The National Football Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) Eastern Conference Finals are providing powerful yet contrasting testimonials to the role that emotion can play in elite athlete performance on the biggest stage. In both cases, it is difficult to separate the on-court/on-ice results from the psychological fragility or fortitude of some of the key participants in their respective series.

 

On one hand, the New York Rangers have injected heart-warming humanity, humility and unity into their unexpected playoff run, while the Indiana Pacers remain a study in head-scratching, fist-banging, inexplicable inconsistency. Each team had reason to celebrate after hard-earned Game one victories over the weekend, but the differences between their locker rooms have never felt more pronounced.

 

Game one had all the makings of a dream scenario for Martin St. Louis of the Rangers. The Quebec native, playing against the team he idolized as a kid, scored the opening goal against Montreal on Saturday, his tally paving the way for a resounding 7-2 win for the visitors. But a playoff victory never felt so hollow.

 

St. Louis’s mother passed away unexpectedly on May 8. At the time, the Rangers were facing a 3-1 deficit in their series against Pittsburgh, their season almost assuredly about to come to an end. They have not lost since. On Sunday, the team accompanied St. Louis on the short drive from Montreal to his hometown of Laval, Quebec, where a bunch of burly, bearded men watched with tears in their eyes as the 5-foot-8 past-his-prime every-man buried his mother. They could not stomach the thought of their brother being alone.

 

St. Louis joined the Rangers via a somewhat controversial mid-season trade, and he looked very much like an aging superstar struggling in his role. Rest assured, before the tears in Quebec, there were plenty of boos in New York, a city and a team unsure of what to make of their new skater. When St. Louis needed them most, however, they were eager to be part of the healing.

 

The Pacers completed a much more controversial mid-season move, tinkering with team chemistry and shuttling some locker room stalwarts out of town. The remaining Pacers were not pleased. They were pouty, they were irritable, and they were historically ineffective on the court. The team with the best record in the NBA was suddenly dealt some adversity, and they drifted into a tailspin from which they’ve not yet recovered.

 

Just as we marvel at the Rangers’ ability to uplift their grieving teammate, we cringe at the hard-to-refute notion that the Pacers’ collapse is directly tied to the fact that they simply stopped liking each other. Similarly, as much as we have been conditioned to believe that professional athletes are immune to emotional vagaries, we have seen them bring out the very best and very worst of these championship contenders.

 

New York and Indiana find themselves in the same position, a leg up in the NHL conference finals, one team boosted by raw compassion, the other fractured by apparent disdain. Moving forward, we will keep a close eye on how long the Rangers can harness their emotion and how long the Pacers can suppress theirs. In the end, emotion alone will neither enable nor prevent either team from claiming a championship, but it may go a long way into helping us identify the difference between a true winner and a bitter disappointment.

 

We are down to the final four in the NBA and NHL. Who do you think will advance to the championship round? Give your answer below of find me on Twitter @endbadly.