Wild forwards Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker had just finished up dinner in Vancouver last March when Zucker suggested they stop for ice cream.
“He loves his dessert,” Coyle said. “He can’t gain an ounce. If I eat dessert for a whole week, I’ll be 20 pounds overweight.”
Still full after loading up on sushi, Coyle declined.
But Zucker was persistent.
“When’s the last time you scored?” he asked Coyle.
“I couldn’t tell ya,” Coyle said.
Zucker guaranteed that if Coyle indulged, he’d score the next night against the Canucks.
“Seriously, I’ve done it before with someone else,” Zucker explained. “Come get ice cream.”
Coyle finally agreed — “Just so I could shut him up,” he said — and during the ensuing game, he scored his first goal in 13 games.
“Told ya,” Zucker said.
Tweaking a pregame meal, skipping an afternoon nap or changing up a playlist are some of the tactics players resort to when they’re in a scoring slump, but they also develop more practical, personalized methods to end a drought — behind-the-scenes work that reveals how much exonerating a funk on the ice requires mental preparation rather than just physical execution.
“It happens to everybody every year,” Zucker said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Sidney Crosby or if it’s a rookie. It happens to everybody. So it’s kind of the way it is. It’s something that you just have to battle through.”
While video is a popular tool players rely on to help guide them back to productivity, what they watch depends on the individual.
Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic recently shared he started watching goals he scored in juniors and previously with the Boston Bruins to try to stay positive amid a miserable slide; entering the team’s game Tuesday, Lucic scored just twice in 66 games.
Zucker also will watch his play, but he tends to focus on sequences in which he could have been better in hopes of realizing how he can capitalize next game.
“I could have had a scoring chance or a shot here,” he said. “On this shot if I bore down a little bit harder, I could have scored.”
Practice can be a catalyst; Coyle feels those sessions can set a tone for how he’ll perform on game days.
“That’s what I was always taught by my dad when I was younger,” Coyle said. “You try to be the hardest worker in practice, try to play your best. You play how you practice.”
But that time in between games can also enhance frustration.
“That’s where you question yourself,” winger Nino Niederreiter said, “because you go out there, you shoot every single day. You shoot pucks and kind of feel good and get a couple goals in practice and feel good, and then you go into the game and the puck comes and it doesn’t want to go where it should be going.”
During his 27-game rough patch before he scored his first goal of the season Nov. 8, Niederreiter watched video but he also got a pep talk from coach Bruce Boudreau.
While he left Niederreiter alone initially, Boudreau finally had a more serious chat with Niederreiter before the Nov. 6 game against the San Jose Sharks. He took the same approach with center Joel Eriksson Ek, eventually having a heart-to-heart before Eriksson Ek registered his first assist and goal of the season in back-to-back games earlier this month.
“You have to feel them out and see what the temperature of their mind is and then deal with it that way,” Boudreau said. “Sometimes it’s time to give them crap. You don’t want to put the pressure on them from the beginning. So hopefully they just work their way out of it. When they start not working their way out of it, you gotta say, ‘Hey, come on. I don’t know what’s going on, but this has gotta stop.’”
How players cope with the weight of expectations likely influences how they respond to adversity-laced situations like goal shortages.
Washington Capitals forward and Warroad alum T.J. Oshie prefers to unplug, embracing family life when he’s not at the rink to escape from the pendulum that is the season.
“Once I get in the car, I call the wife and see what’s on the agenda — what do we have to do,” Oshie said. “So you can kind of get yourself away from it.”
Oshie’s teammate Andre Burakovsky journals, writing down objectives before a game and then noting after he’s done playing what he did well and how he can still improve.
He also checks in with a mental coach at least five times a week.
“We’re playing in the toughest league in the world when it comes to hockey and just the amount of pressure that fans and media and coaches and teammates and you put on yourself, it’s a tough situation to put yourself in every day,” Burakovsky explained. “When you’re coming to practice and you want to make everyone happy and you want to make yourself play well, sometimes it can just get a little too much for you and too much too handle at the same time.
“So I think for me, I’ve been feeling better about my life and my hockey when I have someone to talk to every day.”
Having a go-to sounding board seems to be working for Burakovsky.
After enduring dry spells of at least 25 games in 2015-16 and 2016-17, he hasn’t gone more than eight games between scoring this season.
And shortening those lapses is exactly what players are striving to achieve.
“I feel like the best players in the world have the least amount of slumps,” Zucker said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.