Sports can be strange. They are competitions of strength and athleticism, performed by people who spend their entire lives honing their craft. An incredible amount of preparation is involved before any contest. The amount of practice time versus game time is wildly disproportionate. In hockey, you spend an entire calendar-year prepping for an 82-game schedule. Players practice, and coaches game-plan, for hours on end to play a 60-minute game. The way they eat, sleep, live – it all revolves around their preparation. Consider all of the laps skated, drills conducted, film watched, weights lifted, and exercise programs followed. All in an effort to ready oneself for battle. But oddly enough, even with all of that physical work put in by the most talented, well-conditioned people in the world, sometimes these athletic contests come down to something as unassuming as a team or player’s mentality.
Because athletes often perform at super-human levels, it’s easy to forget that they are subject to the exact same emotions as you and I. They get happy, sad, excited, and yes…even scared. After Sunday’s loss against the New York Islanders – the club’s sixth straight, and second in a row that they lost in the final two minutes – “scared” is the word Head Coach Lindy Ruff chose to describe his team’s play late in the game. Already in the midst of their longest skid of the season, the Dallas Stars were scared to lose again. They were scared that virtually the exact same thing that had happened to them halfway across the country at Madison Square Garden two nights earlier could happen again. And honestly, when a game that the Stars had led since midway through the first period started to tilt heavily the other way nearing the finish line, who could blame them? Everyone watching the game was scared. The players, you, me. We all allowed that twinge of fear to creep into our heads and whisper, “Oh no. Not again.” We were scared. The difference is that while you and I dealt with our fear, we didn’t also have to contend with John Tavares’ line.
After the Islanders captain scored with 1:24 to play to give New York their first lead of the night, and Brock Nelson delivered the dagger into an empty net a half-minute later, fear was replaced by some new emotions. Anger. Disbelief. Frustration.
During the losing skid, Ruff said that he’s been around hockey long enough to know that when things are going well, they go well. And when they’re not, they don’t. Now, that’s a pretty simple statement, but if you’ve followed sports long enough you know it’s true. Why is that? It can’t all be coincidence, right? Despite any superstitions you might have, there aren’t Hockey Gods whom you anger and appease that control your team’s fate. So, how does a pattern like that develop?
Often times the answer is the mental game. If you’ve ever spent any time watching sports, you know that momentum exists. It is an undeniable part of sports. But momentum is a byproduct of confidence…or lack thereof. Emotions are scientifically linked to affect an athlete’s performance. They can hit harder when they are angry. They lose accuracy when they are tense. Almost every aspect of their game can somehow be affected by emotion. A sporting event is a constant battle of ebbs and flows. Good and bad things alike will happen to you, but how those things affect you is directly correlated to your confidence level. When you are confident, you can take anything in stride. When you are not, the smallest thing has the potential to derail you. How many times have you heard a player say, “Well, we’re trying not to think about it too much?” Regardless of what it is they’re not trying to think about, there is a reason. Or what about a coach saying he wants to “simplify things” when they’re not going well. Why? Because thinking complicates things. Athletes are creatures of habit. They have their routines on and off the ice. They perform with such repetition that it almost becomes involuntary. They practice the same things over and over so that they are ready for any scenario. So they don’t have to stop and think about it. They just do it.
If you flip a coin and it lands on tails six straight times, there is still a 50/50 chance it will be heads on the next toss. That’s because heads doesn’t get mad, frustrated, or scared. Without emotions, prior events hold no bearing on present and future ones. But when a team loses six straight times, they are battling the demons from every one of those losses along with their current opponent. If you’ve spent time around a sports team, sometimes there are stretches where it seems like everything will go your way. You show up at the rink and everybody just knows you’re going to win. They don’t think it. They KNOW it. Then there are other times where – and no one would ever admit it when they’re going through it – getting a win seems like an impossible task, and a game-deciding bad break seems inevitable. It’s a hard thing to describe, but anyone who has spent a lot of time in a locker room knows exactly what I’m talking about.
That is what happened at the end of the Stars losing streak. Ruff pointed at the Rangers and Islanders games and described them as games the Stars win earlier in the season. He’s probably right. Because their entire psyche – but especially in the final minutes – would have been completely different. The Stars played tied or with the lead for more than 116 of the 120 minutes in those games, and came away with zero points.
The Islanders came to Dallas riding a six-game road winning streak and had won six of seven overall. Even though the Stars had a lead for most of the game, it never looked that way in the third. The Islanders were brimming with confidence. And the Stars were devoid of it. I don’t mean to go all hypnotist from ‘The Natural’, but streaky play is contagious, and emotions are often the reason. When your thought and emotions get the better of you, you find yourself just grasping to hang on and trying your best not to lose. Once that happens the result can be disastrous. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys.
Now, this isn’t to say that confidence and mental approach trump everything else. They do not. And not every loss – or even string of losses – can be traced back to confidence. But many can. And it appears that the ones suffered by the Stars lately can be classified in that group.
So that brings us back to the oddity of sports. Because, while the mental game can be such a big part of outcomes, it’s almost impossible to train it. For all of the physical ways you can prepare your body, there is no exercise that can teach you to play with confidence. It’s either something you’ve got, or you don’t. But the fact is that as important as momentum and confidence are, they are also extremely fickle.
