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Playing it safe can cost you in the end

by Dr. Larry Lauer

Evgeni Nabokov was critical of his team's Game 3 performance when the Sharks blew an early three-goal lead and lost to Owen Nolan and the Flames.
Nolan beats Nabokov for the game-winner
During the regular season, heading into the third period with a lead is almost a sure win. Most teams holding that edge entering the third period win more than 90 percent of the time. But the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as we have witnessed, are a different story.

Take the San Jose-Calgary series as an example. During Game 3 in Calgary, disaster struck for San Jose. The Sharks were hanging on to an early three-goal lead, but the Flames tied it in the third on a Dion Phaneuf pinball shot that bounced off a defender’s stick and into the net. The Sharks had to be thinking what could go wrong next. You could sense, as did the Flames’ crowd, the impending sense of doom for the Sharks.

The Flames won on a roof shot by Owen Nolan. The loss prompted Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov to question his team.

"You have to be men to play this sport, not a bunch of boys, and we looked like a bunch of boys out there and they were looking like a bunch of men," Nabokov said.

In Washington, the Flyers led by two goals in the third period of Game 1. Then, disaster. After tying the game, the Caps’ Alex Ovechkin stripped the puck from defenseman Lasse Kukkonen in the dying minutes and scored on Martin Biron. According to Biron, it was how the Flyers played differently in the third that allows the Capitals back into the game.

"We played good enough to go out there and get a win. We just let them skate with the puck and gave them too much room in the third."

Mike Richards agreed.

"We didn't come out with the same fire that we came out with in the second, that's for sure. We might've sat back a little bit.”

Why are teams losing the lead in the third in the playoffs when a win is almost a mortal lock during the regular season? Each playoff game is so valuable that teams cannot be giving them away.

Perhaps that is what is at the core of the problem. Teams cherish playoff wins. And, as the importance increases, players often shift their mindset from beating their opponent to protecting the cherished lead. Peter Forsberg remarked that the Avalanche backed off in the third period of Game 3 against Minnesota, allowing the Wild to control play and win the game in overtime.

The problem is that teams find themselves not just protecting the lead but “hanging on” to the lead. They sit back in their defensive zone and allow the opponent to skate uncontested through the neutral zone with the puck. They spend too much time defending in their own zone. And, they give up too many shots. Finally, with the pressure building, you often get a turnover, like Kukkonen’s, that leads to a goal.

It is a fine line that teams are trying to accomplish when leading in the third period. They want to play smart and make conservative decisions when leading while continuing to be aggressive and not playing too defensive. The Flyers, for example, played very defensive in Game 1 and allowed the Caps to possess the puck. In Game 2 they protected a 2-0 lead in the third by, according to Richards, playing the same game for 60 minutes.

“We did a good job down the stretch,” Richards said. “We knew what we needed to do -- same thing we did in the first and second period.”

Successful teams do more than “protect” a lead. They play their game, the one that got them the lead, and stay aggressive. The Oilers of the 1980s and the Pens of the early ‘90s were masters of puck possession. When they got a lead, they looked to extend it, not hang on. It was a philosophy best explained by Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey.

"When we've got the puck, they can't score."

It probably goes against human nature not to pull back when you think you have a game won. But the effective mindset is to challenge the instinct to protect. Instead, teams must play with an aggressive mindset, where mistakes are not feared. This means playing physical and pressuring, but playing with discipline. It also means making smart plays. Instead of immediately icing the puck, as a more passive team might, they look to make a pass to clear the zone.

This aggressive third-period mindset involves focusing on the here and now, not the past or the future. Successful playoff teams minimize “don’t screw it up” thinking and look to dominate and finish off their opponent.

The aggressive, yet smart, mindset is a fragile one for many teams without past Cup success. That is why teams will be aggressive in the third with a lead in Game 1, and then become defensive at home in Game 3. Champions are able break through the desire to protect the lead and consistently play smart, aggressive hockey. Like Anaheim last season, the team that best overcomes the desire to hang on will have a good chance of hoisting the Cup.

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