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Finding the right mindset going into the playoffs

by Dr. Larry Lauer

Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche played strong down the stretch to solidy a playoff berth, but will they measure up once the postseason begins?
As the NHL regular season concludes this weekend, many teams remain in the hunt to cement the best positioning. Scoreboard watching has become a nightly ritual for players and fans alike.

Exciting stuff to be sure, but how does this late season push affect a team's mindset going into the playoffs?

Will the Capitals, Flyers, Bruins, Avalanche, Hurricanes, or Canucks be able to keep up the intensity when the new season starts Wednesday? These are just a few of the teams that have been playing the last month of the season as if it were actually the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their intensity has been fueled with the urgency that every point in the standings matters; especially because of the "three-point" game.

The toll of pushing to the last weekend can be more emotionally than physically exhausting. While a team that is on a roll going into the playoffs should play with great intensity and confidence, the burden of playing under the pressure for weeks eventually may lead to a team being flat in the first round. For example, last season Tampa Bay had a quick first-round exit and seemed to be spent.

Teams can be a low seed and succeed, but it is rare. In 2006 Edmonton pushed for weeks to make the playoffs and finished the season as the eighth seed. Detroit, then the top seed, won eight of its last 10 games and eased into the playoffs winning the Presidents' Trophy by 11 points. But the Oilers seemed more emotionally prepared for the playoffs and played with great energy and grit defeating the Wings in a huge upset. Riding this wave of confidence, the Oilers went to Game 7 of the Final before losing to the Hurricanes.

The Oilers, however, were the exception more than the rule. Historically teams barely making the playoffs are unable to get deep into the second season. Of course, they are the underdog and are not expected to win, but just as important is the emotional expenditure that occurs in the regular-season push. This expenditure makes it difficult to keep going to the emotional well, and once these teams face great adversity in the playoffs, they often struggle to get up for a game or bounce back from early deficits. The Oilers' impressive run to the Final was fueled by a passion that allowed them to overcome the fatigue, pain, and frustration of tough losses during a long season.

Playoff-bound teams must be prepared to expend the energy needed to be successful. They have to be prepared to win the 1-on-1 battles late in the third period or in a multiple overtime game. They have to be prepared to block shots, clear the front of the net, get their stick in the passing lane, and be the first to the puck. They must bring passion to the rink night after night for two months.

Winning battles and staying disciplined in the playoffs not only requires passion and physical conditioning, but mental conditioning as well. Players have to make a commitment to stick to the game plan and push themselves to be in position and do the little things right. The mistakes they make in the regular season are magnified in the playoffs. Players cannot allow fatigue or distractions to get in the way of performance.

Mark Messier, playoff hero and the model of grit, determination, and clutch play, once said: "To go the distance, there almost has to be a mental separation between the regular season and the playoffs." Mentally, players must make the shift that the playoffs are a new season and the only thing that matters is what they control -- their preparation for the next game. And, this includes getting up for each of those games, one at a time.

To be successful in the playoffs teams must mentally prepare to win the battles. What is this preparation? Players energize their body and focus their mind by following set routines between games. They avoid being out late and get plenty of rest. They make the commitment to take care of their body -- stretch, ice, massage, etc. Furthermore, they make every effort to avoid distractions or deal with them quickly. They funnel their thoughts to focus just on the game as the game approaches. Many players visualize game situations such as hitting the top shelf on a breakaway. This preparation reduces stress and anxiety that might be caused by fatigue, pain, or self doubt. Prepared teams know they did everything possible to be ready and take confidence in their preparation.

So what lower seeded team will make a run this season? Well it depends -- players must have the confidence in themselves and their teammates and coaches to stick to the game plan and to just play, not overanalyze the situation. They must trust in their preparation. When teams get distracted by the importance of the moment, the playoffs, you see them play on their heels. And that certainly is not the mindset teams want going into the playoffs.

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