It’s NHL playoff time, which means one of two things: Either your favorite team didn’t make it, or your favorite team is going to lose.
That sounds depressing, but it’s reality. Every team that makes the playoffs is going to have to get used to losing. There’s a 15 out of 16 chance that your team is going to get eliminated, and even if they win the Stanley Cup, they’re still going to lose at least a few games along the way.
And that’s going to be painful, because playoff losses are the worst. A fan can shake off a typical mid-November loss within minutes, because the NHL regular season drags on forever. But playoff losses can ruin your night, the next day, and well beyond.
And worst of all, not all playoff losses are created equal. So today, let’s look at five common types of ways your favorite team can lose a post-season game, and how a typical fan ends up dealing with them.
The Hot Goalie
The game: Your team plays great, certainly well enough to win if there were any justice. They’re all over their opponents, controlling play, generating chances and firing shots from everywhere on the ice. But nothing goes in, because the other team’s goalie turns into late-90s Dominik Hasek.
The reaction: At first, you’re reasonably OK with this one. Hey, it happens, right? Sometimes a goalie just has one of those nights, and there’s not much you can do with it. That’s hockey. The key is that your team played well, and as long as they keep that up, they’ll win more than they lose and everything will be OK.
But after that initial acceptance, the tide starts to turn. Was the other guy really that good, or did your team just make him look that way? On closer inspection, a lot of those highlight reel saves sure look like your guys just shooting the puck right into a waiting pad or glove. What are we paying all these high-priced forwards to do? And hey, what about your own team’s goalie – would it kill him to steal a game or two every once in a while?
Fun fact: No matter how good their own goaltending is, every NHL fan is convinced that at least 80 percent of these games go against their team.
The Big Mistake
The game: It’s a close one that could go either way. And then, it happens – somebody screws up. Maybe it’s a lazy clearing attempt. Maybe somebody misreads a coverage. Maybe they take a bad penalty (the puck-over-glass rule figures prominently in this category). Or maybe it’s just one of those fluke plays, like somebody blowing a tire or accidentally kicking a puck into their own net.
Sometimes, you may not even spot the mistake in real-time; it won’t be until the fifth slow-motion replay that you realize what just happened. But one way or another, sixty minutes or more of hockey ends up crystalizing in one regrettable play.
The reaction: This is one of the toughest losses to deal with because it leaves you with a focal point, that one moment to roll over in your mind again and again over the next day or two. Eventually, your brain starts coming up with alternate realities where the play never happens, and your team ends up winning.
Depending on the type of mistake, you might start off with some sympathy toward the player who made it. Really, they were mostly just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But after a few hours of stewing over it when you really should be sleeping, you’re pretty sure that there’s something bigger at play. The player’s mistake revealed some sort of deep character flaw, and you come to hate them and everyone who has ever known them. (This hate will last anywhere from until the next game to the rest of your life.)
The Referee Robbery
The game: This is another game that could go either way, or at least it would be, if those damn referees would get out of the way and stop ruining everything. They either call too much or too little, or in some cases both at the same time. Either way, the referees are determined to single-handedly decide the game, and the next thing you know your player is getting a penalty when he didn’t even do anything other than maybe punch one person in the face.
The reaction: Rage. This might be the most frustrating loss of all, and anger over a Referee Robbery has been known to linger for weeks, if not months. Maybe years. OK, fine, decades.
Under extreme enough circumstances, the Referee Robbery can morph into its far more sinister cousin, The Conspiracy Game. Can you prove that Gary Bettman personally instructed the referees to screw over your favorite team and help the other guys? No, but you also can’t prove that he didn’t do that, and neither can anybody else.
The Fatal Flaw
The game: Quite possibly the worst of them all, this game doesn’t just result in a loss. It highlights a glaring problem with your team that you knew was there but were desperately hoping wouldn’t surface during a playoff run. It could be a lack of discipline, or not enough speed, or a habit for blowing leads. Maybe they’re too young or too old, or didn’t plug that one glaring roster hole at the deadline because your GM is a big wimp who never makes trades.
But whatever it is, you knew it was there all along. And now, so does everyone else.
The reaction: Anger, although of a slightly different sort. You’re not really mad at what happened in the game; you’re mad at the team for not fixing it when they had the chance.
If it’s a flaw like taking too many penalties or some sort of strategic issue, maybe the loss can serve as a wakeup call. But if it’s a roster or team identity problem, you’re pretty much out of luck. That’s what makes this one hurt so much – even if the loss didn’t knock you out of the playoffs, it feels like it just made that moment inevitable.
The one that doesn’t have a clever name because you just got beat by a better team
The game: Nobody shows up to play, nothing goes right, and every break bounces the wrong way. It starts off bad, and just gets worse as it drags on. Maybe the other team is actually better or maybe they just looked like it on this particular night, but even if the scoreboard may not reflect it, this game is an old-fashioned butt-kicking.
The reaction: This is the worst loss of all to sit through; it’s just three hours of misery. And weirdly, that makes it the easiest one to accept. You don’t have to spend all night agonizing over one play that lost the game, because there were so many.
And in a weird way, maybe that’s a good thing. No hockey team can be perfect all the time, so there’s something to be said with getting it out of your system, right? As embarrassing as that game may have been, the two teams still start over at 0-0 for the next one and tomorrow’s a new day. Besides, it’s just a game. You can handle this. You’re at peace with this.
Note: If your team has two of these games in a row, you will throw your television out a window and spend the rest of your days living in a cabin in the woods.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.