The Stanley Cup is so difficult to win, but the first round of the playoffs may be the most challenging. The quest is fresh, the energy is high and each team's situation is so different. Expectations can be high after a successful regular season.
Teams who are seeded lower with a nothing-to-lose mentality always pose challenges. In 1997 with the Dallas Stars, we were a No. 2 seed team facing the enthusiastic and rambunctious No. 7 Edmonton Oilers in the first round. It was seven games of hard-hitting, fast-skating hockey that ultimately went into overtime to decide the series outcome. Joe Nieuwendyk had the OT winner on his stick, but Curtis Joseph was having none of it. Todd Marchant scored the winner and the only sounds heard in Reunion Arena were those of jubilant Oilers who had played with a determination and spirit reminiscent of the championship Oilers teams of the 1980s.
The disappointment of falling so short of your goal is sudden and the feeling is painful. The most difficult aspect of losing in this manner is to be able to keep a realistic perspective. It was disappointing to lose, but the composition of the team was solid and our task now became one of strengthening the group, not dismantling and changing it.
The feeling in the Devils' locker room and the sounds in the Prudential Center on Tuesday evening would be eerily similar to ones in Dallas in 1997. I believe the Devils' focus will remain the same in the aftermath as well, strengthen a team which is very good.
The "clock struck twelve" that playoff season in the form of the Pittsburgh Penguins, their always enthusiastic coach "Badger" Bob Johnson and the brilliance of Mario Lemieux. Despite losing, there was still some sense of accomplishment. I knew the feeling of being a victorious team with "nothing to lose" long before I understood the pain of being a top team defeated early in the playoffs.
The 1998 playoffs in Dallas came on the heels of winning the Presidents' Trophy. It was a good team with the elements to win a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, we lost Joe Nieuwendyk to a knee injury in the first game versus the Oilers in the conference semifinals. We were eliminated in the Western Conference Finals by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings. It proved to be an injury we could not overcome, but it was a team which had truly become stronger through injury and disappointment. The buzz around a team during the season and playoffs is continuous. It is busy and everybody is getting ready for the next game, but when the curtain falls, it is not only over but the activity and the buzz comes to a standstill.
Sitting in the coaches' office in Joe Louis Arena in the aftermath of the defeat that evening, it seemed like an eternity before a word was spoken. Doug Jarvis, our assistant coach and a four-time Stanley Cup champion as a player, finally spoke. "We have a very good team here. A team that is tight and plays for one another and is willing to sacrifice to win. I am proud to be associated with them."
That is the perspective of a winner and exemplifies the importance of looking at your team through the lens of how things are, not as you wish them to be.
The teams who have just been eliminated are looking at how to better meet the challenges of proceeding deeper in the playoffs. The top teams and those with higher expectations are under more scrutiny and more intense questioning. The public assessment is taking place, but the most important assessment must come in private. There is any number of explanations for what has happened, but the essence of the evaluation must consist of what can be done to position your team to be successful and then to take the necessary steps. It is not easy and the next opportunities for success are long away.
The Presidents' Trophy once again was earned by the Stars in 1999 and all those high expectations were present for the beginning of another playoff year. The Stanley Cup was won by Dallas and, fittingly, Nieuwendyk was selected as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as most valuable player in the playoffs. We arrived at a glorious destination, but the journey encompassed some pain, required contemplation, involved self-examination, and had some seeds of doubt. We developed a strong belief in one another and the journey shaped and molded us. Most importantly it prepared us to win and those steps are essential if you want to reach your destination.