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sports psychology

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer lays on the ice after getting beat on the game winning goalCharles Krupa/The Associated Press

Hockey appeals to us precisely because it can't be scripted. In a world a little too full of known quantities, we crave our miracles on ice.

But miracles work both ways. While Boston fans were ecstatic about the Bruins' stunning victory Monday night, Toronto Maple Leafs supporters witnessed an unparalleled collapse: The team blew a three-goal lead in the third period, giving up two of those goals in the last 90 seconds, before surrendering the season-ending winner in overtime.

How could this happen? Is what fans call a choke, with a certain contempt, very different for the players who experience it?

"That hockey game will haunt me till the day I die," wrote Leaf forward Joffrey Lupul on Twitter.

The hockey gods are capricious, but even by their cruel standards, this one hurt. The Leafs had overachieved to this point, raising the expectations of fans by coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and taking the Bruins to the brink.

"If I were putting money on it," said Andrew C. Thomas, a Leafs fan who teaches statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, "the odds would be longer than 100 to 1 that they'd surrender the three-goal lead."

There can be value in hockey suffering – the Bruins lost a series they were leading three games to none in 2010 and came back the following season to win the Stanley Cup.

"The most painful experiences become the best lessons if you're prepared to learn from them," said John Dunn, who teaches sports psychology at the University of Alberta.

But to stave off future collapse, you have to make sense of what went wrong. Shouldn't a 4-1 lead with 10 minutes to go reduce the pressure?

"When you start thinking about what shouldn't happen, the brain begins working in a funny way," Prof. Dunn said. "Under pressure, you start telling yourself what not to do – 'I better not screw up' – and the negative psychology takes over. You become more defensive and more afraid."

The luxury of a 4-1 lead can play havoc with a game plan. There's no longer an advantage in taking risks. The Leafs became cautious rather than creative.

"The hockey side of me believes that the collapse was a byproduct of being passive," said Josh Abel, a Toronto mental-performance consultant.

The Leafs let the Bruins bring the game to them. It's a strategy designed to minimize damage but one that requires a calmness from players forced on the defensive against a team with the freedom to attack. The trick is to know when to flip the switch when the strategy starts failing – hockey doesn't allow much room for sudden second thoughts.

Boston's role shouldn't be discounted. "The pressure for the Bruins was 100 per cent gone," Prof. Dunn said. "They're not supposed to win, so they could take risks and play pure and free with complete abandon." That included pulling their goalie with two minutes left, a move that could easily have led to a Leafs goal.

But still: What chance did Boston have of scoring those two goals in the last two minutes? About 1 per cent in an average game, Prof. Thomas said.

This wasn't an average game. The Leafs were tired, playing on the road and missing their top faceoff man, Tyler Bozak – winning faceoffs is the best way to buy time near the end of a tight game – while Boston screened Leafs goalie James Reimer with 6-foot-9 behemoth Zdeno Chara on the tying goal.

Hockey is a game built for collapse. The puck is always available, and possession can't be controlled as easily as it is in football's clock management or basketball's timeouts. "In hockey, you don't get handed an opportunity to break down the other team's momentum," said Todd Loughead of the University of Windsor. Hockey is freer-flowing and open to sudden reversals – which is why it engages our primal emotions.

Lost in the sadness of Leafs Nation is the plus side of the series. "We did a lot of good things," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, noting that a single bodycheck or blocked shot could have changed everything – randomness is as much a part of collapse as psychological and physical acquiescence. And that's a larger lesson that the Leafs organization must impart to next year's team.

"Next time," said Prof. Dunn with an academic certainty Leafs fans can't yet attain, "they'll be much better prepared."

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