Bruins, Canucks deal with Stanley Cup hangover

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

The plot is so predictable. In the movies, the guys pass out, wake up and wonder what the hell happened. Why is there an exotic animal in the room? Where is one of their buddies? What's up with Zach Galifianakis? How are they going to get it together in time for the wedding?

In the NHL, the guys get to the Stanley Cup final, wake up three months later and find themselves back on the ice already. Though there are no tigers or monkeys or Mike Tysons, there are missing teeth and regrettable tattoos, and though there is plenty of time to get it together for the playoffs, it's the same for the wolf pack or the Bruins or the Canucks.

It's "The Hangover."

Heads are ringing four games into the season. The defending champion Boston Bruins are 1-3-0. The runner-up Vancouver Canucks are 1-2-1. They can chug pickle juice and say all the right things, but it's real and almost unavoidable.

It's not necessarily fatal. The Detroit Red Wings came within a game of repeating in 2009, and they lost Game 7 of the final to the team they had beaten the previous year, the Pittsburgh Penguins. But no NHL team has repeated since the 1997 and ’98 Wings, and before the 2009 Pens did it, no runner-up had come back and won the Cup since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers.

Even the 2009 Wings and Pens struggled to shake the cobwebs. The addition of a hungry Marian Hossa(notes) carried the Wings while the rest of the team struggled the first two months. The Pens struggled, too – partly because of personnel issues, partly because of lingering disappointment. They were 10th in the East in February. They had to make a coaching change.

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik(notes) said players are so well-trained today that, barring injury, they should be ready for the new season despite four grueling playoff rounds and a short summer. He said the problem is that everyone is gunning for the Cup finalists, and everyone is telling them that they're supposed to be hung over.

"You've got to kind of stay within the room and don't read into that stuff, because if people tell you you're supposed to be tired, you're going to feel tired," Orpik said. "Sometimes you can use it as a crutch or an excuse if things don't go your way."

But this isn't the media making a story out of nothing. It isn't just a crutch. All that hockey takes a toll, and the slightest slippage, especially in a league as tight as today's NHL, can leave even the best teams a step behind, at least temporarily.

Go back to last season, when the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks backed into the playoffs. The 'Hawks lost half of their Cup team to a salary-cap purge, but they also left a lot of points on the table during an 11-11-2 start that included two home losses to the Oilers, the worst team in the league.

"There's no way to get your guys engaged early," Wings coach Mike Babcock said then. "How do you get a team to play in September or October where the games – in your mind as a player, no matter what you say to yourself – don't mean anything compared to what you just played in June? That's the facts."

Coach Claude Julien made it clear before the season that the Bruins couldn't sit back as champions and expect everything to fall into place. But then they actually carried the Cup around the ice again before raising their championship banner. Then they were honored at a New England Patriots game. The season had started, but the party hadn't ended.

Julien walked through the dressing room before Monday night's game against the Colorado Avalanche. He didn't like the vibe. He tried to warn everyone.

"I said, 'You know what? We seem a little loose in here,' " Julien said. " 'We might want to focus a little bit better because we're going to be surprised if we're not.' "

The Bruins lost, 1-0, to a team that finished second-worst in the league last season. Julien said the Bruins were "outworked by a team that was a lot more hungry," that they were "losing the races." He said they needed to take to heart what they had been saying since the start of training camp.

"If you show up at the rink a certain way, you can't just turn the switch off and then decide all of a sudden you're going to change your attitude," Julien said. "It's how you wake up in the morning. It's how you see the game. … If you come to the rink unprepared, then it shows."

Did they learn their lesson? The Bruins lost, 3-2, Wednesday night to another team that missed the playoffs last season, the Carolina Hurricanes. Winger Brad Marchand(notes) admitted afterward they were on such a high after all the Cup stuff that they might have had a hard time getting up for these games.

The Canucks are supposed to be on the cutting edge when it comes to mental and physical preparation. They have a "Mind Room." They monitor the players' sleep patterns.

Coach Alain Vigneault spoke to counterparts inside and outside of hockey who have gone through similar situations. He held out his top players until the final two preseason games. The theory was that they would be so sick of practicing that they would be eager to play.

Another theory is that they shouldn't be hung over at all. "Maybe Boston because they won," captain Henrik Sedin(notes) said. "They might have a problem with it. But we've still got something to prove here. It's too tough of a league to not be focused right now."

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Still, the Canucks know deep down they can't prove anything right now. They know the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team and all the individual accolades didn't add up to the Cup, and they know how far they have to go to get back to where they were – one game away.

They lost defenseman Christian Ehrhoff(notes) in free agency, center Ryan Kesler(notes) is out with a hip injury and goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) is going through his usual October issues, but they are also simply out of sync. This is a team that operated like a machine last season – playing the same from game to game, sticking to the system, waiting for opponents to crack, taking advantage of mistakes. Now they are struggling to play a complete game. They're the ones making mistakes.

"The way we play, we should be able to play like we did last year," winger Daniel Sedin(notes) said Thursday after a 2-0 loss in Detroit, looking a little worn out after three road games in four nights. "We're a smart team. Last year when we were winning, we were rolling four lines. We weren't really tired after games because we played a smart game. Right now it seems like we're working extremely hard, but it's not the same feeling. We've got to get back to that same mentality."

The Canucks can do it. They started 1-2-1 last season, too, and finished with a franchise-record 117 points. The Bruins can do it. Unlike last season's Blackhawks, they brought back their championship team virtually intact.

But until they snap out of it, this is just another sequel, the same old story.

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