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As the stakes get higher, so must your focus

by Dr. Larry Lauer

Johan Franzen, who scored nine goals in the Wings' series against Colorado, displayed a sense of calm and confidence. Johan Franzen highlights
What I thought would be a long, drawn-out second round of the playoffs actually turned into more of a rout by the Wings, Pens, and Flyers. The Stars and Sharks did provide us great drama, ending the second round with an OT thriller.

Looking Back

The second round brought an interesting question to mind. Which team is more mentally tough -- the one that overwhelms and dominates its opponent with supreme confidence, focus, and intensity, or the team that gets behind and keeps bouncing back, showing great resilience and commitment in the face of adversity?

The Red Wings were clearly the superior team in their second-round conquest of Colorado. They played with a confidence and flow that defies the pressure that comes with the playoffs and competing in “Hockeytown.” To play their skilled game so consistently, especially Johan Franzen, reveals a sense of calm and confidence. It is hard to know when you are not in the dressing room, but Detroit’s confidence has been boosted since coach Mike Babcock inserted Chris Osgood between the pipes.

The Flyers, on the other hand, always seemed to be one mistake, one bad goal, from losing control of their series against the Canadiens. At no time did they seem to be in total control of the series. Yet, they led all but 30 minutes of the last four games. They continued their pattern of leading 2-0 and then giving up the lead. They also continued the pattern of scoring the next goal and winning. Then, in Game 6, they found a way to come back from being down two goals in the second period with a barrage of goals.

Philadelphia has been tremendously resilient, despite a rocky regular season that made one think that the roof would fall in at the Wachovia Center. But, like Rocky, they keep getting back up. Philly has shown great mental toughness despite the adversity of losing third-period leads throughout the playoffs.

The Flyers’ success came at the misfortune of Montreal goalie Carey Price. Price struggled mightily with his glove hand. The Flyers knew this, and like a good team, they relentlessly attacked Price’s glove, which broke down in Games 3 and 5. Confidence at the NHL level can be a fragile commodity, especially for a rookie.

The unsettled goaltending situation probably affected the Canadiens’ mindset. They seemed unsure of themselves in critical moments and tried to be too perfect in the offensive zone, passing up good scoring chances. The play of Flyers’ goalie Martin Biron could have gotten in the heads of the Canadien shooters, as well. When they did drive the net and throw the puck on goal in the first and second period of Game 5, they had success.

The Flyers' ability to stick to a game plan was what Montreal did not do. They were unable to continuously test Biron with traffic in front of the net. Having the focus and discipline to stick to an effective game plan is critical in the playoffs and it paid off for the Flyers.

How can we look back without discussing the historic Sharks-Stars Game 6 marathon? First off, thanks to Evgeni Nabakov and Marty Turco for an amazing show of composure, competitiveness, and athleticism. Their saves in the first overtime were two of the best I have ever seen in the playoffs. Their ability to remain composed and focused during almost seven periods of hockey is a testament to the conditioning and the mental toughness of these all-stars, as well as their teammates.

I am still not sure if it is better to cruise through the second round with confidence or face adversity and be resilient. Maybe the answer will come in the next round.

Moving Forward

The Conference Finals are now upon us. Lets take a look at the mental dynamics of these matchups.

Stars vs. Red Wings -- The Wings are riding a wave of confidence and now a seven-game winning streak after winning Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. This team believes in Chris Osgood, and if he continues to save the pucks that he should, the Wings will be successful.

The Wings need to be careful of overconfidence and believing their past dominance against the Stars will continue. They will have to earn every win in this series. Detroit’s leadership, from the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and company, likely will not allow them to become overconfident. Look for the Wings to be prepared to get back to the Final and continue to play with the confidence they have progressively built up against Nashville and Colorado.

On the other side, Dallas is also riding the wave of energy coming from an impressive win against the Sharks. No longer is Turco being pinned as a playoff underachiever. Something seems different in Dallas this season. There is an air of confidence in this team, but Detroit could easily fracture this confidence early in the series with home wins.

For the Stars to beat Detroit, they must throw away the past and believe that they can win at the highest levels.

There’s not anything done, positive or negative, that really affects you going into the playoffs and eventually really matters. Our focus, and everyone’s playing at this time of year, is about your next save, your next shift, your next game. I’m certainly no different. - Marty Turco
“There’s not anything done, positive or negative, that really affects you going into the playoffs and eventually really matters,” Turco said. “Our focus, and everyone’s playing at this time of year, is about your next save, your next shift, your next game. I’m certainly no different.”

This belief should be revealed on ice by a continuous attack on the Wings no matter the score. Too often against San Jose, the Stars played defensive and tentative and were fortunate to get out of Game 6 with a victory.

If Dallas can get an early win and put Detroit in a come-from-behind situation, look for the pressure of playing in “Hockeytown” to become a negative for the Wings and take away from their free flowing, confident offense.

Flyers vs. Penguins -- High intensity and physical play will be the trademark of the all-Pennsylvania Eastern Conference Finals. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia know each other well and there is enough leftover regular-season animosity for this series to get nasty early. Both teams will have to show restraint when it comes to the physical play because the power plays will cash in.

According to Flyers coach John Stevens, being able to walk the fine line between being emotional and physical and not taking bad penalties is critical.

“The buildings are so intense," Stevens said. "The fan support is just terrific. It tends to ratchet it up each step you go. We want to be aggressive and want to play with urgency and intensity, but if we’re undisciplined, we’re just neutralizing ourselves.

"There are always going to be penalties in a hockey game, but they can’t be unnecessary penalties that will put us at a disadvantage and keep their good players on the ice in a power play situation.”

The Flyers won the season series against Pittsburgh. They know they can beat the Pens, but they also know that they must get off to good starts. The Pens are great feeding off the energy of their home crowd and can run away from opponents quickly.

Furthermore, the Flyers have to learn to shut the door on their opponents because the Pens are too good to allow them back in the game. If Philly can play 60 minutes of intense, focused hockey while continuing to bounce back from mistakes with confidence, they have a chance to be in the Final for the first time since 1997.

The Penguins, on the other hand, have home ice and a ton of confidence. They take great confidence in having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa and depth scoring. At the same time, the Pens have shown to be very good defensively and must continue to stay focused on playing sound hockey.

The Pens’ confidence has also been fueled by the strong play of Marc-Andre Fleury. In his first playoffs experience he has remained poised. This will be his biggest test so far, as the Flyers will make life miserable in front of the net. It will be important for Fleury to stay focused and not get caught up in the physical play in his crease. The Pens need to stay focused on the process of playing the game, and not be distracted by the looming expectation that they will win the Cup.

All four teams still alive in the playoffs will feel the pressure to seize the opportunity. History shows that it is hard to get back to the Conference Finals the following year.

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