BRANDON, Fla. — The playoffs, man. One day you’re feeling the Bell Centre bounce on its foundation and the next you’re sweating in the parking lot of a suburban practice rink on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The swings of emotion, and energy, aren’t just felt on the ice.
So as the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning went through their paces a day before playing Game 6, another thought came to mind: What a paradoxical grind. A playoff run unfolds slowly, and at warp speed.
Both of these teams feel like they’ve accomplished something and neither is even halfway to its ultimate goal. Oh, and one of them will be cleaning out locker stalls and doing exit interviews by the end of the week.
With the arrival of the second two-day break in this series, and the Habs halfway to a historical comeback, you could start to see the psychological strain of the entire exercise. Players willingly delved into discussions about anger and hope and fear before wandering off in search of something to do for the 31 or so more hours before puck drop.
Michel Therrien, conveniently overlooking which team was facing elimination, even tried to suggest that the Lightning will have “more pressure” to contend with on Tuesday night. This, of course, isn’t entirely accurate.
“There’s pressure no matter which city you’re playing in, in front of which crowd,” said Habs winger Max Pacioretty. “It’s the playoffs. Everyone’s watching. It’s the hardest trophy to win in sports and it’s that way for a reason.”
You really feel it at a time like this.
The days off seem impossibly long and the games are played incredibly quick. The Lightning are ahead 3-2 in the second-round series, but have missed two straight opportunities to close things out.
Still just one victory shy of facing the Rangers or Capitals in the Eastern Conference final, there weren’t many smiles to be found in their dressing room following Monday’s optional practice.
“I know it was a tough loss the other night and we lost in the last four minutes of the game, but there was a difference,” explained coach Jon Cooper. “There was a difference in the room after we lost Game 4, there was a difference when we lost Game 5. There was a genuine pissed-off attitude that we lost Game 5. I could just tell. Nothing needed to be said. Guys were angry and it’s carried over, so I like our mojo.”
Yes, but is that something a coach really wants?
“I do,” said Cooper. “I want to be an angry team.”
Every team also seeks to be one that forgives and forgets. A group that moves forward without being burdened by whatever happened the last time out.
The Lightning struggled badly in Games 3 and 4, but rebounded in Game 5 — particularly during a strong push in the third period — and are learning on the fly. They are a full year younger, on average, than any of the other five teams still chasing the Stanley Cup.
“Just start the game the way we finished the last one and we should be on the right path,” said captain Steven Stamkos.
Tampa hasn’t lost three games in a row all season and is the NHL’s best team on home ice. With Game 6 being held at Amalie Arena, Stamkos said the message was simple: “It’s just don’t play scared. Don’t be afraid to lose.”
Good luck with that. There are frayed wires everywhere here — on both sides of the equation.
Even the most successful athletes can’t be entirely sure if past performance will be duplicated, and so we get the wonderful collision of emotions that add something extra to these games.
The Habs built a 3-0 lead over Ottawa in the first round and still went to six games while the Lightning came back from 3-2 down to eliminate Detroit. Now the roles have been reversed in Round 2.
“We’ve been there,” said Therrien. “You get a three-game lead, you’ve got the pressure to close. And the more it’s going, the more they feel that pressure.”
Playing from behind has infused Montreal with energy, according to the coach. His group is comfortable in this situation, especially with goalie Carey Price having allowed five total goals while winning seven straight elimination games dating back to the Sochi Olympics.
Some players are trying to draw motivation from the rare opportunity to erase a 3-0 series deficit. Four teams have accomplished that feat in NHL history, but never one wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge.
“That’s probably the only thing that this organization hasn’t accomplished,” said Pacioretty. “It might be our only chance to ever make it to the record books and (contribute) to the Habs legacy.”
“We’ve got to look at the big picture, too,” added Therrien. “Going back home for Game 7, that’s going to be pretty unique.”
Hurry up and wait. Who knows if we’ll even get that far?