the pandemic-modified Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now a British Columbia-based mental performance coach for athletes and business leaders, Walter admits it "freaks me out a little" to watch neutral-site games with no fans and piped-in crowd noise. He's found games "fun to watch" but still can't gauge how players are responding mentally after a 4 1/2-month layoff and with COVID-19 hanging over everything.

"It's going to be interesting to see how each of the teams are prepared to play at this level this quickly," said Walter, a two-time Stanley Cup finalist with Montreal - winning in 1986. "I'm pretty interested to watch and see what plays out and what principles I can glean from that. I think it's a very interesting thing that we're not going to see too often."

We're also seeing two very different playoff formats early on.

There's a best-of-five "Qualifier Round" for teams Nos. 5-12 in each conference. Also, single round-robin games between the top four conference teams - who've automatically advanced to the next round - to finalize seeding.

An emerging story is onetime Everett Silvertips goalie Carter Hart, who stopped 34 shots for the Philadelphia Flyers in Sunday's 4-1 round-robin win over Boston and could carry teammates much deeper into the playoffs. Turning 22 next week, Hart highlighted an otherwise dull game typifying the round robin, which has lacked the intensity of best-of-five affairs.

Saturday's best-of-five games featured a fight fewer than three minutes into the Carolina-New York Rangers playoff opener, then a head blow leading to a suspension in the second game between Chicago and Edmonton, and finally, a borderline Matthew Tkachuk hit that could end the playoffs for Winnipeg star Mark Scheifele.

And that was just Day 1.

Meanwhile, in round-robin play, the Bruins - Presidents Trophy winners for the top regular-season record - sleepwalked to their loss against Philadelphia. The most exciting round-robin moment came Sunday when Nazem Kadri scored with one-tenth of a second remaining to give Colorado a 2-1 win over defending champion St. Louis.

But even Blues coach Craig Berube looked bored awaiting video review to determine whether Kadri's shot beat the buzzer.

Seeding is relative, with home-ice advantage already nullified by having all teams quarantined in hotels and playing before empty stands in Toronto and Edmonton. Throw in NHL parity and even winning the chance to face a lower seed next round might not matter.

So, nothing worth losing teeth over.

"Players and coaches will always tell you there's no difference, that they're professionals and there to play every game," Walter said. "And then, there's obviously reality."

Walter feels coaches may be concerned with "pushing buttons too early" with players in the round robin, especially with playoff advancement assured. "You can't yell fire when there's no fire," he said.

Not so with best-of-five.

Teams winning best-of-five openers the past century went 68-15 in those series. Those winning the first two games went 55-1.

There's a reason the NHL jettisoned the format after 1986 _ only reviving it this round to quickly thin a pandemic-expanded herd of 24 playoff teams.

Walter remembers his Canadiens losing 1-0, 3-0 and 4-2 against lower-seeded Buffalo the opening round in 1983. "Boom, boom, boom _ we were done," Walter said. "And that's the problem with best-of-five. It is intense. You lose one game and it's like over. You lose two and you're done. It feels that way, anyway."

His team's Game 1 loss facing Sabres goaltender Bob Sauve had been the only shutout in 81 years of best-of-five openers. Until goalies Joonas Korpisalo of Columbus and Alex Stalock of Minnesota managed it this past weekend.

Hot goaltenders can swing series, especially short ones.

Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, the No. 5 seed in the East, who were frustrated by Carey Price and the No. 12-seeded Canadiens in an overtime loss in Game 1. Pittsburgh needed a 3-1 win in Game 2 on Monday to avoid their season being practically done.

NHL Seattle senior adviser Dave Tippett, now coaching the West's No. 5 seed Oilers, similarly lost Saturday's opener to 12th seeded Chicago but avoided disaster Monday with a 6-3 win.

Regular seasons lately haven't meant much come playoff time. Hockey fans previously joked about canceling the 82-game "warmup" and jumping straight to playoffs, which has sort of happened here.

"Typically, you're tired at the end of the season and you get your 'gap' energy for the playoffs," Walter said. "But now, everybody's in the same boat. They've all been working out and they're all at the same level of rest."

That makes the mental edge critical. Walter coaches athletes to reach their "fifth mindset" or "flow zone" stage, then allow their talent to dominate.

"Sometimes players think too much," he said. "They've got to get into that place where it's the 'flow zone' that takes over."

Walter expects that's tougher in these "bubble" playoffs with COVID-19-related distractions abounding. Hockey is the most physical sport attempting a pandemic comeback to date, with players abandoning on-ice social distancing for their typical jaw-to-jaw style.

Whether a few positive COVID-19 tests change that and throw players off their game is the great unknown. Thus far, more than 7,000 tests July 27-Aug. 1 were negative, but still, it's only the beginning.

Walter expects mental toughness to be key and teams with the most disciplined players to prevail. One way he pinpoints teams lacking mental discipline? Postgame excuses.

"Typically you don't hear a lot of excuses from professional athletes," Walter said. "But I'm wondering if this will bring out some excuses. And I'll be watching for that."

Players navigating these unprecedented playoffs certainly have dozens of built-in excuses to choose from. Whoever emerges champions will undoubtedly deserve the standard ovation.

Even if only a prerecorded one from empty stands.