Maybe the best encapsulation comes from one of the characters in the Scottish noir classic Trainspotting: “at one time you have it, then you lose it, and it’s gone forever.”
In that instance, the observation was about Sean Connery’s movie career, but it will sound familiar to anyone who roots for the 2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs, or Chicago Blackhawks, or Washington Capitals, to name just a few.
The Minnesota Wild can also tell you a rueful tale of had it, lost it.
On Dec. 15, the Wild bestrode the NHL’s overall standing and were the league’s hottest team with a 20-8-4 record. Then captain Mikko Koivu injured his leg, and thus began the death spiral.
Since Dec. 16, Minnesota has gone on a dismal 8-19-6 run, one it has been unable to arrest.
“It’s just part of playing in the NHL, it’s not an easy league to win in,” sighed veteran Minnesota forward Matt Cullen.
Parity and the salary cap have emphasized that fact, giving roster depth a disproportionate importance – the Boston Bruins may well be Stanley Cup champions because their third line and fifth defenceman were better than Vancouver’s.
In the offensively challenged Wild’s case, injuries have been key – Koivu later missed another eight games through injury and is hurt again, top-six forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse are out with concussions.
In other cases, such as Toronto or Philadelphia, it’s been a dip in form on the part of the goaltenders at a crucial time, something that can quickly sap a young team’s confidence.
The Leafs have fallen from contending for a home seed on Feb. 7 to 10th place because of a 1-9-2 run.
It can happen to the best of them. Even the Bruins, who tore through the league like a table saw in late 2011, have bumbled and blundered their way to a .500 record in 2012.
But at least teams such as the Bruins, Flyers, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators have managed to right the ship and remain in playoff positions.
The same can’t be said of early season success stories such as the Leafs, Wild, Buffalo Sabres or Los Angeles Kings, who are all on the outside looking in.
It’s seldom the result of a single factor, as Minnesota forward Cal Clutterbuck said, “if there was one thing I think we would have identified it and fixed it.”
To be in a team that suddenly loses it is a disconcerting psychological experience as well.
“The toughest part is knowing you’re capable of doing something and then going out and not really being able to do it at the same level you’ve done it before. The harder you try the more awry things go,” Clutterbuck said.
Rookie Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo, who has been on the inside of championship-calibre teams in Pittsburgh, highlighted another factor: “maybe we weren’t ready for the level of success we had.”
That’s partly a function of youth and inexperience, Clutterbuck said.
“With the number of young people we have in this room ... it’s tough to withstand, it’s tough to learn how to be consistent as a group and push the right buttons with each other. I think we’re learning that right now,” he said.
There is solace in taking the long view – Yeo said winning this season was never the objective, a cultural change for the franchise was.
Cullen said the difference between a good team and an also-ran is the way a team handles adversity – injury-related or otherwise.
“I think the majority of the challenges in the NHL are mental over the course of a season ... the line between the top players and the bottom players is, more often than not, a mental line,” he said. “And it’s a very small line.”