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Mental toughness personified by both Wings and Pens

by Dr. Larry Lauer

Both the Penguins and Red Wings displayed a great deal of skill and toughness throughout the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, but in the end the dominant defense by Detroit was the difference. 
Highlights of the Red Wings Cup clinching win
The 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs have come to an end, but not without high drama and some white-knuckle moments.

Detroit and Pittsburgh put on a show of skill and toughness in the Stanley Cup Final, but ultimately it was the Wings’ dominant defensive play and the consistency of Chris Osgood, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk (well you enter the name and I think they were consistent), that led to their victory.

What most interested me in the Final was the mental dynamics occurring. Detroit had the weight of being the favorite because of its experience, especially after the first two games. Pittsburgh had to deal with the expectations of being the next dynasty following Detroit, and with being in its first Final in 16 years.

In my opinion, both teams exhibited a great deal of mental toughness despite the pressure. Not at all times, by all players, but for the most part they were mentally tough.

Detroit played with unbelievable focus and energy, especially in Games 1 and 2. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, struggled to play at Detroit’s level in the first two games and did not respond well to the pressure applied to them. I thought the shots that the Pens took at Johan Franzen’s head were uncharacteristic, and revealed just how frustrated they were. The Wings had taken them out of their game.

Going to the Igloo changed everything for the Pens. Calling upon the energy of their fans, the Pens played a more attacking game, while being disciplined. They bounced back with excellent performances which they rode in to Game 5 in Detroit. They played with the mental toughness that got them to the Final. They kept believing and fought through adversity.

That is the thing with mental toughness – it is not an all or nothing concept. You don’t always have it and you can sure as heck lose it at times. Think of it as a quality that a hockey player needs to excel, but can be enhanced or reduced by the situation and the moment.

Mental toughness is similar to a physical skill such as shooting, skating or passing. It is easier to be tough or perform a skill in practice or low-pressure situations, but when the pressure is cranked up mental toughness, and physical skills, can be negatively affected.

Mentally tough performers like Lidstrom are not invincible. They have doubts. They feel pressure. They become negative. However, the mentally tough performer bounces back quicker and with more conviction.

Both the Penguins and the Red Wings displayed an amazing ability to bounce back in the Final. Game 5 was a shining example.

Pittsburgh continued to show heart by taking an early 2-0 lead. In response Detroit laced its skates a little tighter and refocused. They bounced back and took the play to the Pens the rest of the game and finally got the lead. The Cup was there for the taking, the champagne was on ice, the commissioner was ready to make his speech … but Maxime Talbot did the incredible by scoring with 34 seconds left. What amazing ability to stick with it, to not give in. That is mental toughness!

Then, another bounce-back occurred. Detroit immediately went down to the other end and had several chances before the end of regulation. That was a testament to the Wings’ resiliency. They also dominated the overtime periods before Pittsburgh broke through in the third overtime. I think that is the quality that defines the Wings. No matter the situation they just keep coming, they keep playing their game.

Coach Mike Babcock admitted to the fact that the Wings were nervous at the beginning of Game 5. This nervousness led to more passive play, which is atypical of Detroit. The veteran Wings didn’t allow this to happen again in Game 6, just like in the Dallas series. They took the play early and controlled the game.

Again, with the specter of the Cup looming just out of sight (but not out of mind), it is hard not to have the thought of “what if we blow this?” or to think ahead to skating with the Cup. This specter can have a powerful influence on a team. Babcock discussed in his post-game interview how the chance to clinch the Cup creates emotion on the bench that is unlike any other time of the season. Even changing lines was difficult because players became so emotional.

However, the Red Wings did what they had done when pressured by Nashville and Dallas. They stayed focused and engaged in the moment, kept working and continued to attack. They did not allow the specter of the Cup make them play not to lose. They went out and they won the Cup. Detroit played to win, a hallmark of champions.

But just when you thought the Pens were finished, they had one last bounce-back in them. The power play connected in the last two minutes and then the game ended with the puck in the crease. An amazing finish! And evidence of the Pens’ ability to stick with it and never give up. Their mental toughness will serve them well in the future.

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