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Canucks vs. Predators: Mentality in the spotlight with series tied 1-1

It’s a head game as much as a physical contest at this point.

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When Antoine Roussel made the Stanley Cup playoffs in his second season as a Dallas Star, he thought the post-season would be a regular fixture in his hockey-playing life.

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But it would be two years before he skated in the playoffs again.

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He learned not to take the playoffs for granted. Still, he found a new challenge — his nerves, sprung by this realization of the rarity of being in the playoffs.

The third time he made the playoffs, he was a Vancouver Canuck and he was playing in the COVID-free bubble, away from family and friends, an environment others have described as feeling like jail.

But not the Rooster. The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs are an oddly fond memory for him, largely because he recognized where they might sit in his hockey career — maybe this was going to be the last time.

It turned out he was right. The Canucks had a disastrous 2021, missing the playoffs, and then that summer Roussel was shipped off to a new purgatory — the Arizona Coyotes.

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The overall lesson, Roussel says, is you need to learn how to maintain your intensity without letting it overwhelm your emotions.

“When you’re young, you’re so amped up. But maybe you want to do too much,” he said this week from Montreal, where he is working as a studio analyst for TVA’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“The second time around, I was more nervous. When you’re young, you think you’re going to be in the playoffs every year. Then you don’t make it for a couple, you don’t want to mess up. So you get nervous.”

“But you can’t let your nerves make you nervous.”

And that is the challenge facing every player in the Stanley Cup playoffs right now. The Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators are two games into their series now. The first-game excitement is past. The what-ifs of the second game are gone.

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The Canucks have lost their goalie — Thatcher Demko is out week-to-week with an undisclosed but apparent knee injury. The team can’t dwell on that. And with the series shifting to Nashville, the crowd noise element changes the dynamic — now it’s a home crowd for the Predators, a hostile-environment for the visiting Canucks.

This is now a best-of-five and each team knows they have got to settle themselves, even as they know every moment matters just that much more than usual, that every test of the nerves takes you closer to the finish line, one way or another.

“Just don’t waste your energy on the things you cannot control,” Canucks blueliner Nikita Zadorov said, when asked what tricks he uses to manage his way through the high-octane emotions of a playoff series.

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Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet said Zadorov is a player who will be important in helping the Canucks get over the emotional hump that is inevitable for coming to grips with Demko’s absence.

“He’s just a breath of fresh air. He’s a funny guy. He’s great,” Tocchet said. “Those are the guys that you rely on. And the leadership group — you grow together and make sure that the young guys, like Hoggy (Nils Höglander), these guys understand that, ‘Hey, we’re okay.’ That’s what it’s all about.

“And obviously, the coaching staff. It’s got to come from myself too, the leader. I have to lead those guys too, to make sure they know it’s not the end of the world. And (Demko’s) around a lot. So that should help.”

J.T. Miller is in that leadership group. He’s as emotional a player as there is. He has had to learn over the years how to channel that energy in a useful manner. He’s played in 80 playoff games in his career. His first were a decade ago.

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And the first game of a playoff year is still a game every player needs to get through, he said. You just learn how to channel the crowd noise to your advantage, he said.

“It’s a lot to handle. You can’t just go in and be calm. It’s not gonna be,” he said. “It’s hard, but hopefully now we can kind of settle in and play, like we understand it’s just louder in there. But other than that, it’s just a normal game for us.”

Zadorov is in this 11th season in the NHL. His first playoff game, fittingly, was in Nashville, playing for a plucky Colorado Avalanche team, in 2018.

One of the opponents that night is an opponent in this current series — Predators captain Roman Josi.

Nashville has made the playoffs 10 times in over Josi’s 13-year NHL career. Learning to manage your emotion is a big challenge, he said.

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“Everybody’s emotional, right? The fans are emotional. The players are emotional,” he said. There is no beating getting the repetitions in, to learn how to channel the noise to your advantage, he admitted.

“You have to stay even-keeled as much as you can, but it’s definitely something you have to learn over the years. And just with experience, you get more used to it.”

Read more of our Canucks playoff coverage:

• Stanley Cup Coffee Canucks vs. Predators: The challenge ahead for Casey DeSmith, plus the Predators feel a little lucky
• Canucks vs. Predators: We answer your questions about the series so far
• Canucks vs. Predators Game Day: Building off incredible buzz, Elias Lindholm’s playoff arrival
• Shame? Unlike Oilers and Leafs, there are no public Canucks viewing parties scheduled
• ‘Moments you live for’: Canucks fans’ energy, noise and towels making a big impression on the ice
• Canucks anthem singer Elizabeth Irving says O Canada for Game 1 was a “goosebumpy moment”
• Canucks coach Rick Tocchet needs perplexing power play in prime playoff attack mode
• Dakota Joshua ’getting better and better’ for the Canucks
• Canucks vs. Predators Game 1: How the goals were scored
• We are all Canucks: Even the Lions guarding the Lions Gate Bridge

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