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Bourne: Why some NHL stars struggle in the playoffs

Joe Thornton has 65 points in 91 career playoff games for a PPG average of .71 - in the regular season his career PPG average is 1.01. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Joe Thornton has 65 points in 91 career playoff games for a PPG average of .71 - in the regular season his career PPG average is 1.01. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Every year, playoffs bring about a confusing phenomenon: The Case of the Disappearing Goal-Scorer is a mystery even The Hardy Boys would struggle to figure out.

As fans, we like to reel off the simple answers: “He’s soft,” or “he doesn’t care,” or any of the dozen flip justifications people choose to simplify why it happens. But unfortunately, I’ve been there. It’s not always that simple and there are a good number of reasons that contribute to the problem.

It’s the stat I’m least proud of when it comes to my bio. When I was with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, we went to the conference final in 2007-08 and my stat line read 13 games, two goals and zero assists for two points. That came during a season in which I made the ECHL All-Star Game, spent time in the American League and had 28 points in my last 30 games, so the playoff numbers were a touch disappointing.

In my case, the problem was the most obvious of excuses: I had separated my sternoclavicular joint early in Round 1 (the collar bone area) and freezing it helped little. It hurt so badly, I didn’t even want the puck. During the playoffs, many players fight through the types of injuries that would normally see them sidelined for weeks during the regular season. In the NHL, the teams are going to make sure the media knows as little about these bruises as humanly possible.

But those are more easily understandable problems; sometimes it goes deeper than that.

As an example, if you watch golf, you may have seen Rory McIlroy at the Masters this past Sunday. He was leading the tournament after 63 holes with only nine to play. The world-class golfer shot a seven-over-par 43 on the backside and lost by 10 strokes.

When things start to really matter in any sport, your mindset is forced to change and that’s not always a good thing. 

You want it so much more that you start doing things you’d never do if you were playing relaxed, confident hockey; as the drought continues and your confidence dwindles, the effects only get worse. You look to pass when you’d normally shoot, you pull the trigger from low percentage places and find yourself asking the same questions reporters do after the game: What was that all about? 

Second-guessing yourself is never good in a sport that relies on split-second decisions.

For goal-scorers, it’s huge to score early in a series and get into the swing of things so they feel confident they’ll contribute regardless of the weight of the situation.

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The other thing that can make it more difficult for a skill player is teams finally have a chance to set a game plan for specific guys, instead of just dealing with their opponent’s system as usual.

In the regular season, you can always catch someone napping and that’s what the great skill guys capitalize on: the weak link. It can be a defenseman who misses a player drifting behind him, a lazy backcheck from a superstar in Game 53, or maybe a goalie who’s having an off-night when it comes to his angles.

The fact is, in the playoffs, everyone is sharp and they know exactly who they’re playing and how they play, so they tailor a plan to shut the all-stars down.

For the Sedins, teams may sag deeper, as the twins thrive on making aggressive players look silly. Maybe Thomas Vanek will have to see Chris Pronger every shift for however many games the big defenseman can suit up for. The sledding gets tougher and the ice suddenly feels sloped uphill when you’re a target.

All of these factors, combined with pressure from the media and teammates, can lead to intense frustration. “Gripping the stick too tight” is a commonly regurgitated hockey cliche that’s not necessarily a real thing, but works as a metaphor for guys simply trying too hard, wanting it too much.

As the pressure piles on, it doesn’t get any easier. Fans will moan and complain and point the finger when their star player’s stats tail off in the playoffs, but you can rest assured the scorer is giving it his best.

All this leads to another point: When a player succeeds and maintains his point level from the regular season into playoffs, they deserve all the credit in the world.

That’s not maintaining a pace - that’s picking it up.

Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.

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