Mental game now key as Stanley Cup Final becomes best of three
TAMPA, Fla. — The Joker and a Silvan Elf were sharing a pizza when Sailor Moon appeared from around the corner—stop me if you’ve heard this one. No? Well, with the 13th annual MetroCon convention—a gathering of anime connoisseurs—taking place down the street from Amalie Arena this weekend, all of a sudden the bearded warriors of the Lightning and Blackhawks will not be the most curious looking fellows around downtown Tampa Bay.
“On my way home from the airport yesterday, I saw a girl dressed up as Eve or something,” Lightning winger Alex Killorn said after practice on Friday afternoon. “She was wearing, like, a leaf and had orange hair or something. I don’t know.”
(Honestly, an update on the MetroCon website, noting the increased presence of “normals” here for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, urged participants to “be sure to store weapon props in doufle [sic] bags if you have to make a walk through downtown.”)
This year’s MetroCon theme, for the annual Anime Human Chess Match, is Brains vs. Brawn. Well, in some ways, it isn’t altogether different from the theme emerging in these Stanley Cup finals: Mind vs. Body.
Despite what players like to say—“We love playing big games. You never get tired of hockey,” as Chicago forward Marcus Kruger remarked during the Western Conference finals—many will admit that the postseason is a long, grinding road designed to test the limits of patience, pain and fatigue. Even on Thursday, when Tampa Bay associate coach Rick Bowness filled in at the media podium, he half-jokingly explained that Lightning coach Jon Cooper had taken a day off for a “mental break.”
But at this point, the battle for the Stanley Cup comes down to a simple best-of-three. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is about 120 minutes away for one team, and players can begin to wrap their heads around the idea. It’s easy now for the mind to come prepared. “This is the time of our lives,” Cooper said. “If we’re not having fun doing this, then why are we doing this?”
The body, however, can be another story. Injuries in the playoffs are like icebergs; the peaks above the surface are never a complete indication of what ails a player behind the trainers’ room doors. While goalie Ben Bishop’s injury is now common unknown knowledge, Lightning center Tyler Johnson is still trying to downplay whatever has kept him from taking more than one face-off since Game 1.
“I think everyone’s banged up,” he said on Thursday, “but it doesn’t matter right now. It’s the Stanley Cup. There’s a maximum three games left, and then you’ve got all summer to rest.”
Johnson denies an injury has prevented him from taking draws—(“[Ondrej Palat] beat me in practice,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been that good at face-offs.”)—but masking injuries is part of the mental game players need to keep playing. It’s as if admitting a physical ailment—whether injury or fatigue—will lead to mental breakdown. Success, at this point, comes down to being able to extricate the mind from the body.
“At this time of year, guys play through a lot and fatigue is one of those things,” Tampa Bay defenseman Braydon Coburn said. “It’s [one] thing when you’re physically fatigued and you just physically can’t get around, but when you’re making mental mistakes, that’s probably more dangerous.”
For all that has been made of the Blackhawks’ physical resilience this postseason, in Game 4, for once, they began showing some signs of mental fatigue. Breakouts were sloppy; routine D-to-D passes even seemed difficult to execute. A team that averaged 4.12 giveaways per game during the regular season, Chicago had 16 giveaways and 19 shots on goal in Game 4.
“We didn’t play our best last night,” Blackhawks defenseman Kimmo Timonen said Thursday. “[Goalie Corey Crawford] was unbelievable. He pretty much won the game for us, but at the end of the day, it's 2-2 now. The only thing which matters is a win. We have to realize we have to get better for Saturday.”
In the ongoing Lightning-Blackhawks Chess Match, the mind games won’t ultimately matter. The line-juggling, goalie-hiding, minutes-hoarding, and face-off avoiding will eventually slough away, and a champion will emerge. Their minds may be zapped, their bodies broken, but their spirit will not be crushed.