Writer and adventurer Rudyard Kipling rendered the thought so eloquently that it’s become a splendid cliché – if you can keep cool when everyone else is freaking out, you can be the man.
Okay, okay, maybe that’s not quite what he wrote. And fair enough, he arranged his words a smidge more poetically. The point is Kipling’s oft-cited poem If contains lots of reasonable advice, much of it relevant to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Poise is a quality some athletes are born with, but more frequently it is acquired at the cost of previous failure and disappointment.
“I wasn’t [calm] early in my career, I remember those games … where you pretty much play your game before it starts. Then the game starts and you’re exhausted. It’s learning to manage your nerves, your excitement,” said 35-year-old Montreal Canadiens forward Daniel Brière.
That resonates as the Habs prepare to open their first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, because a question hangs over Canada’s lone entry in the NHL playoffs: How good is this team, really?
They’ve had inspirational moments, such as the night they trailed the Ottawa Senators 4-1 with barely four minutes to play and pulled out an overtime win. They’ve also had long stretches where they struggled to play .500 hockey.
Montreal finished the season as a bottom-six team in terms of advanced statistics – puck possession correlates strongly with success, and the Habs have been out-possessed consistently. And their even-strength scoring over the whole season was 26th in the 30-team NHL (they scored one more goal than the Los Angeles Kings, who are possession monsters).
But they’re also a stingy defensive team – their 2.45 goals-against-per-game average was eighth in the league (Tampa Bay, meanwhile, had the 11th best offence at even strength, and the 11th best defence). And the Habs’ penalty kill, which can patch up a lot of cracks, is among the league’s very best.
A good part of evaluating this team’s chances lies in composure, and whether the Habs’ key players will be able to maintain it.
Somewhat paradoxically, the person about whom there are no reservations is Brière, the veteran free agent signing who has spent the season playing limited minutes, flitting around the lineup and in an out of coach Michel Therrien’s good graces.
But Brière was signed for precisely these circumstances – he has 50 goals and 109 points in 108 playoff games, and has at points in his career led the playoffs in both points and goals.
He won’t play top-line minutes, but if the Habs are to fulfill their ambitions – and don’t be fooled by the even-keeled talk about one game at a time, they are not satisfied with merely making the postseason – he will participate in a balanced scoring attack.
Goaltender Carey Price’s hallmark is calm, phlegmatic play – his 9-17-3 career post-season mark (.905 save percentage, 2.90 goals against) is largely a function of an unflappable guy getting flapped at inopportune moments.
Case in point: then-Ottawa Senators forward Jakob Silfverberg’s back-breaking goal in game one of the first round last season. Silfverberg was plainly surprised Price didn’t stop it.
Doubters tend to forget that Price, who is now 26 and coming off the finest season of his career, saw his first postseason action in 2008 (he beat Boston in a seven-game series) and is now in his seventh go-round in the searing cauldron that is the NHL playoffs.
The belief he doesn’t get it done in the playoffs has proven difficult to dispel; the alternative view is that, in 2011, he was bested by Tim Thomas, then in the midst of one of the greatest statistical seasons in NHL goaltending history, and in 2013 he was outdone by Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, whose save percentage in the shortened season was over .940.
Price, who passed the pressure test at the Sochi Olympics, considers his time is now. “After that whole experience, it helps you stay calm, being able to take in how a bunch of leaders on other teams that have won carry themselves. I think that was a very valuable learning experience,” he said recently.
Price knows about winning, and when he looks at the Canadiens, he sees possibilities.
“We’ve got a lot of good parts. We have guys who can grind, guys who can put the puck in the net, we have offensive defencemen, defensive defencemen … the team that wins the Cup is the team that puts [the] intangibles together,” he said.
Another Canadian Olympian who’s well-stocked in intangibles is P.K. Subban. The animated 24-year-old didn’t score in his final 19 regular-season games, but still managed to finish near the top of the scoring charts among NHL defencemen.
Despite what some term a late-season funk and a tumultuous relationship with Therrien – he was benched for most of the first period in a recent game against Ottawa – Subban has played the kind of low-risk hockey his coaches demand for much of the season.
And the playoffs, where he established himself as a full-time NHLer in 2010, don’t exactly make him quake with fear. “I enjoy playing under pressure, I think that’s why I’ve had individual success in Montreal. I love playing here, I love playing underneath the microscope all the time, it just makes me better,” he said.
Conventional wisdom holds that hockey teams adopt the tone set by their veterans and best players. Leave it to Brière to tie it up in a neat little parable: The Habs’ uncontested top player is Price, who acts as a human stress reliever.
“You’ll look at him after we’ve made a catastrophic mistake, and he’s just like, whatever, I’ve got it,” Brière said. “It’s as if nothing happened. We’ll be sitting on the bench and the other team gets that chance and everyone tenses up, he just deals with it, makes the save. You think maybe it wasn’t so bad, then you see the video the next day, and it wasn’t pretty. He can paper over a lot of things, and that’s where he makes a difference.”
Another of Kipling’s stanzas holds that “if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,“ it will nudge you on the path to become “a man, my son.”
If the Habs goaltender and his acolytes follow that injunction, who’s to say what sorts of men they might become.