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NHL Playoffs

Simpson In the Arena: Bubble Life Getting Best of Some, Brings Out Best in Others



Alex Ovechkin

TORONTO — After Game 4 on Monday night, Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour, after his team blew a 2-0 third period lead and lost 4-to-3 to the Boston Bruins, said the following in reference to digging out of a 3-1 series deficit while playing in the bubble.

“It makes it harder to dig yourself out of the hole.”

There is no question that bubble life has an impact on playoff performance. Some level of the same phenomenon that led Bruins number-one goaltender Tuukka Rask to leave his team and head home after Game 2 arguably lingers in a number of other NHL players.

They’ve all been in the bubble for about three weeks. No family. No true freedom. Just wins and losses without the emotion of fandom.

During Tuesday’s pregame media availability, Capitals head coach Todd Reirden had this to say about that evening’s upcoming Game 4, with Washington looking to avoid getting swept.

“We’ve got to be physically engaged right from the drop of the puck,” Reirden said. “Be prepared to play the best possible game we can play to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Not so much.

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In the first 58 seconds, Tom Wilson egregiously turned the puck over twice in his own end and Brenden Dillon took a tripping penalty. At 3:50 of the 1st period, the Islanders were 1-0. By the time it was 9:16, New York had a 2-0 lead. 9

It felt like the Capitals were mailing it in; their bags already packed.

Then Washington captain Alex Ovechkin got pissed off. With three seconds left in the first period, after getting dumped at the Islanders blueline, “The Great-8” tried to rip Casey Cizikas’s head off with a stranglehold at centre ice.

Washington killed the roughing penalty to start the second period and Ovi was off to the races. He scored his fourth and fifth goals of the playoffs and led his team back for a 3-2 victory.

It would have very easy, especially after watching the first ten minutes, to write off the Cap’s. It appeared the bubble psychology would prevail with good reason.

Look at the qualifying series. On August 7th — better known as “elimination Friday” — that’s exactly what we got. Six teams were down 2-games-to-1 in a best of five series. All but one were sent packing. Toronto won in overtime to force a Game 5 playing in their own rink. Was anyone inspired by the Pittsburgh Penguins performance, beyond watching Sidney Crosby?

How many guys were dying to force a deciding game, knowing that if they won it, they would have earned an additional two weeks to two months of neutral-site hockey?

The New York Rangers are pretty stoked. Swept away by the Hurricanes in three games, outscored 11-4, anyone think they’re crying in their soup? No muss, no fuss, back home with the top overall pick.

The point is, some teams fold it up in a normal playoff season when facing a daunting task. It’s individual and collective mental make-up. We’ve been around long enough, we’ve seen the body language, the effort in certain cases over the years. Some results are way more predictable than others. I can only imagine to what degree that feeling has increased this year.

It’s a different season. The world is upside down. Just like the league, hopefully, only this one time, introduced an additional qualifying playoff round to make up for an incomplete regular season. It’s understandable that some players don’t feel like themselves.

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On purpose? No way. Subconscious and daunting? Absolutely.

Meanwhile, there may be a very positive flip-side to this. Often we hear people say the first round of a typical Stanley Cup playoff season is the most exciting, crazy, and unpredictable, while teams get tired, banged up, and more grinding as the rounds move on. Who knows, this year, maybe the craziness will complement the physicality of the later rounds. Teams will be six weeks in the bubble by the time they reach the Conference Finals. It might mean even greater energy and desire, as everyone battles to make the most of this highly unusual commitment.

“Obviously being away from family, the longer you’re away from them the harder it gets,” said Carolina forward Vince Trocheck on Tuesday, “but comfortability and getting used to being in here gets a little easier. I think like Brock (McGinn) said, at the end of the day we’re here to win a Stanley Cup and everybody on this team is focused on that. So being in a bubble doesn’t make much of a difference to us.”

Another motivating factor for the Hurricanes is that the next two games are back-to-back. Win Game 5 on Wednesday, they get to turn around the next day and play Game 6. A smidge of solace after collapsing in Game 4.

The Capitals can take solace in the fact that they avoided being swept. Will the same psychology appear for Game 5 on Thursday, that burning desire, or will a daunting subconscious get the best of Alex Ovechkin?

His head coach says not a chance.

“No one scores goals like this player,” Reirden said postgame. “But it’s the other stuff that went on. It was the stuff that was said in the locker room, the stuff that was said to his teammates, the stuff said on the bench. It was physicality, it was belief, it was the emotion he scored after he scored a goal. Get in line, because we’re going. We weren’t getting the success that we needed and now we know what’s mandatory for success going forward.”