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Overcoming losing in Final a mental, physical task

by Adam Kimelman /

It takes a lot for a team to reach the Stanley Cup Final. It's a 10-month journey that starts in September with training camp and runs through the fall, the winter and into the spring. It's capped by a nearly three-month tournament of attrition better known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

To the victors go the ultimate spoils -- immortality, as the players' names are permanently inscribed on the championship trophy, there to be pointed to and celebrated for generations to come.

But what about the losers? All they're left with are the scars and the memories of a great run that finished painfully short of the finish line.

Those scars don't heal easily, or quickly. Only one of the last 11 championship-series losers has won a playoff series the following season. Six were eliminated in the first round the following postseason, while four missed the playoffs altogether. Only the Dallas Stars, who lost to the New Jersey Devils in the 2000 Stanley Cup Final, won a playoff round the following postseason. You have to go back to 1996, when the Detroit Red Wings recovered from losing to the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 Final to reach the 1996 Western Conference Finals, to find a team that won at least two playoff rounds the season after losing in the Final.

And you have to go back more than two decades to find a team that lost in the Final one year to make it back that far the next -- the Edmonton Oilers, who lost to the New York Islanders in the 1983 Final, then won the 1984 Stanley Cup.

So why is it so hard to sustain success? How does a team go from one step shy of the ultimate summit to plummeting to an early start to summer?

Jason Smith, who went from captaining the Edmonton Oilers to the Cup Final in 2006 to missing the playoffs with them in 2007, might have summed it up best when he said, "Everything came together at the right time (in 2006). You could say a lot of things fell apart the year after."

While each team's situation is different, there are a number of factors that have limited a team's success the season after going to the Cup Final.

"The height of emotion and the amount of emotion that is involved with the (Stanley Cup) run is amazing," said Calgary Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr, a part of the Flames' run to the 2004 Final and first-round playoff loss in 2006. "Emotionally it's a huge drain on you to go through something like that. And physically, you're playing playoff hockey, it's more intense, more physical and you get more banged up. Those two things are a huge, huge factor that the next year the guys have a hard time getting things revved up again."

Finding motivation is one thing. Finding the energy to start the next season is another issue, as well. Playing so deep into the spring reduces a player's recovery time as well as his offseason training plan. And that time never is made up.

Bob Clarke witnessed it first-hand. As general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, he built a team that advanced to the 1997 Cup Final and then went out in the first round of the 1998 playoffs.

"If you've gotten that far in the playoffs, you've got to take a long break to recover as best you can, but you're also way behind in your training for the following season," he said. "It's really hard to get caught up and recover from the season and prepare for the next season. You don't get caught up."

Olaf Kolzig agreed. The goaltender played with the Washington Capitals when they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Final and then missed the 1999 playoffs.

"We finished the second week of June, and so you're spending the next month recovering form the season, where other teams have had two or three months to get that recovery and they're getting ready for the following season," he said. "We definitely felt like we were playing uphill all season."

And as deep as the physical scars run, the emotional ones might be the hardest to recover from.

"I don't think players will ever concede to physical tiredness," said Clarke, "but I do think there's an emotional loss. You get yourself to a very high level mentally, and for most players it's not that easy. To come back quickly and get the players back to that level emotionally is a hard chore for the coaches, for the management, for the players themselves. Some teams aren't equipped to do that and don't ever get back there."

"When you lose, you're no further along than the team that didn't make the playoffs, because you didn't win the Cup.You went further, but you didn't win the Cup. And to go two months like that, sacrifice and battle and you come up short … It takes a long time to get over that." -- Olaf Kolzig

There also are roster changes. Smith's Oilers dealt All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Ladislav Smid and three draft picks. Pronger, though, wasn't the only major player not to return the following season.

"(Defenseman) Jaro Spacek came in and really played well down the stretch and through the playoffs," Smith said. "(Forward) Sergei Samsonov was a big part of our playoff run."

After his team went to the 1997 Final, Clarke replaced coach Terry Murray with assistant Wayne Cashman, and signed restricted free-agent center Chris Gratton to a five-year contract.

Neither move worked, though. Cashman, as a first-time NHL coach, was demoted just 61 games into the 1998 season and replaced by Roger Neilson. And to recoup the four first-round picks lost to Tampa as compensation for signing Gratton, the Flyers had to break up their top line, the "Legion of Doom," by splitting Mikael Renberg from Eric Lindros and John LeClair and sending him, along with defenseman Karl Dykhuis, to the Lightning.

"Changing the coach at that time was a mistake for our team," said Clarke. "Gratton was just an average player to add to our team, it wasn't a sea change. We still had Lindros and LeClair; we should have been better."

That's a common thought among teams that went from one step from the top of the mountain to falling off the summit completely.

"We lost (Craig) Conroy, we lost Marty Gelinas, we lost (Roman) Turek, Toni Lydman, Denis Gauthier," said Regehr of the aftermath of the 2004 Final. "There're new players on the team, things aren't the same, and it takes a while for teams to build that chemistry up. To have a successful team there are so many moving parts. It takes a lot of people and a lot of things going in the right direction. When you add some people and delete other people, things take time."

For those teams, it was time lost and never found. So how do the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost in the 2008 Final, buck this trend?

To put it simply, stay healthy, stay confident and stay lucky -- in other words, not much more than what got them to the Final last season.

"I think with Pittsburgh they're a very young group, so it won't affect them as much as it might an older group physically because they're able to recover faster than a veteran team, that will benefit them," said Regehr.

"Winning does so many different things," Kolzig said. "The one thing is everyone feels great about themselves, about their teammates. You go into games knowing you're going to win. I think there was a point the next year that you're a little unsure. You hope you get it done. We didn't have that confidence, that swagger we had the year before. You are what you think you are, whether that's bad or good. We didn't think we were very good the next year and it showed."

But most of all, the Pens need only focus on doing what got them to the Final, not the result once they got there.

"You've got to get it out of your head that it's easier (now) to get there," Kolzig said. "Just get rid of that mindset that you're going to make it there again easily. They won the Eastern Conference, teams are going to be gunning for them. And they're a couple months behind teams physically as far as getting their bodies in shape for the season. Go into the season and put the work boots on again. You never know if you're going to get back there, but give yourself every opportunity to get back there."

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