Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

The anti-expert’s guide to surviving the playoffs

This week was the first time I realized what a test of mind, body and spirit the playoffs really are. First, I had to get over the Pens blowing a 3-1 series lead and being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning. No sooner did I recover from that than the Portland Winterhawks got routed by the Spokane Chiefs 8 - 3 in Game 4 of the WHL’s Western Conference finals. Had the Hawks won last night, they would have been in a good position to win tonight and take the conference title. But in true playoff style, the Chiefs rallied back and blew our boys out of the rink.  The playoffs are like a whole new season and one series between two teams is like a mini-season within itself. One that only lasts 7 games or less and where you don’t get second chances. What’s a fan to do when our teams are one or two games from elimination? I have a few ideas.

I’m not entirely sure what happened in Spokane last night, but it might have something to do with this:

PIM: Portland 60 mins/19 inf, Spokane 34 mins/14 inf.  If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Winterhawks spent the entire game in the box and never playing. Which come to think of it, is pretty much what happened.

Or maybe it was this: Spokane scored in the first ten seconds and five minutes later they went on the first of ten power plays after New York Islanders’ prospect Nino Niederreiter went into the box for an interference call. Spokane Chiefs left wing and Alternate Captain Levko Koper scored a hat trick plus one assist, two of which came within three minutes of each other in the third period (one on yet another power play). 

I’m partly blaming myself: I told everybody at work all day long that “if the Winterhawks win tonight and tomorrow, they take the Western Conference title.” I should have known better. It’s the equivalent of thinking “shutout” when the score is 2 - 0 and there are 2 minutes to go in the third.

There were a few bright spots: Columbus Blue Jackets’ top prospect Ryan Johansen scored one of Portland’s three goals on a power play in the last minute or so of the third period, and he assisted on the other two. But alas, by then it was like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. Nothing was going to change fate by then. But that’s totally Ryan: when he loses or knows he’s about to, he just tries harder the next time or does what he can to turn the ship around. But all is not lost. The series is now tied 2-2 heading into Game 5. There is no margin for error. Somehow I have a feeling this one is going to game 7, with the winner taking all in OT.

But there was still no real excuse: You could say it was just one of those nights, but this is the playoffs and no team can afford that. We can’t do much about the players’ motivation, rest, game day plan or game strategy, but as fans we can protect our own sanity.  So I have devised a few helpful tips for surviving playoff weekends like this one:

1) Game day nap: Players consider it a must, why shouldn’t we? Rest allows one to think more clearly and survive a double overtime thriller that started at 7:30 and is ending in the early hour of the next morning.

2) Proper nutrition pre, during and post-game: In future entries, I’ll discuss early preparations for the off-season, which include weaning oneself off non-food pyramid snacks like licorice, SnoCones, hot dogs and beer. But when one is knee deep in a do or die playoff weekend, one needs to fortify. Obviously, beer is a must. I myself prefer barbecue nachos for the pre-game meal, as they are an excellent way to convince myself that I’m also eating from at least two or three food groups: protein (chicken, chili), dairy (cheese) and vegetables (barbecue sauce). Well, ok, barbecue sauce isn’t a vegetable, but it does have tomatoes in the recipe so it technically counts. If the game goes to OT or the pre-game meal did not prove sufficient, snacks such as popcorn are acceptable, but can prove hazardous if your team ties it up with three seconds to go in the second period, and you toss said munchables on your neighbor. Hence, the barbecue nachos. Combined with a beer, they are usually enough to hold me for the entire game. As for post-game, chocolate and more beer are usually good choices, as they can be enjoyed as part of celebrations or used as self-medication in the event of a loss.

3) Practice pre-game anti-opponent rituals. Clearly a must. I have a press pass, so my pre-game ritual usually involves slipping downstairs and putting a hex on the opponent’s dressing room. But if you do not have said access to the locker room area, there are other ways to go about this. In Portland, the officiating has been the source of much agony in our playoff games, and one fan has taken to bringing a sign to every game that reads “I’m blind. I’m deaf. I wanna be a ref.” He was outdone for a brief spell by the fan who brought the “Free Brad Ross” sign while the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect was on a three game suspension for a maybe it was clean/maybe it wasn’t hit to Zach Franko’s head. Anti-opponent signs are easy to make, allowed past security and as we can see, are completely re-usable.

4) Take an occasional break for non-hockey activities. Luckily this weekend, you can turn on any number of channels and watch tidbits and highlights from the royal wedding. Not usually my hobby of choice, but those Brits do come in handy when Pittsburgh has been eliminated and you are doubting the ability of your hometown team to turn things around.

5) Try putting things in perspective. Emphasis on try, because let’s face it, when your team is this close to the Western Conference title and they let it slip away, perspective is nowhere to be found. But in Portland, because of some very bad years that are not so very far behind us, gaining perspective is just a tad easier. This is the first time since 2001 the team has made it to the finals. We already know that the team will hang at least one banner this fall for the first time since 2002, because the Hawks are the WHL’s U.S. Division Champions. That’s what would make it so heartbreaking if Spokane takes this series. The higher you climb, the harder you fall. But when all is said and done, and we look back in years to come, this was still a Cinderella season. Whether the slipper ends up fitting or not, the ball was still worth attending. Yes, I just made a hockey metaphor out of a fairy tale. I’ve been distracting myself with the royal wedding, what can I say? Better that than hiding under my kitchen table with a bag of peanut M&Ms cursing my team for biting it last night.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com