The AIHL Finals are unique in the ice hockey world. Sudden death. Every game a Game Seven. Only at the finals of the Winter Olympics do individual games eliminate well-performed teams so brutally.
After twenty-eight games and six road trips over five months, whether you’re fourth or first, bring your A-game for two games and you could take home the iconic Goodall Cup. Anything less and no matter how good you’ve been all year, you’re going to be sad.
Fox Sports commentator Stephen White says belief is the most important factor on finals weekend “because of the cut-throat, one-and-done nature of the AIHL Finals”.
“You have to throw caution to the wind and have a go because there’s no second chance.”
Stan Scott, Perth Thunder general manager and former coach, agrees.
“A hot goalie helps a lot but the most important factor is a belief in your teammates and yourself. That will get you to play on Sunday.”
#35 Peter Di Salvo stretching during a break in play
Newcastle North Stars coach Andrew Petrie knows this terrain better than most. His team won the past two titles, once as a favourite, once as an underdog. Last year, the North Stars were rated fourth of the four finalists by many pundits and they won.
Both 2016 semi-finals went to overtime and all three Finals games were one-goal thrillers. The previous year, his North Stars won the decider in overtime. So Andrew knows how much little things matter on this weekend.
“Come Finals weekend, all the hard coaching work is done in terms of systems, structures, and skills development. It’s all about the individual and collective man-management now.
“Keep the deep-thinkers out of their own heads, relax the stressors, invigorate the calmer guys, empower the worriers.”
In a league which becomes more even by the year and each team is confident it can topple the other, team mindset is key.
Andrew says on this high-stakes weekend, it’s only when “genuine adversity” impacts the group that he intervenes.
Andrew aims to keep things light within the team to avoid over-analysis. He strives to give his players plenty of mental downtime where hockey is not the focus. He keeps his meetings short and at times appropriate to the games.
Stan Scott says focus is paramount.
“The secret is to not look at Sunday but focus on the game at hand. If you can convince players to win every shift they play and focus on each shift only, the rest will take care of itself.
“Playing Finals should give them enough motivation… It’s focus that you need to give them.”
Such mind games loom as the biggest challenge for the league’s best-performed team, Melbourne Ice. Last season, the Ice broke the regular season points record, losing only three games. But they were a little flat in their semi-final. Their opponents CBR Brave found a new level, and Ice were toppled in overtime. After winning nineteen times during the season, they were out.
The previous year, a penalty shot in overtime of the grand final denied them the title. Before that, they had an off day in the grand final against upstart rivals the Melbourne Mustangs.
Again, in 2017, Ice have been runaway leaders all season. National men’s senior coach Brad Vigon says Ice’s main threat this year is in their heads.
“I think their challenge is that they’re supposed to win. That’s a hard mindset to have. If you win everybody says ‘yeah, you were supposed to win’ and if you lose, it’s a complete disaster.”
#12 Tommy Powell is keeping the atmosphere light
Brad knows this better than most. He coached the Mustangs to that fairy-tale upset win over Ice in 2014. He says the 2017 Ice is the strongest team he’s ever seen in the AIHL. But despite being a “crazy strong” team possessing “an embarrassment of riches”, Ice is under more pressure than their opponents.
“I wonder if that is something that might be ticking in their heads. It’s almost like a jinx – ‘how come this keeps happening?’
“If you played a seven-game series nobody would beat them. No one would have a prayer against them. But when it’s the one game, a hot goaltender, a couple of calls that don’t go your way, or a couple of bad bounces and it’s game over. You lose.”
Brad feels Ice are well placed to counter any nerves, as they have turned over plenty of players. The newbies won’t be spooked by history.
However, Ice’s opponents will be painting a target on the back of the Melbourne behemoth. None more so than rink mates the Melbourne Mustangs, who Brad says thrive on an underdog mentality.
“I think the Melbourne Ice don’t really like derbies because, for the Mustangs, they’re the be-all-and-end-all. Someone once said the Mustangs would rather beat Ice than win the championship and I don’t think that’s too far from the truth.”
The mental challenge is less complicated for rising powers CBR Brave and Perth Thunder, which have both impressed in recent Finals series without taking the ultimate prize.
Brave is motivated by the pain of a one-goal defeat to the North Stars last season, and the feeling that they are destined, after three years of progress, to go one step further.
#15 Casey Kubara wins the puck along the boards for CBR Brave
Thunder also have a sense of unfinished business after losing semi-finals in the past two seasons by just a goal. It took overtime to send them out last year.
Brad Vigon leaves us with something to ponder.
“For me, the Melbourne Ice just seem to play well enough to win. They could be in a game that’s really close and at the end, they turn it on, almost at will.
“I’m not sure you can do that in the Finals.
“I haven’t seen them play their best hockey. Maybe they’re saving for the Finals. But you don’t want to wait until that point to turn it on.”
If Ice does turn it on and play their best hockey, all talk of mind games and jinxes will be smashed.
That’s the beauty and horror of sudden death finals. Actions, moment by moment, shift by shift, determine how you will be regarded, whether you win.
No second chances.
For two days, it’s a whole different season.