To win the Stanley Cup, you must have your heart broken first

Nathan MacKinnon was understandably surly.

The Colorado Avalanche had been eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights with four straight losses following two wins to open the series. He was being asked a series of questions from the media — some salient, some startlingly incoherent — about what went wrong and what happens next. And all MacKinnon could think about was having to hear, “wait ’til next year” instead of feeling the weight of the Stanley Cup in his hands for the first time.

“There’s always next year,” MacKinnon lamented. “That’s all we talk about, I feel like. I’m going into my ninth year next year and I haven’t won s—.

“It felt like last year was our first real chance to win, and this year, I thought we were the best team in the league. But for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get it together.”

There’s one reason, actually. The reason you hear from so many players and coaches whose teams finally get over the postseason hump to win the Cup.

You have to lose before you learn how to win.

Not just lose. Teams lose all the time. That Avalanche squad that MacKinnon referenced, from the bubble last summer? They lost. They had excuses. The injuries piled up, to the point where third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson started Game 7 for them. The Dallas Stars team that eliminated them? Pretty good, having later advanced to play for the Stanley Cup.

The loss was a bummer, but an explainable one.

No, what the Avalanche needed was the epic failure. The kind of defeat that shatters a team’s collective heart because the players believe they have a series in hand, or because it was ostensibly “their year” to win. The undercurrent of bile in every word MacKinnon uttered after Vegas turfed his team makes you think Colorado just experienced that kind of trouncing.

It’s an education. A trial by fire.

“Trust me: you learn more from losing sometimes than you do from winning,” said New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “It hardens you. You understand the moments more. And you get to a point where you don’t want to lose anymore.”

Trotz saw this firsthand with the Washington Capitals. The team couldn’t get past the second round in his first three seasons there, losing in consecutive playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The third time was the charm: once they eliminated Pittsburgh in six games in the second round in 2018, you could have crowned them champions on the spot. Things broke their way. Their best players were all having the playoffs of their lives. But along with that, their heartbreak informed their eventual triumph.

This is the path for a lot of championship teams.

Before the Caps won the Cup in 2018, they endured many years of heartbreak in the postseason. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers had to endure the “Miracle on Manchester” and the upset to the Los Angeles Kings’ in 1982 before going dynastic. The New Jersey Devils had to lose Mark Messier’s “guaranteed” Game 7 to the hated Rangers in 1994 before winning the Cup in 1995; and then the Detroit Red Wings needed the humiliation of a Devils’ sweep in 1995 and their subsequent conference finals loss to Colorado in order to break through with two straight Cups in 1997 and 1998. Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins needed that loss to Detroit in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final to understand how to defeat them in the following season.

Mark Recchi recently told me that the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup win 10 years ago was the product of two horrible postseason setbacks.

“I remember togetherness,” Recchi said. “We were so close as a group. We had faced adversity a couple of years prior: losing to Carolina in seven games and then the Philadelphia thing, where we were up 3-0. What sticks out to me the most 10 years later was how we stuck together through that and really believed in ourselves.”

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Trotz said there’s a legacy here.

“There’s a lot of stories like that through the NHL,” he said. “Every step that you take is part of the journey. If it was easy, everybody would do it, and it’s not that easy. You have to learn from experiences. You look back and before Detroit was winning, they had a lot of heartache. Tampa’s had some heartache, and they broke through.”

Oh, they had some heartache in Tampa, alright. On Jon Cooper’s watch, the Lightning lost in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the conference final twice in a Game 7, and endured one of the most humbling defeats in NHL history as they completed a 128-point regular season only to be swept out of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the first series win in the latter’s franchise history.

“We haven’t lost a playoff series since the Columbus series,” said Cooper. “But I think it goes a little bit farther than that. In 2015, 2016, 2018 … you get close. We’ve had some different players as an organization. We were learning about what was needed to win. Our core group of guys were learning what it takes to win. Winning in the regular season and winning in the playoffs are two different beasts.”

Cooper said he’s seen teams win the Presidents’ Trophy and fizzle out in the first round as well as teams that finished ninth that he believes could have had a shot at the Stanley Cup, had they gotten in.

“It’s finding that hybrid of teams that can win in the regular season and the playoffs, and I think that we’ve built this team in that regard,” said Cooper.

“But in saying that, you have to have that mental makeup to understand what it takes to win,” he said. “That’s it’s; not how many you put in the net, but how many you keep out. That you can’t score your way out of games all the time, and definitely not score your way to a championship. That you have to defend your way to a championship. That’s what finally clicked with the guys.”