Whether you’re running hot or cold, you are always just an instant away from it all flipping on a dime. And you never know what that turning point will be. It could be a fluke goal, a bad penalty, a long break, a big win, a tough loss…Anything. Momentum is constantly soaked in kerosene and anything could be a match. Case in point, let’s go back to the Islanders game.
The Stars were on a seven-game point streak before their recent slide, and claimed 12 of a possible 14 points against incredibly difficult opposition. Everything was going well. Injuries, the flu bug, it didn’t matter. Nothing could slow down this team. There was a swagger inside the locker room and no opponent seemed unbeatable. Meanwhile, just before their run of victories, the Islanders mustered only four wins in a span of 23 games. Four in 23!! Next thing you know, they are taking down teams like Chicago and Boston, and seemingly coming back from late deficits on a nightly basis.
Good luck trying to figure out how those two sequences give way to one another. But such is life in pro sports. If there was a blueprint to get out of a bad streak or stay on a good one, everyone would follow it. Unfortunately there is not. All you can do is keep preparing your body and game-plan and hope that the mental game sorts itself out while you do.
When things are bad, any positives are important, and a win to snap the skid becomes tougher to obtain as time goes along. On Tuesday night the Stars finally dented the win column again, and are hoping it was exactly the type of game to spark an about-face. The Stars scored on the opening shift, played physically, got goals from five different players, received tremendous goaltending, had success on the power play, and took an early lead that they never relinquished. While any one thing could be a turnaround moment, there was a lot to like for the Stars, and hopefully a lot to rekindle the confidence for this team.
The middle of December began Dallas’ best – and most confident – stretch of the season. We know from just a couple of weeks ago that the Stars’ swagger is in that locker room somewhere. Let’s see if perhaps Tuesday’s win was the key to finding it once again in the middle of this month.
Four games are on the schedule for the Stars in the week ahead. Here are a few things to keep ‘On the Radar’ as you enjoy them:
Duo in Drought
For the first time this season star-forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin experienced coinciding cold streaks, and the Stars suffered greatly. Seguin was held without a point in the final five games of the six-game slide, matching a season-long point drought for him. Benn was scoreless in four of the six, including a season-long stint over the final three games of the streak. While both individuals have gone through sporadic scoring droughts, when both go dry, it’s proven to be too difficult an obstacle for the Stars to overcome. This season when both Benn and Seguin are held without points in the same game, Dallas is just 2-9-4. When at least one of them nabs a point, the club is 19-9-3. There is an old saying that you’re only as good as your best players. While a rise or decline in secondary scoring has played a role at times this year, Benn and Seguin are clearly the offensive leaders on this team, and based on the statistics, as they go – so too go the Stars. The duo combined for three points in the first period of Tuesday’s streak-ending win to help set the tone. Knowing their place as leaders, coupled with another game against his ex-club for Seguin should provide the pair with all the motivation they need to once again find their scoring touch this week.
Speaking of teams stringing together back-to-back streaks in different directions, the Stars will face the Minnesota Wild twice this week. The Wild recently shrugged off a six-game regulation losing streak of their own and rebounded to win five of their next six. Their improved play has moved them into a wild card spot for the time being. There are still three months left this season, so a lot can change. But at least for right now, Minnesota might be the team that Dallas has the best chance of catching if they hope to sneak into a playoff spot. Colorado appears to be keeping their footing after a blistering start, and Chicago and St. Louis have all but etched their names on two of the three Central Division berths. Despite the stumble so far in January, Dallas enters this week just six points back from Minnesota, with three games in hand. On Saturday and Tuesday this week, the Stars and Wild square off, accounting for two of the final three meetings of the season. (Minnesota is the one divisional opponent this year that Dallas only plays four times. They play all of the others five times each, and the one with four games is rotated on an annual basis.) Despite the Stars recent slide, a pair of Dallas wins in those games reshapes the standings. The Stars were beaten badly in the only meeting so far this season. They are in much need of a reversal of fortune in the head-to-head games this week.
What heightened the frustration-level over the losing streak was dropping the types of games the Stars had won in the past. On Sunday the Stars failed to get points when leading at second intermission for the first time in 16 games this year. Dallas began the season 13-0-2 in such games. Part of officially getting past this tough stretch is once again remembering how to put teams away. In both losses to the Islanders, the Stars had 2-0 leads at first intermission. In four of the six losses in the streak, the Stars scored first, were tied or better within the final 20:30 to regulation, and were unable to generate even a single point out of the stretch. Ruff said multiple times that in many of the games during the skid that the knockout punch was available, and the Stars just missed via a post, crossbar, or big save. Delivering on those opportunities turns a losing streak into a winning streak, and protecting intermission leads is a great place to start. The Stars did well to gain separation and never let the Oilers back in the game on Tuesday. Continued efforts like that will go a long way in making the losing streak a faint memory.
You often times hear teams preach that they need to play a full 60 minutes. Well, in today’s NHL you often need more than 60 with the frequency of overtime. But the Stars are currently on their longest stretch of the season without an overtime game. Dallas has played eight in a row without going to OT. Based on this season’s results, teams go to overtime about once every 3.8 games. The Stars are close to that pace with 11 of their 46 games heading past regulation. However, Dallas has now gone more than twice that time since their last overtime game. The law of averages suggests they are way overdue for an OT game, and four opportunities this week could yield one. Of the three different opponents this week, Dallas has already gone to OT this season with Boston.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Josh Bogorad is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars.