Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It ain't over until Yogi Berra says the fat lady sings - a psychological analysis of digging your way out of a 3-0 playoff deficit

At this point the unfortunate Carolina Hurricanes have lost something like 5 of their last 6 games - yet still find themselves in the 3rd round of the Stanley cup playoffs. Just barely though - they are down 3 games to zero against Malkin, Crosby, and the Pittsburgh aquatic birds.

In other words, the Hurricanes have the Penguins right where they want them. Well, not exactly, but I've always felt that it's not nearly as hard as it looks to dig your way out of a 3-0 hole. Here's why:

Let’s start in reverse order. If you can somehow get to game 7, at that point you’re in a commanding position and your opponent is just about finished – they have blown a 3-0 lead and are reeling. So that's a very winnable game

And game six would have a similar feel to it. If you get to a game six that means you've beaten your opponent twice in a row - you're in their heads now and when they play you they're thinking about losing instead of winning.

So the series really pivots on games four and five. Or to put it another way- if you can win 2 games – you have a very good chance of winning 4 games – something of a bargain for a playoff team.

Game 4 is of course the win you need to get started. But, come on. If you can't win one game in four against your opponent - you shouldn’t even be in the playoffs. To look at this another way - if you have to be down 3-1 in a series - the best way is to have come back with a win after 3-0 - because that way - you have that little bit of momentum on your side. And teams do have the psychological strength to go all out to prevent a sweep. So you really have a lot on your side, psychologically for that game four. So let's assume you don;t get swept and manage to win game four.

So then really, Game 5 is the key to the whole thing. Because your team will go all out to win game four to avoid the sweep - and psychology is on their side there. Likewise, games 6 and 7 are not too tough because you've already got a streak going and the psychological edge moves to your side,

But that game 5 - that is the toughest one of the bunch. But shoot, you can win a hockey game. It can happen. And after you just won game 4 you get a little positive jolt from that. You opponent feels just a little bit of pressure – more than you do really. After all, no one thinks you have a chance - so you have nothing to lose. You play loosey goosey and try and steal one. And having taken game 5 - you can now take the series.

So with this outlandish but strangely compelling assessment from Dave Pucks - why does coming back from a 3-0 hole never happen? Two main reasons:

1 - The team in the hole is psychologically shattered. They've been programmed to think the series is over - they've just lost 3 straight - so they feel pretty bad about themselves. They believe they're done and it comes true. They give up.

2 - The other team got a 3-0 lead usually because they are the better team. And being better does count for something.

So it's a tough road for Carolina. But it can happen. And if it does – you heard it here first!

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