When the NHL rushed to announce a 56-game season on time for January 2021, with the uncertainty of COVID-19 and all of its variances, we knew that it would be a tight schedule. We knew that there was a strong possibility that teams could be affected by this terrible virus which has taken so many lives worldwide. While the NHL did allow for some time to make up some games, it never anticipated the extent of the number of games needing to be rescheduled. Mostly, the league didn’t think – or ignored – the impact it would have on its biggest assets: the players.
While we have recently gone in details about the schedule, let’s focus more specifically on the race for the last playoffs’ spot in the North division. Going into a key 3-game series against the Calgary Flames, the Montreal Canadiens had an eight point lead over them for the fourth and final spot in the division with a game in hand. Both teams knew what this mini-series meant and so far, the Flames have played with desperation while the Habs have continued their inconsistent play, having lost the first two games. Calgary is now only four points back and the Canadiens still have that one game in hand, with both teams battling on Monday night.
Habs at a disadvantage
Fans in general see it as an excuse. Players, coaches and GMs see it as a fact. Fatigue is settling in big time and it’s not going to get any better for the Canadiens until the end of the season. The Flames, however, will benefit from at least one additional day of rest per week than the team they are chasing in the standings. See for yourself…
The Canadiens have ten games left. Here are a few facts:
- The team has played 15 games in the last 26 days.
- Starting Monday, unless of a schedule change, they will be playing 10 games in the next 17 days.
- This means that they will have gone through an incredible stretch of 25 games in 44 days to end the season!
Now what about the Flames, will you ask? Well, they have 9 games left to their season.
- They have played 10 games in the last 25 days (five fewer than the Habs)
- Starting on Monday, they will be playing their 9 remaining games in 24 days (as opposed to the Habs 10 in 17 days)
This additional, unscheduled week off back when Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia were on the NHL COVID protocol and the rescheduling of those games is what created this huge disparity. If you ask me, there is no doubt that Montreal is the better of the two teams. But there’s also no doubt that they are showing up to battle without any rest and half beaten, against a fresh opponent… and that’s where the difference could very well be. So fans who claim that fatigue is an excuse and that all teams have to deal with it, don’t let the facts get in the way of your stubborn and misinformed attitude. It is a reality, a sad one for the team you’re supposed to be cheering for. A little understanding and compassion goes a long way.
Guy Boucher and the Bear Theory
I saw a clip on my Twitter timeline from former NHL coach Guy Boucher who is a regular on Le Réseau des Sports (RDS). While his shelve life has been rather short with the teams that he’s coached, there is no denying that the man is a great hockey mind, specializing in sports psychology. Anyway, in that clip, he was talking about the first game of this mini-series but what he was saying also applies to game two. Boucher is talking about the three components athletes go through:
- rational (thinking and being aware of what needs to be done)
- emotional (feeling the nervousness, anxiety and pressure)
- circumstantial (everything affecting the other two components, outside yourself)
In this clip, he didn’t go in details about what is known in sports psychology as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) but feel free to research it if you’d like. Then, Boucher used the bear analogy:
Imagine that a bear is running after you. When imagining it, you’ll try to think of what it would feel like and try acting the way you think you should. You’ll imagine that it’s life and death but in the back of your mind, deep down, you’ll be calm as you know damned well that there is no bear chasing you. No matter how hard you try, you know the truth. Your sub-conscious knows there is no bear.
You are on a nice hike in the bush one day, then you encounter an aggressive bear who starts following you. The animal is truly there and this time, your life really is on the line. Boucher explained that you don’t do what is completely different than when imagining it. Nervousness now kicks in and you’re seriously wondering if or how you will get out of it alive. Desperation gets in high gear and it’s nowhere what you tried to imagine it would be. It’s real.
Coming into this mini-series, the Habs knew that they had to act like they were playing their season. They tried to reproduce that state of mind but in the back of their mind, they weren’t playing their season. The Flames on the other hand, knew they were playing their season. They saw the bear, they were afraid and while the Habs tried to put themselves in their shoes, they simply couldn’t match the real intensity as their life wasn’t on the line.
You can try imagining that this is game seven all you want… but you know that it’s not. It was for Calgary and the difference in the state of mind, in a NHL with so much parity, is enough to make the key difference. And that’s what you saw between both teams. Here’s the clip in question, for those who understand French.
It’s not too late
According to moneypuck.com, the Canadiens’ odds of making the playoffs prior to last night’s loss were 82.3%. The Flames’ odds were at around 13%. Today, before Monday’s game, the Habs have 71.9% chances of making the playoffs and the Flames’ hopes have gone up to 22.1%.
Now if you factor in fatigue, which a computer program cannot do, I bet it’s a lot closer. Can the Canadiens dig deep enough to secure that playoffs’ spot? It will be a race to the finish line. It will have to be mind over matter. They will have to dig so deep, deeper than they’ve ever gone for most of them. The only thing comparable is the experience of a Stanley Cup win… and the Habs have a few guys on their roster who can relate to that experience.
So for fans to call for Marc Bergevin to get fired, for them to judge Dominique Ducharme as a coach, and the players’s performances under those circumstances, is misinformed and/or ill intent. I’d like to see these people in that situation, personally. Just like the conspiracy theorists of COVID-19, perhaps working in hospitals in that wing or worse, getting infected or losing a loved one is likely what would finally open their eyes. Putting your head in the sand calling it “excuses” doesn’t make reality go away. It never has, and never will. Having the mental ability to acknowledge it without experiencing it is a huge quality. Some don’t have it… and they’re the loudest on social media.
I personally believe that the Canadiens will find a way to get in the playoffs. Their season ends on May 12th. Other teams will be playing all the way to May 19th. That’s an additional week to rest, heal and have good quality practices to prepare for the playoffs. As the opponent is known (Toronto), it will be a full additional week of watching videos and perfecting systems, working on special teams. Done will be the roster limits or call-ups, as will the salary cap crunch. The playoffs truly will be a new season and I, for one, think that the Habs can be the ones preventing the Leafs from moving on to the second round, something they haven’t done since 2004. But let’s get there first… Go Habs Go!