If distinguished sports psychologist Cal Botterill could counsel the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings before tonight's decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, he would tell them to enjoy the process and approach the challenge as an opportunity.
The Winnipeg-based Botterill knows about the pressure of these vital clashes. He was the New York Rangers' sports psychologist when they beat the Vancouver Canucks in the dramatic 1994 final. He also is the father of two-time Canadian Olympic women's hockey gold medalist Jennifer Botterill as well as Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill.
"Young and elite athletes who enjoy the process of sport have a big advantage over those worrying about outcomes," Botterill wrote. "It's impossible to fully focus on the process of performing well if one is worrying about outcomes. Motivation from within is much more suited to excellence and enjoyment than motivation for outcomes.
"Prior to the gold medal game at the 2002 Olympics and 2004 World Cup of Hockey, Wayne Gretzky reminded Canada's players 'to enjoy the process.'"
Botterill believes that if the Red Wings and Penguins can view the game as an opportunity, it's an excellent way to avoid "failure tendency." Trying to avoid failure is loaded with difficulties like "negative images, tension and fear, less effective focus and possible negative fulfilling prophecy."
Both teams have enjoyed successful Game 7 experiences in this postseason.
Interestingly, the Red Wings won their make-or-break finale against the Anaheim Ducks at home, a day after the Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals on the road in Game 7.
This final, of course, has been a homer series with each of the previous six games won by the home team. The Red Wings have been outstanding at home this spring. They have an 11-1 record at Joe Louis Arena and their only loss was a triple-overtime affair in Game 2 of their series with the Ducks. Why has Detroit been so good at home?
"We've just been way more comfortable on home ice in the playoffs," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "We were a great road team in the regular season. But we haven't been as good in the playoffs [4-6 record] We've been way better at home, way more comfortable, way quicker, way more assertive. This is where we work. This is where we live. It's our fans, it's our city. We're proud to be from Michigan and have the opportunity we do in front of our fans. I think that's comfort."
But it's more than a comfort level. The last change is a big advantage for Detroit. Babcock likes to load up Henrik Zetterberg as well as the defence pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski against the opposition's top player or players.
This group shut down Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, controlled Ryan Getzlaf in the second round, frustrated Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the conference final and so far has quieted Sidney Crosby in the final.
The Red Wings also have plenty of veterans. There often is more pressure playing at home in the playoffs because a team doesn't want to disappoint the hometown fans. But with a dressing room full of veterans, the Wings know the importance of staying relaxed to get the job done.
The Penguins also haven't been as physical at the games in Detroit as they have been at home. The one game they put forth an effective, physical fore-check was in Game 5. But after the Penguins' determined start, Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary scored a timely goal midway through the first period. The Penguins were deflated, never recovered and got bombed 5-0.
Finally, as comfortable as Babcock believes his players are at Joe Louis Arena, Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury has been in distress in the Detroit rink. He surrendered a couple of goals in the series opener that were the result of caroms off the lively end boards at the Joe Louis Arena. When the puck is bounding off the boards as fast as the shots are fired, it is often difficult for butterfly goalies to recover and get back into position.
Hall of Fame netminder Patrick Roy had difficulty in Detroit, too. Who can forget the 7-0 Detroit win in Game 7 that Roy and the Colorado Avalanche endured in the 2002 conference final?
"We know what the challenge is," said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, who may not have forward Petr Sykora tonight due to a foot injury after blocking a shot in Game 6. "We know the team we're facing and where we're playing the game, and we know the stakes.
"The challenge is to make sure we're focused, get the right thoughts. Thoughts about how we need to play as individuals and as a team and be ready to play the best game we can."
Cal Botterill would not convey any different advice.