Players, coaches invested in sometimes haunting moments

In 16 locker rooms across North America, players are looking at each other today and asking two simple questions: Why not us? Why not now?

For the 16 teams who will begin the playoffs this week -- the most difficult, dramatic playoff tournament in pro sports -- those questions will sustain them and drive them forward in the face of injury and fatigue and crises of faith and confidence. Because at the very core of what is about to unfold is this talisman: it can be them.

It can be the Washington Capitals or Vancouver Canucks or New York Rangers or Calgary Flames that find a way to ring up 16 victories over the next two months and live forever on the shiny bands of the Stanley Cup. This year more than any in recent memory the shiny truth -- a beacon on the hockey seas, if you will -- is that all things are possible for all teams, and that truth will be held close as the days and weeks unfold before the final series.

And yet that truth sits at a right angle to the sobering reality of the fragility of that hope. The math remains the same no matter how wide open the field might be: only one of those 16 teams will find the answers it seeks. The rest will be left to wonder why and how their dreams were not met. It is the great paradox of the postseason and what imbues the process with such drama.

Current Chicago Blackhawks center Brad Richards still recalls his first postseason game for the Tampa Bay Lightning, back in 2003 at the Ice Palace, fans whacking inflatable sticks together to create a deafening noise.

"We were just growing that team and to get sold-out buildings was not the norm every night," Richards recalled. "It's still one of the loudest buildings I've ever been in."

The Lightning would defeat the Washington Capitals that year after dropping the first two games of the series, before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the New Jersey Devils. The next spring Richards was named playoff MVP as the Lightning won their first and only championship, defeating Calgary in Game 7 of the Cup final at home in Tampa.

Richards has played in 117 playoff games since that first one. This spring, he'll be looking for that elusive second ring after coming oh-so-close last June when his New York Rangers lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five hard-fought games in the final.

Time has not dulled the electricity that comes with this time of year, the warmer temperatures and the smell of spring rebirth in the air a reminder of the opportunity that presents itself each day at the rink. If anything, the passage of time -- Richards will turn 35 on May 2 -- has sharpened that emotion, brought it more into focus.

"It's just a different feeling. You know the grind is over. You get a newfound energy," Richards said of the postseason. "You know it could be two weeks, it could be 10. It's a lot of fun to put all your energy into it."

The native of Canada's Prince Edward Island relishes the moments spent with his teammates, especially early in the playoffs, eating together with games on television screens around them, maybe some cards being played to pass the time on off nights between games.

There is a rhythm to the playoffs that becomes comforting. One opponent, night after night until they are vanquished or you are the vanquished. To win a series is to move on quickly, though, even as memories of the traditional post-series handshake line are still fresh in a winning team's mind.

"It's more like a relief. 'OK, we're done.' But you can't let your guard down," Richards said.

It's up to the veteran players on those teams to look around and make sure no one is too excited by a first- or second-round victory.

"Savor it for one night, maybe, and then move on," Richards said.

Last spring, the Rangers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 and then flew to Pittsburgh to start the second round almost immediately. Then, after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in the conference finals, the Rangers had time to regroup while watching the Kings and Blackhawks play two more games.

"You want to keep your mind on hockey, but you need to get away from it, too," Richards said.

To lose a series, however, is to be left with the burden of self-doubt and missed opportunities. How often do you think former Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz has thought of Game 5 of the first-round series against Chicago in 2010, when the Predators were poised to take a 3-2 series lead over eventual Cup champion Chicago?

The Preds were up a goal and on a power play in the final minute thanks to a major penalty for boarding against Marian Hossa. Instead of protecting the lead, instead of doing any of the things Trotz beseeched his players to do in the final moments during a late timeout, the Predators coughed up the puck in their own zone and Patrick Kane scored the tying goal, shorthanded, with 13.6 seconds left in regulation.

Hossa -- who should have been ejected from the game for the hit on Dan Hamhuis -- scored the winner in overtime and the series was over in six games.

How often over the past year do you think members of the Anaheim Ducks thought about allowing Marian Gaborik to tie Game 1 of their second-round series against the Kings with just seven seconds left in regulation?

Gaborik managed to get his stick on a bouncing puck while being tied up in front of the Ducks' net, and the trade-deadline acquisition would then score the overtime winner to give the Kings an early lead in an emotional series they won in seven games on their way to a second Cup in three years.

The Ducks hang on for another seven seconds in Game 1, and who knows?

To this day, Bill Guerin recalls a save made by Montreal's Jose Theodore in Game 6 of a second-round series in 2002 between Guerin's Boston Bruins and the Canadiens. The Bruins were trailing 2-1 midway through the third and the puck came to Guerin at the side of the net while Theodore turned the other way. But before the puck could cross the line Theodore flung himself across the crease, his stick coming out of his hand in the process and batting the puck away.

"I had a wide open net," Guerin said, the wondering leaking into his voice almost 13 years later. "I remember that like it was yesterday."

The puck was wobbling, but Guerin used a big blade on his stick and he thought, "Just hit it solid." He did.

"I hammered it," he said. "And he just turned around. If I ever see those highlights I puke."

That moment a series ends and you know your season is over, "it's devastating," Guerin said.

