"We are one loss, one bad pass, one missed open net, one botched save from going home. We've worked so hard for nine months and now we cannot afford to screw it up. We HAVE to win. Nobody wins down three games to none."
This is the inner talk that both the Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers must eliminate to continue their seasons. The Stars and Flyers have to do the near impossible to keep their Stanley Cup dreams alive.
Down three games to none is not an impossible situation; two teams have overcome that deficit to win a series. However, many others have tried, and almost all have failed.
Maybe the Flyers and Stars should call the Sharks for some advice. Down 3-0 to Dallas in the last round, the Sharks played some excellent hockey to force a Game 6 in Dallas, where they lost in four overtimes. How did they do it? How could they discipline themselves to not focus on the off-season, the inevitable summer, and just give in?
That is just it. You cannot allow your mind to go there.
The Sharks were able to mentally stay in it because they believed. They played like they had a chance to overcome their 3-0 deficit. And they came up just short because they mentally gave themselves a chance.
Interestingly, many teams have come back from down 3-1. I remember Bill Clement talking about what the Flyers had to do down 3-1 against Edmonton in the 1987 Stanley Cup Final.
He said that the overcoming the deficit was like climbing a mountain. If the Flyers at that time thought about the enormity of the task, of climbing the mountain, then they were cooked. They would never make it back into the series.
But if they could focus on taking one step at a time, they had a chance to climb the mountain and get back into the series. The Flyers forced a Game 7 and lost a tightly contested game in Edmonton, revealing that if you believe, you do have a chance even against a team of all-stars such as the 1980s Oilers.
When down in a series, a team must prepare just one game at a time. It can't think about the task of winning three- or four-straight games.
The Rangers were faced with having to come back from a 3-0 deficit against Pittsburgh in the second round.
"If somebody tells you that you have to win four of five, it's strange. It doesn't look possible," said the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr. "But if someone tells you that you have to win the next one; then tell you that you have to win the next one and the next one, it's a lot easier. You don't think too forward."
This mentality is cliché, but that is because it works! Focusing on the "right now" is how great athletes get into the zone and play their finest in pressure situations.
Being behind in the series does give a team the green light to play with nothing to lose. Often teams play better when they just play hockey and don't worry about HAVING TO WIN. This is probably why the Sharks' performance improved after falling behind three games to Dallas.
At the same time, the team that's ahead may become conservative and just try to hold on. "Just one game away" can be the words that haunt a team for the summer. That is why the hardest game to win is the last one.
So, Dallas and Philadelphia should take some confidence in that Detroit and Pittsburgh may be feeling some nerves to try and finish them off and get to the Final.
At the Wachovia Center, orange shirts with the words "Why Not Us?" were given to all fans for Game 3. After Game 3, Philly might have been thinking "Why Us?"
That is the mental battle the Flyers and the Stars must win to give themselves a chance on the ice. Their focus must be: one shift at a time, one period at a time, one game at a time.
To have any chance, the Flyers and Stars must be prepared to deal with adversity without giving in to defeat. Getting down a goal must not be the straw that breaks the camel's back. They must stay committed to winning the battles and making good decisions. They must be prepared to do the hard work of climbing the mountain.
"You can't win four games tomorrow night," cautioned the Flyers' Mike Richards before Game 4. "You've got to take it a game at a time."
This is only possible if the team continues to believe throughout the game, and even leading up to the next game. With a "one-game" mentality and a belief that they could win the series, who knows what could happen for Dallas and Philly?
San Jose sure did give Dallas a scare!