You had to be there

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:09 PM ET


 Real hockey begins in May and ends in June.

 In those months, the game is played at a level that simply could not be maintained over the course of a full season because it is too physical, too intense, too emotional, too scrutinized, and too demanding.

 And when teams that are not battle-hardened find themselves playing at that time of year, the result is a roller-coaster.

 One night they look great. The next night they look awful.

 This year, none of the four conference finalists had any real experience in the advanced stages of the playoffs.

 The traditional late-season powerhouses -- the Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche -- were all out of the picture.

 The San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning were left to take centre stage.

 Late-playoff experience on those teams is negligible -- two or three guys who won a Cup elsewhere, often a decade ago.

 So, when teams like that get thrown into the rarefied level of May hockey, they have no experience to draw upon. Except for the noted few exceptions, they're all rookies at this.

 As Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis said during the Eastern Conference final: "Nothing prepares you for this until you do it. I don't care how many games you've played in the regular season. This is something different."

 That's why there are the mercurial changes from one game to the next. Without the high-level experience to draw upon, emotion, rather than knowledge and confidence, takes over.

 You win a game and all of a sudden you're elated. "Nothing to it. We're in control."

 And even though you tell yourself the opponent is going to come out even harder next game, you don't really believe it. After all, you won the previous game. You must be the better team.

 The next thing you know, you've lost a game, lost the advantage, and you have to start all over again.

 Veteran post-season teams don't do that. When they get you down, they don't take a bow. They put the boots in.

 Consider the four recent Stanley Cup winners mentioned earlier. Suppose they'd won the first two games of the conference final on the road, as the Flames did in their series against the Sharks. Does anyone seriously think they'd have come home and lost the next two?

 Not a chance. But the Flames did.

 And then the Sharks returned the favour. Having evened the series on the road, they went back home and lost.

 Emotions take over. It even happens within games.

 You can have two teams locked in a titanic struggle. Finally, one scores. Then it scores again almost immediately.

 That's the lack of experience at this level. The veterans know that if you give up a goal, you've got an uphill battle but you've still got a chance. The neophytes lose their enthusiasm. They sag and another goal goes in.

 Look at the three games of the final.

 Game 1, second period: The Flames are barely hanging on to a 1-0 lead. At 15:21, they score. At 18:08, they score again.

 Game 2: Tampa takes a 1-0 lead into the third period. At 2:51, they score. Then again at 4:00. And another at 5:58.

 Game 3: It's scoreless well into the second period. At 13:53, the Flames score. At 17:09, they make it 2-0.

 This is a low-scoring era in hockey. But in the Stanley Cup final, going back to last year's series involving the inexperienced Anaheim Mighty Ducks, eight of the past 10 games have been decided by three goals.

 There is an art to winning at the highest level and you'll never develop it by reading about it or by being told about it. You have to learn it by experience.

 That's what these neophyte teams are doing at this time of year. And, as in any situation, where one learns through experience, it's trial and error. Plenty of error and very much a trial.


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