The least nervous I have ever been for a hockey game was before Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final. That might sound crazy, especially since I was 23 years old and had just broken into the NHL. But thankfully I had Ken Daneyko.
We were all sitting down having our pre-game snack just a few hours before the game when Daneyko sits down and starts going off on one of his famous Story Time With Ken Daneyko tangents. He starts telling us about this story from the early ’80s when he was a young guy in the league. The Devils were up in Buffalo and he ended up bumping their goalie after a whistle. The Buffalo bench took exception to it, no doubt because Daneyko was a defenseman. So Dano lines up for the next faceoff when he gets a surprise.
Buffalo’s tough guy comes flying over the boards and lines up eye-to-eye with Dano. He doesn’t even square his shoulders to the ref for the faceoff. He’s just squared up to Dano ready to drop the mitts.
The only problem was, he forgot something. The ref turns to him all confused and points to his bench. The guy looks down at his hands. He forgot his stick!
And I’m just picturing Dano with his big beard and no teeth, looking at this guy like, “Gee, I wonder what you’re here for?’
Everybody was cracking up. Nobody was thinking about the game. We were just having fun. As a young guy, when you see that the vets are loose and excited to play, it gives you all the confidence in the world. We went out that night and won the Stanley Cup. I ended up scoring the game winner, something I had literally practiced thousands of times as a kid in my driveway in Ohio. But I don’t think I could’ve done it without Daneyko and the other vets on that team.
That’s the key thing I want you to pay attention to in this incredibly evenly matched Stanley Cup Final series. On paper, it’s really hard to find a difference maker between Chicago and Tampa. It’s going to come down to the mental. Mental, mental, mental.
During the playoffs, and especially during the Finals, you’re in a vacuum. Everything you eat is for a purpose. You’re stretching before you go to bed. You’re not answering calls or texts. You’re not checking Twitter. Nothing matters but hockey. It’s pretty neat, honestly. Makes you enjoy the moment more. But here’s the thing: You can either look at the situation and see what there is to lose, or what there is to gain. When you’re playing not to be the dog, it’s a dangerous mindset.
All the commercials are going to focus on Toews, Kane, Stamkos, Hedman, and all the other superstars in his series. But I’m sitting here wondering who is going to be the Ken Daneyko for their team. That’s the secret sauce for a lot of Stanley Cup winners.
The best top-six in the NHL vs. The best top-six in the NHL. Seriously, I don’t know how you can say which team has the advantage here. Every time you blink in this series, another superstar forward is going to be hopping over the boards. It’s going to create an extremely fluid and complicated chess match for both coaches. But you know what? If I’m Lightning coach Jon Cooper, I’m not going to overcomplicate things. I’m going to roll my lines and tell my guys to go out there and play. This Tampa team reminds me a little bit of the Bad Boy Pistons. I don’t want to say they disrespect their opponents, but they play with supreme confidence in what they’re doing.
I’ve been in locker rooms where the coaches are so worried about how to stop superstars like Kane and Toews that it starts kind of rubbing off on the players. You get so worried about what they’re doing that you almost forget that you have to score, too. That panic button mentality starts seeping into the team, and whenever Toews and Kane are on the ice, you’re just waiting for something bad to happen instead of playing your game. I don’t think Jon Cooper is going to have his team playing with one hand on the panic button. He’s going to be telling his guys to go get the puck and score.
Which brings me to my next point: Confidence.
What to Watch for
You have two defensemen on both sides who are playing with incredible confidence right now: Duncan Keith and Anton Stralman. Let’s start with Keith. This guy’s conditioning is so beyond your average NHL defenseman that it is unbelievable. It’s not just that he’s playing 31 minutes per game. It’s what he’s doing with the puck during those 31 minutes. He’s not just staying back and playing sound positional defense. Watch how he pump fakes shots at the blue line. Watch how he stops on a dime and then starts chopping his feet again to change direction. Those are little things that are extremely, extremely hard to do when you are winded.
As a winger, the defensemen who really give you headaches are the unorthodox ones. When you’re in the defensive zone covering the point, there’s kind of a “been there, done that” mentality, even when you’re covering elite defensemen. Basically, all you have to do is stay disciplined and keep in front of them to block their shooting lane. But Keith is not your average guy. He moves around so much and takes so many chances that other defensemen don’t. There’s only a handful of defensemen in the NHL who trust their speed enough to pinch like he does.
I’ll give you an example. When I first came to Pittsburgh, we would do this breakout drill where the defensemen would pass D-to-D and then get it to the winger on the wall. Kris Letang would come flying in on the pinch to break up the pass, and I’d get so pissed off because I’m thinking, What is this guy doing? He’s right up in my face every time. So I gave him a little whack on the shinpads one time and said, “Come on man, this is practice. You would never do that in a game.”
And he said, “I absolutely do that in the game.”
And he was right. We started the regular season and he would pinch in and break up those plays all the time, because he was one of probably five defensemen in the league who have that amount of confidence in their speed. He is a guy, like Keith, who never plays scared. Both won Cups in their early 20s. You connect the dots.
Along those same lines, Tampa’s Anton Stralman plays with a ton of conviction in his game. He has made a leap this season into the elite defensemen category because he’s not thinking anymore. There’s no hesitation to his reads in the defensive zone, and I’ve rarely seen him make a wrong decision in the playoffs. Cooper deserves a ton of credit for letting Stralman and Hedman just play. I played with Stralman in New York and he didn’t have to be that guy because he was on the third pairing. You could see that he had all the tools, but the Rangers already had those guys. If he made a mistake, he would be a scratch because they had so much depth. Some players play not to make mistakes. Others play to make a difference. It’s a subtle difference, but one that allows you to play with excitement. You need the right coach to bring that out, and Cooper is the right guy for Stralman.
Stralman and Hedman locking horns with Toews and Kane (assuming Kane plays on the first line) will be a whole lot of fun.
Which conveniently brings me to my next point. (See what I’m doing here?)
Gosh, this series is hard to pick. On one hand, the speed of Tampa’s “Triplets” line overwhelmed even the Rangers, one of the fastest teams in the league. The transition goal that Ondrej Palat scored to ice Game 7 was a thing of beauty. The speed, the chemistry, the finishing ability — it was the perfect picture of what makes that line so special.
I’m looking at it on paper: The top-six cancel each other out. The top pairing defensemen cancel each other out. The coaches are both brilliant in their own way. Both goalies are hot. Both teams have incredible leadership in Toews and Callahan, plus hilarious glue guys in Andrew Shaw and Brian Boyle to keep things light.
I see one little area that could swing it, though. Chicago’s no. 3 and 4 defensemen. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have been very solid for the Blackhawks in the playoffs, and they will need to continue to be in order to contain the Triplets. The key word there is contain. Tampa’s top-six has scored 45 of the team’s 55 goals in the playoffs. If Chicago can slow down that production just a little bit, I think they win the Cup and seal a new NHL dynasty.
Who wins the Cup?
Chicago in 7.
Who wins the Conn Smythe?
Duncan Keith. I remember playing in the AHL against Duncan in the early 2000s and thinking, “Hmm. This kid is really talented, but he’s too small to do anything in the league.” And that’s why I’m highly qualified to be an analyst.
Hey everybody, it’s been fun breaking down the playoffs. Thanks for reading, and feel free to chirp me on Twitter @Rupper17.