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Constant pressure makes repeats difficult

by Christy Hammond / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT -- Before the Red Wings swept the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, no defending Stanley Cup champion had advanced to the second round of the postseason since 2002 much less won a second straight Cup.

So what makes it so difficult to win back-to-back titles?

Red Wings great Gordie Howe summed it up in two words: “constant pressure.”

The NHL regular-season is a grueling 82-game marathon, but when your team is the defending Stanley Cup champions it’s even more challenging. Opponents play at their best level and use the game as a measuring stick to see where they stand. It’s the high expectations of a fan base and the scrutiny of the media that also adds to the pressure.

“Certainly there’s a lot of pressure on you coming into the playoffs as defending Stanley Cup champions, but with that there’s a lot of pride and no doubt everyone is gunning for it,” Red Wings center Kris Draper said.

Since 1927 when the NHL assumed control of the Stanley Cup, only seven franchises have repeated as champs. The longest streak of Stanley Cup titles dates back to 1956-60 when Maurice Richard led the Montreal Canadiens to five straight titles. Even more impressive is that Montreal never trailed in any of its playoff series during those five years.

While repeating as Stanley Cup champs is hard no matter what year it is, the post-lockout NHL emphasizes parity and enables almost every team an opportunity to make it into the postseason. Only two teams have successfully defended their title since 1990 – Detroit (1997-98) and Pittsburgh (1991-92). Yet back in the 1980s, the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers reigned supreme winning seven of the titles in a span of nine years. If the Wings are able to repeat this season, it would be a remarkable accomplishment given the parity in the NHL.

Salary cap restrictions ensure that the parity of the league gives every team who makes it to the playoffs a shot at the Cup.

“I think that’s the biggest difference from when I first started there in the ‘90s is that the parity in the league is much higher and makes it a lot more difficult to go to the Conference finals let alone the finals,” Detroit goalie Chris Osgood said.

Once the playoffs start, it’s open season. The teams slotted in seeds No. 1-8 are all at a higher competitive level than before the 2005 lockout. No series is a given anymore so all a team can do is rest, prepare and be ready for the next opponent.

 “There’s a lot of great teams out there and that’s what I think is really the toughest obstacle,” Draper said. “It’s that each team truly believes they can become the Stanley Cup champion.”

For a repeat to happen, the team needs a lot of things to fall into place – a perfect storm if you will. As the Canadiens demonstrated in the 1950s, reigning as NHL champions for more than a year comes as a result of talent, experience and staying relatively healthy.

Experience is an important factor in a team’s quest to repeat. A young team hasn’t experienced a long playoff run before and may not know how to successfully deal with the distractions while a squad full of veterans isn’t shocked by the attention and can better focus on the game.

“We’re experienced enough that yeah, you get nervous, but you don’t feel that pressure because you’re not going through that blind,” Osgood said. “You know what you’re doing.”

A healthy and rested team is a successful one. An injury to a key player could seriously hamper a team’s chance to win it all, especially if it removes someone from the lineup. The undisclosed injuries also play a role and add to the pressure if the fans and media start questioning a player’s performance.

Motivation also plays a factor in the ability for a team to successfully repeat. Six days after winning the Cup in 1997, a limo accident severely injured defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov. The team dedicated the next season to Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, believing that they could repeat. Their injured comrades were never used as a motivational ploy, but simply propelled the team throughout the entire season.

The accident spurred the team on to finish the regular-season with 103 points, a 44-23-15 record and another trip to the Cup finals. After sweeping the Washington Capitals, Steve Yzerman promptly placed the Stanley Cup in Konstantinov’s lap at center ice. Mission completed. However a team doesn’t need such a tragic source of motivation like 1998, but wanting to win the Cup for a veteran player could suffice.

Talent and healthy bodies alone won’t result in a second straight title. Sacrifice and making a hard, focused effort to prepare and play is crucial to the team’s success.

“You just think back to how much hard work it took to win that Stanley Cup and that’s the kind of effort you have to have again to be able to win it,” captain Nicklas Lidstrom said.

The Red Wings repeated as Stanley Cup champions three times in franchise history: 1936-37, 1954-55 and 1997-98. The question is will they do it for a fourth time this spring?
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