Given all of their young talent, the Avalanche have a bright future. But they must learn from their defeat in 2021. Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire

MacKinnon bristled when he was asked about whether team defense was the issue. “We’re the best defensive team in the league in a lot of categories this year, so that’s not it either,” he said.

Maybe it’s the pain. After all, the team that had Colorado on its heels in Games 3 and 4 has packed a lot of heartache into four seasons: The Vegas Golden Knights lost in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final and the 2020 Western Conference finals, with that still-remarkable meltdown against the San Jose Sharks in the first round sandwiched in-between.

So far this postseason, Vegas has been remarkable in its steadiness in the face of adversity, its ability to get the little things right and in its sense of purpose. They seem like a team, to use Trotz’s terminology, that has gotten to a point where they don’t want to lose anymore.

A seven-part, behind-the-scenes docuseries going on and off the ice and in locker rooms for an all-access pass during the pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Watch on ESPN+

Trotz has a good friend named Jamie Clarke who shared a story with him about climbing Mount Everest. He failed the first two times, but got farther and farther.

“He was asked if he had what it takes to climb Mount Everest, and his response was, ‘That’s why I’m going back,'” said Trotz.

“That applied to his individual experience, and it applies to teams,” he said. “You’re not going to go as far as you think you can. You have to harden and you have to go back and push to the next level. I think that applies to a lot of hockey teams, too. It’s not always going to be the first journey where you’re going to do it and that’s it. You sometimes have to have that heartache and what you have to push through. As much as it is a physical thing, it’s more of a mental approach when it counts.”

Colorado will figure this out. Nathan MacKinnon will have his day. When the Avalanche are passing around the Stanley Cup at some point down the road, they’ll remember what hardened them, what taught them how to scale Everest. Why, as winners, they were better for having lost.

Three things about which I’m unreasonably annoyed in the playoffs

1. Enough (clap) with (clap) the (clap) re-litigation (clap) of (clap) Tampa’s (clap) salary cap shenanigans (sorry, my hands started to hurt).

Every round, we have to hear about the Nikita Kucherov long-term injured reserve gambit. Sweet, innocent, soon-to-be extraordinarily wealthy Dougie Hamilton deserves some blame for reigniting the debate when he said the Carolina Hurricanes lost to a team that’s “$18 million over the cap or whatever they are.” Lost in that commentary was Hamilton’s specification that he “wasn’t knocking the rules or anything,” and was complimenting the Lightning’s considerable depth of talent. But it was too late, because the $18 million horse already left the barn.

As I wrote a few weeks ago: The Lightning played within the same rules as everyone else did, but just did it better. If you’re cynical about it, Tampa GM Julien BriseBois reiterated this week that Kucherov was expected to be out five months, but healed faster than expected — their “circumvention” came about by sacrificing one of the best offensive players on the planet for an entire regular season.

If you’re an Islanders fan that’s salty about the Lightning’s salary cap maneuvers, you might want to get over to CapFriendly. New York has $13 million exempted from its cap through long-term injured reserve. Seven million of that is Anders Lee’s cap hit. The Islanders were able to add Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac at the trade deadline because of that exemption. If Lee, who is skating again, comes back at some point in the playoffs, they’ll add a very good player while being well over the salary cap. No harm, no foul. Just the way the game is played. Tampa’s just better at it.

2. I haven’t been infuriated by a penalty call in a long time like I was by this absolute fiction in Game 2 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders.

Point is called for goaltender interference after Pelech shoves him into his goaltender. pic.twitter.com/b2GsuTJ4Qh

— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) June 16, 2021

Rule 69.1 in the NHL rulebook states: “If an attacking player has been pushed, shoved, or fouled by a defending player so as to cause him to come into contact with the goalkeeper, such contact will not be deemed contact initiated by the attacking player for purposes of this rule, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”

Brayden Point gets pushed, shoved and fouled by Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech. What would be a reasonable effort to avoid such contact? Not trying to score? Politely asking Pelech not to cross-check him into his own goaltender at a high velocity, thus putting Semyon Varlamov in the concussion protocol? The worst thing about this was the referees’ explanation to Cooper, claiming that Point put his hands up to hit the goalie. “When he clearly didn’t do that,” said Cooper.

You know the rest: the Islanders scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game, before the Hockey Gods rebalanced the universe by having New York get hosed on the Lightning’s next goal, which was scored after the Lightning had seven players on the ice, continuing an exemplary night of NHL playoff officiating. One of too many this postseason, unfortunately.

