Rob Pizzo and I have talked about this on our podcast the past couple days after watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin: it’s insane to think that when you’re watching a regular season NHL game, the guys playing still have another gear in them somewhere. I mean, they clearly do – all you have to do is tune in to a few minutes of playoff hockey to be sure.

I thought it’d be a good time to share a little insight about how guys “find that extra gear.”

1) Preparation

Over the course of a long season, there are some days where you just can’t bring yourself to give a damn. Consider: if you want to feel your best the day after a game, there are steps you take. Your best bet is to ride the bike for 10-15 minutes to flush the lactic acid from your legs. It’s a light spin, but it’s still a pain in the ass after playing. Then you should stretch. Then you should get in the cold tub. And while all this is happening, you have about a 20-30 minute window to replenish your body with food, food that ideally has a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio. Oh, and drink plenty of fluids.

During the day, there’s morning skate (with more routines), pre-game meal, your nap…. you get the picture. It takes discipline to do everything right all of the time.

Sometimes during the season (especially after a bad loss), it’s all too easy to play, shower, dress and leave. Sometimes you just want to be away from the arena.

During playoffs? Not an option. Your teammates expect you to prepare like a pro, and you want to so you can be at your best. (Mike Babcock praised Nick Lidstrom on NHL: 36 for his discipline in preparation – it matters.)

2) Mental

There are people who have no time for mental preparation in a reactionary game. Those people are missing out.

Visualization prior to a game provides you with the mental reps you need to make the right reactions, not just a reaction. For me, I would go over each of our systems in each zone, I would think about what’s expected of me (provide offense), and I’d go over my role on faceoffs at every dot on the ice.

During the regular season in game 42 against some random team on a Tuesday? Forget it. I was playing two-touch soccer and listening to music (rap!) in my headphones.

In playoffs, you see a lot more guys with towels over their heads in their stalls.

3) Adrenalin

Very few players grew up playing road hockey alone for hours envisioning scoring the overtime regular season winner. It’s all about playoffs. It was all about the Cup. (I remember counting down the “final seconds” before every shot with that orange ball before scoring the Cup winner – for the Islanders, of course.)

The juice you get from knowing that everything you’ve worked for, every rep in the gym, bag skate and skill drill you’ve ever done was to succeed right now is intoxicating. It takes a lot longer to feel tired, that’s for sure.

4) Commitment

Not sure how many of you are aware of this, but getting hit hurts. Hell, hitting someone can hurt. Blocking shots? Another thing that hurts. Taking the hit to make the play is also not so cool.

But, you do those things because you’re a hockey player, and you’re expected to. But, there are exceptions. Some regular season nights you fly by a guy and do a loop instead of hitting him. Wanna keep that momentum going, you know coach? (He does not know. Or approve. But it happened, so, too late.)

But in playoffs, everybody including yourself knows you’re expected to go through bodies. A seven game series is a war of attrition, and you need to wear your opponent down before they get to your guys. And even if you don’t wear them down physically, you want to get them to the point where when they have the puck, they see you coming and think “Ahhh goddammit, now I’ve got to get rid of this,” because they know you’re going to finish your check. Time after time after time after time, this team we’re playing finishes their check. That’s discipline, and that’s a pain in the ass to play.

5) Pressure

The San Jose Sharks have been good for a lot of years in a row. They won a President’s Trophy as the winning-est team in the NHL during the regular season a few years back. They’ve been to the Western Conference final. And as annoying as this is…nobody seems to give a shit.

You’re aware as a player that the regular season is the Pre-Season That Sort of Matters, and the playoffs are where you build your reputation. That was what Doug Wilson, the Sharks GM, said after acquiring Martin Havlat in exchange for Dany Heatley - “he’s a playoff performer.” And, some guys are. Some guys respond well to that pressure, and he’s one of them (as evidenced by his two big goals last night).

Everything is ramped up just one tiny iota in every department, everyone is just that tiny bit more prepared, everyone cares that little bit more.

And with all that, we see games like the ones we watched last night – close, hard fought, skillfully played. NHL playoffs amazing, because just when you think guys don’t have any more to give, they find that extra gear.