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Managing emotions the key to winning a Game 7

by Dr. Larry Lauer

Jeremy Roenick added to his big-game reputation with two goals and two assists in game 7 against Calgary. Roenick scores a PP goal
Hockey fans were lucky in getting to watch three Game 7s this past week. Only one of those three games came down to the wire, but Game 7s are exciting regardless of the score. Players only get so many shots at a Game 7, and fans relish the chance to see their team in the ultimate game.

Game 7 is an environment like none other. It is the ultimate game, with both teams facing elimination. Thus, they are desperate and the intensity is unbelievable. Both teams know someone is going to be the hero and they are praying they are not the goat. They experience tremendous emotional ups and downs because of the importance of the situation.

Because of the finality of a Game 7 and the accompanying intensity, it is no surprise that it conjures a great deal of excitement and emotion, but also anxiety. It can be difficult to prepare for what likely is the biggest game of a player’s career.

"Just throughout the afternoon, I couldn't sleep, just thinking about preparing for Game 7," Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Glen Wesley said in an story following the Hurricanes’ Game 7 victory against the Edmonton Oilers in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

How a player interprets these feelings can make the difference in a Game 7. In an interview prior to Game 7 of the Sharks-Flames series, San Jose veteran Jeremy Roenick talked about how he supported his team by helping them reframe the pressure of Game 7 by looking at what a great opportunity it was.

Specifically, Roenick talked about how it is an opportunity to do something legendary. Game 7s can make your reputation. It can define a career. Game 7 is a chance to become a hero and to gain a reputation as a big-time player. His message to his teammates was to seize the opportunity.

Roenick seemed like he was predicting the future because the Sharks came out flying and dominated the Flames in a 5-3 victory. Roenick added to his big-game reputation with two goals and two assists. I believe it is his positive, optimistic outlook that helps him play big in the biggest of games.

So it definitely helps to have the right outlook when it comes to a Game 7. Players should want the pressure, even embrace it.

One player that made himself a legend in Game 7s was Mark Messier. His teammates knew he would lead the way in the most pressurized game situations. And somehow he always seemed to come through. Messier loved the big game.

What is difficult for teams to do is to rebound from a Game 6 loss and prepare for Game 7. It seems like all of the momentum is against them. Preparing for Game 7 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Final against the Flyers, Dave Andreychuk provided some sage advice on how to overcome a Game 6 loss. "This is what we play for," he said. “We play for a Game 7 in our building. We have to forget about this one. We have to realize it’s one game now."

The Canadiens, Flyers, and Sharks must have gotten Andreychuk’s memo. All three teams rebounded from a Game 6 loss to win their series and move on to the second round.

Another Game 7 obstacle involves managing emotional intensity and finding the right balance of being physical while avoiding penalties. This emotional intensity can lend itself to great hits and fierce forechecking. However, a player easily can take it over the top, lose focus and take a bad penalty. Early in Game 7, the Flyers and Capitals took multiple penalties, giving the opposition 5-on-3 power plays. And in overtime the power play was the difference as the Flyers scored on an ill-timed Tom Poti trip of R.J. Umberger.

This intensity also lends itself to serious momentum runs. Blowouts occur because a team goes on an emotional run. Montreal got up early on Boston in their Game 7 and rode the emotion to a 5-0 whitewashing of the Bruins. The Sharks scored four goals in less than nine minutes to effectively salt away their game against Calgary in a frenzied home arena.

What does it take, then, to be a Game 7 hero (and not a goat)? Players must manage their emotions so they can think clearly in pressure situations. They have to use the emotional intensity of the crowd to their advantage by allowing it to energize their effort, but not allow it to spill over into penalties.

Finally, to win a Game 7 players must be able to refocus when something goes wrong. Dwelling on a mistake, a bad call or a cheap shot only will serve to distract them from the here and now – the opportunity to win a Game 7.

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