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As the coronavirus-modified NHL playoffs unfold, the key to success is all in the players' heads

Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times on

Published in Hockey

SEATTLE -- Onetime Seattle Breakers junior star and NHL captain Ryan Walter still isn't sure what to make of the pandemic-modified Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now a British Columbia-based mental performance coach for athletes and business leaders, Walter admits it "freaks me out a little" to watch neutral-site games with no fans and piped-in crowd noise. He's found games "fun to watch" but still can't gauge how players are responding mentally after a 4 1/2-month layoff and with COVID-19 hanging over everything.

"It's going to be interesting to see how each of the teams are prepared to play at this level this quickly," said Walter, a two-time Stanley Cup finalist with Montreal -- winning in 1986. "I'm pretty interested to watch and see what plays out and what principles I can glean from that. I think it's a very interesting thing that we're not going to see too often."

We're also seeing two very different playoff formats early on.

There's a best-of-five "Qualifier Round" for teams Nos. 5-12 in each conference. Also, single round-robin games between the top four conference teams -- who've automatically advanced to the next round -- to finalize seeding.

An emerging story is onetime Everett Silvertips goalie Carter Hart, who stopped 34 shots for the Philadelphia Flyers in Sunday's 4-1 round-robin win over Boston and could carry teammates much deeper into the playoffs. Turning 22 next week, Hart highlighted an otherwise dull game typifying the round robin, which has lacked the intensity of best-of-five affairs.

 

Saturday's best-of-five games featured a fight fewer than three minutes into the Carolina-New York Rangers playoff opener, then a head blow leading to a suspension in the second game between Chicago and Edmonton, and finally, a borderline Matthew Tkachuk hit that could end the playoffs for Winnipeg star Mark Scheifele.

And that was just Day 1.

Meanwhile, in round-robin play, the Bruins -- Presidents Trophy winners for the top regular-season record -- sleepwalked to their loss against Philadelphia. The most exciting round-robin moment came Sunday when Nazem Kadri scored with one-tenth of a second remaining to give Colorado a 2-1 win over defending champion St. Louis.

But even Blues coach Craig Berube looked bored awaiting video review to determine whether Kadri's shot beat the buzzer.

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