While sitting at his stall in the visitors’ dressing room Tuesday after scoring yet another overtime playoff goal, Patrick Kane shrugged his shoulders and humbly concluded he was little more than the recipient of a fortunate bounce. Replays certainly supported his argument.
The star winger from South Buffalo ended the series against Minnesota with a neat backhand on a freakish play. Duncan Keith’s innocent shot into the offensive zone took a strange bounce off the stanchion. The puck landed on Kane’s stick, leaving the Wild helpless against one of the NHL’s most dangerous players.
It would appear so if not for Kane’s history. He scored the OT winner to clinch the Stanley Cup for the Blackhawks in 2010. Let’s not forget his shorthanded score with the Chicago net empty and the Blackhawks scrambling to tie Game Five. He scored again in Game Six to get past Nashville in the first round.
He added five other winners in the past two years, including three this season. He scored twice in the third period, including the GWG, in the series opener against Minnesota. His overtime tally in Game Four against St. Louis tied the series, but it served as a jumping-off point for Chicago winning four straight.
Kane may have received a nice bounce for the clincher against Minnesota, but his physical skill and hockey IQ played a much larger role than he acknowledged afterward. While the media was busy listening to him talk about the “lucky bounce,” they largely ignored the insight that followed.
“I just tried to drive hard to the net, hoping it came to me there,” Kane said. “I made a fake and tried putting it into the net. I probably put it a little higher than I wanted to, but I didn’t see it go in.”
Translation: Kane placed himself in position to succeed. His hockey acumen helped him identify a soft spot in the offensive zone. His speed allowed him to jump into the open area. His hands, one of the best pairs in the world, helped him make a difficult play look routine.
It’s easy to suggest Kane has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. You hear it all the time about certain players. Evidence supports that theory, especially in large sample sizes. But nobody has come up with a clear explanation for why it happens with some athletes and not others.
Daniel Briere, for example, is deadly in the postseason even though his size, speed and skill – much like Kane’s – aren’t suited for the aggression that typically comes with the playoffs. He has 52 goals and 115 points in 118 postseason games after slipping behind his point-per-game average this year.
That’s 36 goals and 80 points for every 82 playoff games. In the regular season, he’s averaging 27 goals and 61 points for every 82 games. He never scored more than 34 goals and only once had more than 72 points in the regular season. But he was the guy who delivered the knockout punch in Game Seven against Boston.
Briere, 36, is not as explosive as he was early in his career. He was a healthy scratch for Game Five but came through in Game Seven with one goal and one assist to lead the Habs into the conference finals. His goal, which bounced off Zdeno Chara’s skate, was not a surprise.
“All I was telling myself was you’ve got to stay ready,” Briere said. “Even in the third period, early on I knew I wasn’t going to see much ice time, but I kept telling myself to stay in the game. You never know what could happen. It could be a power play. ... I might be needed. I finally had my chance and it paid off.”
Be ready. Wait for your opportunity. You never know.
Statisticians have argued postseason success comes down to the basic law of averages. Simply, great players are more likely to succeed in all situations because they’re great. Sports psychologists have argued that elite players process the game faster, effectively slowing down the pace when they reach maximum focus levels.
Any athlete who ever experienced “The Zone” has enjoyed an inexplicable stream of success. The game can slow down. Hockey players talk about “blacking out” after scoring highlight-reel goals. Running backs have a difficult time explaining how and why they made certain cuts.
In many cases, it comes down to instincts. But sometimes it’s a matter of playing with discipline, defined in this case as playing within your capabilities.
Chris Drury, who scored 17 winners in 135 career playoff games, once told me that he didn’t do anything different in pressure situations. He suggested that other players, in their desire to succeed, tried to accomplish too much and effectively abandoned what helped them succeed in the first place.
In other words, if players adhere to what they usually do, their opponents are more likely to fail around them. What may appear to be players raising their game to higher levels could actually be others deteriorating around them. The key was getting into position to succeed.
Still, there is no denying that certain players have had a pattern of success in pressure situations. David Ortiz hit .687 with two homers and six RBIs in the World Series last year. He has 17 postseason homers, including three against the Yankees in the epic ALCS in 2004.
It was surprising to learn that Big Papi homered 6.14 times for every 100 at-bats during the regular season but only 5.7 times per 100 ABs during the postseason. His .295 batting average in the postseason is only slightly better than his .287 average during the regular season.
We tend to remember when players succeed and forget when they fail. Michael Jordan didn’t always make the big shot. Ortiz didn’t always come up with the big hit. But they’re regarded as clutch performers because they left lasting memories after coming through in pressure situations.
Ray Allen missed his first six three-point attempts for the Heat in Game Five against the Nets, but all was forgotten when he made his last one with 32 seconds left and added two free throws to help Miami clinch the series. He made the biggest shot in years last season to help Miami beat San Antonio for the title.
Both were pressure shots, but both also came from one of the best outside shooters over the past 20 years. If he missed his first six three-point attempts, it stood to reason that every miss drew him closer to making one.
So how do you explain Larry Bird stealing Isaiah Thomas’ pass in the conference finals to save the Celtics? And why did Derek Jeter race from shortstop to the first baseline for a backhand relay against the A’s? And how did Tiger Woods’ chip against the slope at the Masters roll into the cup with one final Nike turn?
Even the great ones can’t always explain what they do. Often, they take the easy way out and say, like Kane did Tuesday night, they were lucky when really luck played only a supporting role. My theory, if I’m qualified to have one, is that success comes from all of the above.
Great players are blessed with uncanny vision, imagination and instincts. They have the physical skill needed to carry out what their brains process. They find peace under pressure, manage their adrenaline and play with a slow heartbeat while others crumble under the same conditions. And they create their own breaks.
Last season, Kane scored the winner for the Blackhawks in Game Five against the Bruins en route to the Stanley Cup. He ended the conference finals against the Kings with a hat trick, including the winner. He continued the trend this year because he puts himself in positions to succeed.
That’s what the great ones do. Strange goal? Yes. Lucky bounce? Sure. But that doesn’t mean Kane’s goal was a fluke. It may appear that he has a knack for coming through in the clutch, but nobody has a knack for being lucky. Sometimes, I wonder if even Kane understands as much himself.