Managing fear. It's a huge part of being a success in sports. In my first book, "Growing Up Hockey," I talk about this, showing what it was like for me as a thirteen year-old realizing for the first time that hockey wasn't simply beautiful, but terrible as well.
The latter aspect came from the fact that a team my All Saints Pee Wee squad was playing, Immaculate Conception, were ruffians who were terrorizing even our first-line players. As a third-line right winger, I knew I didn't stand a chance.
And that's why, thirty years later, I'm watching hockey and writing about it from the press box, and not enjoying the fruits of a career on the ice. I couldn't master the fear that came when I thought about getting what we called back in the day, "hammered."
For the L.A. Kings Monday night against Vancouver, the thoughts might have been the same. On every early shift, the Canucks slammed and smashed, sending guys hard into the boards and at one point seeming to knock Richard Clune almost into Tuesday. But rather than display fear, the L.A. team displayed resolve. It's the very reason these guys are doing what they're doing, playing in the league, in the first place.
The crowd, revved up as might be imagined by a combination of an eight-year playoff drought and the extra efforts of the people who do such things to make the arena playoff-ready, had already screamed their heads off during the game's introduction. An early Vancouver goal might have shusshed them a little bit, but their ire was raised again by the sight of the favorite players being tossed around.
Were fans surprised at the ferocity of the Vancouver checking game? That's the funny thing about the Canucks. When one thinks of them, the picture of two delicate, goateed Swedes obviously comes to mind. "Effete," "skill players," you think. That translates into "don't hit me, and I won't hit you." But this squad is made up of a lot more rough customers than that. Alexandre Burrows, Tanner Glass, Alexander Edler, Andrew Alberts--this is a big team, with some tough hombres ready to knock you down when you've got the puck, and sometimes, even when you don't.
The first ten minutes were all about the knocking around, although L.A. evened the score at minute eleven with Christian Erhoff in the box for slashing. The goal was a wake-up moment for both squads, and the Canucks went back on offense at that point. Over the course of the game, L.A. ended up outhitting them, 49-38.
There's also the fear of failure, and an opposing goalie on a tear can strike that into the heart of any shooter. Roberto Luongo has the reputation of being a big-game goalie. Nevermind that he hasn't earned it, never taking his team much of anywhere in the playoffs and winning his gold medal at this year's Olympics despite his own inept third-period play.
But because he seems to have a sense of his own invincibility, it gets into the heads of those he plays. In game one, he snatched a puck off the goal line to preserve a tie, and then watched his team go on to win. It might have been an "uh-oh" moment for the Kings, as they wondered to themselves whether maybe this guy had the hockey gods on his side. Everyone knows what a hot goalie can do in the post-season.
But Saturday, he lost. And Monday, he got yanked after letting in four goals. When his coach was asked afterwards about the move, he said simply, "it was time." And there may have been a slight concession to injury, as Luongo had taken a skate blade to the back of the catching hand when Ryan Smyth stepped on him on his way through the crease just before Luongo went out.
No matter. The L.A. bench had to be happy to have chased him, though to his credit, Luongo didn't pout on the Vancouver bench with his mask on as many goalies in that situation do. He simply donned his baseball cap and sat there watching the play as if he'd been slated for backup duties all along. In the end, shots were 28-23 in Vancouver's favor, with Luongo letting in four goals, his backup Andrew Raycroft one. Jonathan Quick saw three get by him in the 5-3 win.
If there's one thing that the Kings, now up 2-1 in the series and with much of the momentum on their side, need to watch out for, it's the quiet confidence which Luongo, his coach, and many teammates bring to their current situation. They aren't panicked, yet. After the game, Coach Alain Vigneault smiled at the press, answered questions as if it were an October game, and vowed to move on to a new day. "Vowed," actually, is too movie-melodramatic a word. He simply said the team would come up with a new plan to deal with L.A.'s power play before they meet again. Should they lose Wednesday in L.A., that sense that there's no need for desperation might change, of course.
But expect for them to come out Wednesday night with a renewed effort to stop L.A. on the PP, and more discipline to begin with so that they don't give the Kings the extra man. Add to that continued strong breakouts and odd-man chances, and they'll likely make things interesting, no matter what counter-moves L.A. throws at them.
As of Tuesday morning, I could still buy a single-game ticket online (not through an agency). So L.A. fans, get on it--www.lakings.com/playoffs--and be a part of this thing.
Who's using the ticket? The lovely Gabriela. She'll be sitting alone with 18,200 friends while I'm in the press box. So whoever's around her--be nice.