You work so hard for 82 games, you're into the playoffs thinking about a Stanley Cup and "boom, five or six games later and you're out and you're like, what just happened? It takes a little while to really believe you're in summer mode," the current Pittsburgh Penguins GM said.

Guerin won a Cup as a young man with the New Jersey Devils in 1995 and recalls being initially annoyed at GM Lou Lamoriello, who insisted the team stay in a hotel even before home games. Now, Guerin remembers those times with fondness, the guys cloistered in their own hockey bubble. Even when he was home during the playoffs Guerin admits he wasn't really there, his wife more or less giving up having normal dinnertime conversations.

"She'd be saying something, she knew I was somewhere else. My mind was on the Rangers or whoever we were playing," he said.

He would wait until 2009 for a second shot at a championship, this time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He ended up two-for-two in final appearances, as it turned out.

"I couldn't imagine going to the finals and losing," he said. "I never wanted to feel that. I can't imagine what that would be like."

For a long time, when his season was over Guerin would shut off the television. Didn't want to watch or know what was going on. As time passed, though, he wanted to see the end, see the moment when players held the Cup aloft, felt the shiny surface as he had. He used it as motivation to get back there, to have the feeling again.

"It might be painful, but I've got to see how happy these guys are to get that drive back and that helped me," he said.

So, what was it like after Game 7 on the road against the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, after Max Talbot had scored both goals in a series-clinching, 2-1 thriller? Guerin pauses.

"Cannot explain it," he said softly. "I can't even explain it."

And so it goes.

If there is a singular focus for players in the postseason, there is for the coaches, too. The playoffs crystallize a coach's job, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock explained. It's not about looking ahead to games against different opponents. It's not about worrying about your team's energy level or hitting an emotional dry patch.

"It's a pretty interesting animal," Hitchcock said recently. "I find it more fun because you're not looking at 10 different teams."

"We (the coaches) don't have to take care of the emotion. The emotion is in the event itself," he added. "You literally live your life day to day."

And that leaves the coaches to make technical adjustments, getting the right players on the ice in the right order.

"In some ways it's easier because the event itself takes care of the energy level," he said.

Hitchcock recalled his first playoff series as an NHL head coach, when his Dallas Stars played his hometown Edmonton Oilers back in 1997. The Stars, from the big metropolitan area, were upset by the team from the small Alberta city, and what struck Hitchcock was the investment of all concerned in that conflict.

"Winning meant everything to everyone. It felt like you were playing a whole city," Hitchcock said.

Good friends he'd known his whole life stopped talking to him during the series. He recalled walking in Edmonton to get a coffee a couple of blocks away from the team hotel one morning.

"I got yelled at four times. And that's my hometown," Hitchcock said.

The Stars lost in overtime in Game 7, and the veteran coach admitted it took time to understand the subtleties involved in moving from regular-season hockey to playoff hockey. The postseason quickly went from overwhelming to something wholly enjoyable, though.

Two years later, Hitchcock and his players didn't want to leave their dressing room after downing the Buffalo Sabres in six games to win the team's first and only Stanley Cup.

"We never wanted to leave the locker room in Buffalo. They had to push us onto the plane. Nobody wanted to exit that situation," Hitchcock said.

At the end of each playoff series the two teams shake hands, but, win or lose, Hitchcock is not there with the rest of the coaches.

"I really believe that the coaches should stay off the field of play," he said.

That doesn't mean he won't seek out his colleagues from other teams at the end of a series. In fact, he recalls an especially poignant moment two years ago when his Blues were dispatched by the Kings in the first round after taking a 2-0 series lead. Hitchcock and old friend Darryl Sutter met underneath the stands at the Staples Center to share a moment.

"That series was so emotional, so hard," Hitchcock recalled. Both coaches understood what had been left on the ice: everything.

"I think both of us thought that we needed a little bit ... of a private moment," Hitchcock recalled.

As for losses, they stick with coaches and haunt them in the same way losses stay with players. A year after winning that Stanley Cup, the Stars lost to New Jersey in the final.

"I was sick for a month. Felt sick," Hitchcock said.

"As a coach, you feel so good for the players who put everything into a playoff series victory, and you feel so badly for them when they put everything into a series and it's still not enough to move on," Hitchcock said.

So, the players and coaches sit and wonder, perhaps aloud or perhaps only in their inner voice: Why not me? Why not now?

In the end, of course, only one team will be able to fully answer that question. But the funny thing is, even those who win it will find something approaching sadness that it's over. Richards recalls last June, how good it was to be playing at the end, all of the hockey world watching the last two combatants.

"That's a good time, a good time, a lot of time together and it comes to an end in a halt. Not an easy time," said Richards, who has rarely spoken of the toll of that final series loss.

"It's not a great feeling. And I haven't talked about it much this season. Still, you wouldn't change it," he said.

And he knows the feeling of being on the other side of that equation. Even then, Richards noted, it's a bit of a shock, too.

"Even when you win it's kind of funny to say but you're, 'What do I do now?' The light kind of switches off," he said.

Everything that has passed in the previous two months, the emotions, the ups and downs, the bond that is forged and then strengthened with each passing day, each passing win, is suddenly over.

"You're suddenly sitting there going, 'What do I do now?'"