In 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks did something very rare. They won both the President’s Cup, for being the #1 team in the NHL, and went on to win the Stanley Cup as well. Since 1985, when the President’s Cup was first handed out, only eight teams have been able to win both and that phenomenon is often referred to as the “President’s Cup Curse”.
For the league leaders, it’s a shocking and very disappointing statistic, but there are many reasons why first place teams don’t often do well post-season. In the NHL, the wild card teams often play havoc with the conference leaders and often they go on a spree, dissecting them one by one on their way to the finals.
A Fine Balance
Having success in a championship is often a fine balance between winning enough games to get you into the playoffs, and peaking at the right time. A team needs both those elements: enough wins to get you there, and enough momentum to keep going.
This season, Nic’s team ended the regular season in third place. The teams below us were all teams that we’d beaten throughout the season, but the top two teams seemed to play at a much higher calibre than all the others in the league and were unstoppable. Each meeting resulted in embarrassing results for us, more like scoring clinics than the competitive games they were supposed to be..
It’s not that we weren’t capable of winning against them with the players we had on our team, it’s that we were’t capable of winning just then. When the series began, our first game was against the #2 team and, once again, the results were out of proportion. Our top scoring line ended with a plus/minus of -6 and they capitalized on three power-play goals. It made our solitary, game-opening goal, as sweet as it might have been, look rather sheepish.
Our next game was a win, but the third game, as I’ve chronicled, was a must-win to move on. What I didn’t tell you is that when we were trailing 2-1 after the second period of that game, that’s when our team had their game dynamics changed.
Holding the Blue Line
All season long, our defensemen had been quick to retreat out of our opponents’ zones because they were scared they wouldn’t be able to make it back quick enough. They lacked confidence in both their speed and ability. But at the start of the 3rd period of that do-or-die game, Coach Guy made them change, telling them to “hold the blue line at all costs”. They didn’t just become more aggressive, and competent, at keeping the puck in the opponent’s zone, they changed the game for the opponents who had been used to easy zone exits until then.
This meant more zone time for our team, and with more zone time came more scoring opportunities. We won that game, in overtime, which took us to the semi-finals, which we won, and into the finals, which we also won.
For the final game, once again against the #2 team, we had already banked 4 periods of experience of holding the blue line at any cost. With each passing period, our defensemen became more comfortable and confident in playing the game like that. They were encouraged not just to keep the blue line by now, but to move further up in the offensive zone when the opportunity presented itself. That minimized the reaction time of the other team, and solicited more support from our attackers when we had to retreat back to, or towards our zone.
That cut down the number of 3-on-2’s we had to defend. Of course, it also helped that both our goalies played their positions extremely well – both played stunning hockey, standing on their heads for the semi-final and final games. And our attackers shot on goal – and scored. And our defenders shut down the attacks.
We won the championship game by a score of 4-2.
No Free Pass
Yes, you can win all season long and still be disrupted by some lowly underdog who just happens to peak at the right time. High rankings don’t necessarily transform themselves into a free pass as we’ve seen with the President’s Cup time and time again.
I’m sure many people will be surprised that our team stole the championship from the top teams. After all, we beat the #1 team in the semi-finals, and the #2 team in the finals. The stars aligned as they needed to, and everything fell into place at the right time. As it should have.
Next stop, the regional finals, two weeks from now.
I think our boys will do just fine.
Thanks to Art Stutsman for encouraging me to write about our team and yesterday’s win. Art was the head coach of the Southern Illinois Ice Hawks when he and my husband, Guy Landry, took their mite team (and their boys) to the Missouri State Championships, and won. Of course, it helped that we had a natural on our team that season, who’s now an elite AAA player.