Dealing With Adversity Is Key to Playoff Success

Winning is all that matters in the playoffs. Many teams have played an average, or below average game, and won, while others have dominated and lost. In the regular season you can worry about trends of a team not playing well, or having a hot (or cold) power play, but in the playoffs, there is seemingly very little carry over from one game to the next.

Teams, or individual players, who focus too much on the last game, often find themselves booking a tee time within the next two weeks.

A short memory is even more important in game.

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Last night the Edmonton Oilers saw a 3-0 first-period lead evaporate in the second half of the game. Calgary started the second period with no shots in the first 8:11 of play. But then they got a power play. They scored on the man advantage, and then scored again 36 seconds later. Suddenly the lead was 3-2.

And then mid-way through the third period, late in an Oilers power play, Rasmus Andersson fired a puck from inside his own blueline and he scored. Mike Smith didn’t see it. The fans were stunned, but the Oilers didn’t fold. They didn’t panic. Instead they re-focused and started attacking again. Edmonton only had three shots in the first 13 minutes of the third frame. Andersson scored at the 10:56 mark.

A goal like that could have broken the Oilers spirits, and ratted Smith, but neither occurred. Edmonton fired seven in the final seven minutes, including the game winner by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest serving member of the Oilers. It was the biggest goal of his 11-year career.

Andersson tied the game, but then took a dumb double-minor high sticking penalty on Ryan McLeod with 2:40 to play. The Flames didn’t quit and Smith made two key stops on Mikael Backlund before Evander Kane put the game away with his 12th goal in 11 playoff games.

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The Oilers didn’t fold or let the unexpected 132-foot goal from Andersson rattle them. And Smith re-focused and made some key stops late to seal the win. Good teams find ways to win, and most importantly they don’t lose their composure when facing adversity.

“I can laugh now, right,” said Smith when I asked him post game about the goal. “I don’t think there’s been a time in my career where I’ve lost a puck, or I have no idea where it went. Talking to some guys after, I wasn’t the only one that didn’t know where it was either. Made me feel a little better, but yeah, I mean…. You don’t want that to happen, ever. But what unbelievable goal by Nuge to give us a boost back and get up in the series. A win’s a win.”

There are no pictures on the scoresheet. It ultimately doesn’t matter how you win in the playoffs, as long as you win. And the Oilers picked up a huge victory last night. Credit the Flames for not folding when it was 3-0. Only 22 seconds into the game Jacob Markstrom gifted Nugent-Hopkins his first playoff goal on home ice with fans at the stands in 11 years. RNH did score a goal on home ice in 2020 v. Chicago, but the arena was empty. He waited 11 years to hear a playoff Nuuuuggee chant from the crowd after scoring a goal.

Unlucky bounces happen all the time in the playoffs, often in favor of the winning team. A lucky bounce can catapult you to victory. We’ve seen it happen both way for many teams. The infamous Steve Smith goal in 1986 stopped the Oilers run for three consecutive Stanley Cups. But they rebounded and won the Cup in 1987 and 1988.

Feeling sorry for yourself and letting the bad bounce, or bad decision fester is not a recipe for success in the playoffs. The 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the regular season by winning 62 of 82 games. Then they got swept in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets. A tough lesson, but it made them mentally tougher and since that loss the Lighting have won 10 consecutive playoff series, two Stanley Cups and are the first team to secure a spot in the Conference Final this year.

Last night’s victory showed maturity and poise we haven’t seen from this group before.

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“I think every game you play in the playoffs you gain experience,” Smith said. “There’s ebbs and flows to a game, to a series, and they’re all learning experiences throughout the course of a game. There’s stuff that happens that’s never perfect. But it’s how you handle it, how you battle through the adversity sticking together as a group. We’re doing that. When we’re down, we’re finding ways to get back in games. We had a lead and obviously they tied it up there, but no one panicked. Everyone kept their composure. You get a big goal by Nugget to seal the deal, but yeah, there’s definitely growth in this team. There’s a confidence that this team is playing with that we believe we can do some damage. Every game you win you gain confidence from, but you just want to keep that ball rolling. You want to keep doing the good things that make our team successful. I feel like the structure that we play when we do it, it makes us a real good hockey team.”

The Oilers are learning the important lessons of how to win in the playoffs. They bounced back in games six and seven of the opening round, after a subpar performance in game four and an average game five. This round, after a rough 9-6 loss in game one against the Flames, the Oilers have won three in a row by outscoring Calgary 14-7.

They’ve learned how to move on after a tough loss, and last night they showed they can remain calm, cool and collected in game after a bad bounce.

These lessons will only make them stronger and increase their confidence that they can win.

Winning is all that matters, and the Oilers are learning how to win.

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