Anytime a hockey team enters a game without a player they usually lean on heavily, some things have to change. A lot of times we’ll see that team not just survive, but thrive. There are reasons for that.

Tonight, the Nashville Predators are without their leading scorer in playoffs (and he hasn’t even played well), Alexander Radulov. He’s two points up on the guy in second, Andrei Kostitsyn…who’s also out tonight. So needless to say, they’ll be heading into action a little offensively hamstrung.

Yesterday, the New Jersey Devils played without their 100 million dollar man Ilya Kovalchuk, and gave one of their best performances of the post-season, winning 4-1 against the Flyers in front of the voracious Philadelphia crowd. At a glance, it makes no sense: why were they so good without their best player? Are they better off without him then?

The answer to the latter is “no.” The mental adjustments players make aren’t sustainable. It’s akin to bearing down and hitting a great drive on the 18th tee. You can do it once in awhile, but it’s just not possible to grind it out like that every shot, every hole.

The answer to the former needs a closer look.

Teams that rise up and excel with a depleted roster have to make some mental changes.

There’s a natural mindset shift that happens when you’re doing up your tie-down, looking around the room in pre-game and don’t see your team’s big guns. Guys always go out there intending to do their job well - if you’re a second or third line forward, your priorities are to play solid, do the right thing, and try to create some chances. If they go in, hey you had a great night. If they don’t, well, as long as you played solid, no big deal.

But at that moment you realize that the offense is going to have to come from somewhere, and that you’re going to have to step it up that night. It’s a focus thing. It’s Emeril’s “BAM” to your usual mental preparation - it kicks it up a notch.

A quick analogy: those of you who play rec hockey can relate to this. Have you ever had those games where a number of people don’t show up, and you find your team out-numbered like, eight skaters to 15? You realize “Okay, we can’t run-and-gun tonight, we can’t dump-and-chase, we need to play a possession game. Let’s play patient, and capitalize when we get our chances.” You make that mental change. (Something about that style reminds me of how the Canadiens played when they upset the Capitals a couple years back).

You adjust your game because you don’t have the same tools you normally do. You remind yourself to be smarter with the puck.

It’s not rope-a-dope necessarily, you just take less risks and hope you bury every time you get the puck near the net. When you have possession in the offensive corner, maintaining control is suddenly more important that making a risky pass to hopefully score, because the last thing you want is send your opponent the other way on a rush. Another night…maybe not. Maybe you’re not so cautious and you cost your team.

It isn’t necessarily noticeable outside the heads of the players - it’s not like a team will play a different system, or dump it every time, or shoot every time they’re inside the blueline. It’s just a mindset that takes more focus and discipline.

I know some of my Twitter friends will cry “narratives” at this stuff, but implying that the human element doesn’t exist and that people don’t alter the way they play depending on circumstances is as wrongheaded as implying statistical regression to the mean doesn’t exist.

Tonight the Phoenix Coyotes bring their healthy team in to play Nashville, in a game the Preds desperately need. I’m not saying the Preds will win (though I think they will), but they will play differently.

Comments (4)

  1. That happened to the Wild last year.

    At first, when they lost pretty much all their skilled forwards and good defensemen, they buckled down and played strong defensive hockey, kept it simple, and were grinding out low-scoring wins.

    But after a few weeks, they lost their focus, depth players were trying to play like scorers, and scoring dropped while goals against skyrocketed.

  2. I agree with this except there is a glaring exception to this that happened just this week. St. Louis without Pietrangelo imploded and played their worst period of hockey all year. They should have changed/adjusted their style of play, but they didn’t and fell apart. I know they play a more conservative style to begin with, put their defense just wasn’t there for the first 25 minutes of the game. They were trying to do too much but just ended up out of position or making careless turnovers.

  3. This is entirely true. I’ve shown up for rec league games with only 7 or 8 skaters, have been forced to play center instead of my normal position on the wing, and the entire team reaches a new level of focus.

    There is no way that kind of mind-set is sustainable for more than short amounts of time.

  4. I agree with this statement completely. That said – Counterpoint: the other team takes you too lightly when your best player is out.

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