Why the Blackhawks succeed when trailing in a series

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CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has learned to control the swings of emotion that used to come with each playoff game when he first started competing in the postseason.

Chicago would win one playoff game and he’d mentally plan a parade route. They’d lose the next and he thought their postseason chances were cooked.

“All of a sudden that thought crosses your mind -- ‘Better luck next year,’” Toews said Tuesday.


It takes a lot more than one win to get him and his Blackhawks teammates excited. It also takes more than a loss to get him thinking about the offseason. At 27 years old, Toews already has played in 114 playoff games.

He has seen just about every scenario, and the Blackhawks, more often than not, find a way to succeed in each one -- including when trailing in a series, in which they have an uncanny ability to thrive.

Down 2-1 in the Stanley Cup finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Blackhawks find themselves in the same position they were in against the Boston Bruins in the 2013 finals. And that worked out just fine for Chicago.

Against the Ducks in the Western Conference finals, they trailed in the series three times before finishing off Anaheim in Game 7.

Under coach Joel Quenneville, these Blackhawks are 40-14 after Game 3 in the postseason.

“For whatever reason, I think we play our best games when our backs are up against the wall,” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said.

Seabrook didn’t have a reason, but Dr. Justin Anderson, sports psychologist with Premier Sport Psychology, does. In fact, he’s got a couple of theories.

Anderson and his group have worked with NHL teams to try to identify, explain and address mental aspects of the game.

In the case of the Blackhawks' success while trailing in a series, he referenced something called the activation curve. Picture a bell curve, with performance measured on the y-axis and anxiety or activation on the x-axis along the bottom.

If there’s no activation, performance is low. We’re bored and not engaged -- like, say, the All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio, this year. On the other end of the spectrum, there is too much anxiety. Players are over-activated; they can’t handle the stress of the moment.

“That is where you see people choke,” Anderson said.

Somewhere in between is the optimal level.

It takes more energy and activation to get professional athletes to their peak. Their curve is weighted to the higher side.

The Blackhawks, Anderson suggests, are a group now who need to be challenged even more than the typical playoff team to reach their optimal peak -- like the challenge that comes with trailing in a playoff series.

“They are such a veteran team that one of the theories I would say is a lot of times with veteran guys who have been out there quite a bit and have had success you need a little bit more arousal or activation to get them to peak performance,” Anderson said.

If you happen not to be playing in the Stanley Cup finals right now, Dr. Anderson has a comparison: a round of golf played for fun compared with one in which there’s $100 on the line for the lowest score.

“I play a lot better when we’re putting money down,” he said. “There’s a little bit more edge. These guys with such a long season and such long playoff series, I think these guys are able to sort of step back and not have that little edge to be in the zone. When they get their backs up against the wall, they get activated just a little bit more into their peak zone. When they’re in their peak zone, they are so dangerous.”

And that’s the zone in which the Blackhawks have had remarkable success through the years. That zone is found in Games 4 through 7 in a playoff series -- games in which the Blackhawks usually dominate.

“We got a great core of leaders. They’re competitive as heck,” Quenneville said, explaining Chicago’s success late in a playoff series. “They find a way to get better each and every game. They make guys around them better. They have accountability internally. They demonstrate that by how they compete; guys seem to follow.”

Anderson has another theory that helps explain the Blackhawks' success while trailing. It’s the Albert Bandura self-efficacy theory, and it focuses on people’s beliefs about their ability to produce and influence certain events in their lives. Basically, it involves how confident we are that we can do a certain task, like bounce back in a playoff series.

Bandura found four factors that strengthen that confidence. The first is mastery. Every time you succeed at a task, the belief increases. The second involves modeling -- seeing other people have success in similar situations. One team comes back from a 3-0 series deficit and suddenly others believe it’s possible, especially if there is something in common between the teams.

The third is social persuasion. A coach, say Jon Cooper, convinces an inexperienced group that they are every bit as good as the more experienced team they are competing against. The fourth is physiology. Has stress been removed? Are we healthy enough to complete the task?

But more than anything, mastery has the biggest influence on a player’s belief he can produce in a certain situation.

“Mastery is the No. 1 thing there. That becomes the culture. ‘This is what we do. We know we can,’” Anderson said.

Another sports psychology expert, Dr. Patrick Cohn at Peak Performance, said that’s the biggest explanation for the Blackhawks' success when trailing.

“You have an expectation that ‘We’re going to figure out a way to pull this out. We can be patient with the process and not panic knowing we’re only down one game,’” Cohn said. “By not panicking, you can continue to focus on your game plan and play one shift at a time and not worry about the outcome of winning. That’s advantageous.”

The opposite also is true. Teams that blow a series or two start to believe that’s how the series is always going to play out. There’s a reason some teams like the Capitals and Sharks seem to work from the same script every postseason.

“They’re called expectations based on generalizations,” Cohn said. “This case, it’s a positive one. [The Blackhawks] have the toughness, the fortitude and patience to know it doesn’t matter if they’re behind.”

That mentality for the Blackhawks can be traced back to the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, when a Chicago team in its embryonic phase as a playoff group faced a Nashville team up to the challenge in the first round. The Predators took a series lead twice and probably should have won Game 5 but lost a stunner when the Blackhawks scored short-handed with 13.6 seconds left in regulation and then won in overtime on a Marian Hossa goal.

That experience helped build the belief that the Blackhawks are never out of a game and that a series deficit is no reason to panic. They went on to win the Stanley Cup that year.

“With the Blackhawks, their experience is there. They know how much time they have to turn it on, and that gives them an advantage,” Anderson said. “It becomes the DNA.”