3. Finally, a power-play-related pet peeve: Why do fans chant “let’s go [insert home team]!” on the penalty kill?

Where are they going? Nowhere. They’re trying to stop someone else from going. How about chanting “de-fense?” Perfect. Great multi-sport chant. Chanting “kill!” like they do at Devils games? A little macabre, but still applicable. Heck, I’d even settle for an inverted Daniel Bryan “Yes!” chant, flipping it to “No!” for the penalty kill. Or, failing all of that and circling back to bullet point No. 2, two minutes of the sing-song “Ref, you suck!”

Jersey Fouls of the week

The fans are back in the arenas, which means Jersey Fouls are now in abundance.

@wyshynski #JerseyFoul #GoBolts pic.twitter.com/QrScxRpOwN

— Brent (@Boxofficebrent) June 16, 2021

Brent sends in this sweater from a Tampa Bay Lightning fan who has decided to commemorate a pandemic.

@wyshynski worst one i’ve seen in a long time #jerseyfoul pic.twitter.com/Kpb2ag7xy1

— Andrew Tyckoson (@snarkpocolypse) June 16, 2021

This Lightning Jersey Foul was spotted by a few fans watching Game 2 against the Islanders. Oh, the irony, if this person paid cash for the sweater …

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Gerard Gallant

Gallant signing with the Rangers is a fantastic match of coach and roster. As we saw in Vegas, he’s a “players’ coach,” who does a great job helping to establish the identity of a team. If you asked me what the New York Rangers were last season, I couldn’t tell you anything beyond the generational mix of the roster, and the continued dominance of Artemi Panarin. I have a feeling after Year 1 of Gallant, we’ll have a much clearer definition of who they are and how they play.

Loser: Those Rangers fans holding out for Rod Brind’Amour

The Rangers were reportedly holding out to see if Brind’Amour would shake free from Carolina. Ditto the Seattle Kraken, where Brind’Amour’s friend and former teammate Ron Francis is the general manager. But all indications are that the Hurricanes will reel in Rod for an extension, which is honestly the best thing for them and for this talented coach. It’s a great fit.

Winner: Canada

Obviously, the Montreal Canadiens are Canada’s Team™ representing Canada’s Division™, and every win they collect against the Vegas Golden Knights should be seen as validation that the North wasn’t just a collection of deeply flawed, defensively inept teams, nor a division where the Canadiens qualified for the postseason by default. All hail the North Division and everything else Canadian that needs constant validation from the rest of the hockey world.

Loser: Canada Life

Bell MTS Centre in Winnipeg has been re-christened Canada Life Centre, which sounds like a learning facility with interactive exhibits on ice-road trucking and Tim Horton.

Winner: This fit

Much respect for this Pat Maroon fit. (via @TBLightning) pic.twitter.com/GYZDTbO27V

— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) June 16, 2021

To quote Drax the Destroyer from “Avengers: Infinity War:” “He is not a dude. You’re a dude. This … this is a man.”

Look at the splendor of Pat Maroon’s pregame ensemble, the perfect marriage between style and dishevelment. Reader Kiernan Ambrose said “huge DUI lawyer vibes,” and now we can’t unsee it.

Loser: This fit

The official #StanleyCup Semifinal tee is HERE.

Shop now: https://t.co/acexo1kTcU pic.twitter.com/do4rRtm3ra

— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) June 10, 2021

Look, we’re never going to begrudge the chance for a team to make a few extra bucks at playoff time. But we’ve also never really understood the appeal of buying commemorative playoff T-shirts that a) don’t depict an historic moment for a franchise, like say the first appearance in a specific round; or b) depict a championship. Congrats to whoever purchased this … on their future dust rag.

Winner: Dean Evason

What a pleasant surprise to see Evason, who’s done a remarkable job since taking over the Minnesota Wild late last season, get a Jack Adams Award nomination, despite some significant names (Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan being perhaps the biggest) having strong cases for the NHL’s top coach this season. He spent nine years as an assistant coach in the NHL and six years as an AHL head coach before getting his first NHL head job. The perseverance paid off.

Loser: Patrick Marleau

Look, we obviously have no issue with Oskar Lindblom winning the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, coming back from a rare form of bone cancer. But c’mon, isn’t it a little weird that an award given to “the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey” didn’t go to the guy who was so dedicated to ice hockey that he persevered for 23 seasons before finally breaking Gordie Howe’s record for most games played in league history?

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Enjoyed this piece by Emily Kaplan on Renee Hess and Black Girl Hockey Club.

Published: 2021-06-17 15:17:46

Tags: #win #Stanley #Cup #heart #broken

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