‘Oh, No. It’s the Cops!’: An Eastern Conference Finals Preview

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Mike Rupp, Retired / NHL - The Players' Tribune
Ryan Whitney, Retired / NHL - The Players' Tribune

In case you missed Round 1 or Round 2, this is not your typical NHL Playoff Preview. This is two guys sitting around talking hockey. Viewer discretion is advised.

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Whitney
We’re back, Rupper. Final four. San Jose. St. Louis. Tampa. Pittsburgh. That’s a cool group. It’s not the usual suspects. That’s pretty fun.

Rupp
Definitely. The theme of the playoffs has been teams slaying their demons. San Jose slayed L.A. St. Louis slayed Chicago. Phil Kessel slayed his haters. Tampa is still getting it done without Stamkos. A lot of people have been wrong about a lot of things this year. Except you, Whitter — 4 for 4 with the picks last round. Bravo, man.

Whitney
I’m lighting it up. Let’s go. You know what? As much as all these fan bases are probably so happy to be in this position, I almost think it adds an extra layer of pressure. Because if I’m in Pittsburgh or San Jose, I’m looking around thinking, Hmm. The heavy hitters all got bounced. This is our chance. We can really do this.

Rupp
The pressure is going to be an interesting dynamic. For Pittsburgh, this might be the best chance Sid is ever going to have of winning another Stanley Cup. This is St. Louis’s window. This is San Jose’s window. Depending on what happens with Stamkos, maybe this is Tampa’s window, too. You gotta reach out and grab it.

Whitney
Locker room guys, man. This is exactly why you need them in May. I know some people think that’s cliché or whatever, but listen: it’s not cliché. The real cliché is the big rah-rah speech that the coach gives in the sports movie. I don’t think I can remember a single speech a coach ever gave in my career. It just doesn’t happen like that. But you know what I remember? Walking into a locker room after a terrible first period …

Rupp
Oh, my gosh. That silence. You know when the mood is just so tight? Nobody is saying anything.

Whitney
Exactly. Shell-shocked. You sit down and everybody’s got their heads down, shoulders slumped. You know the coach is about to come in and ream you out. Then all of a sudden, that one guy — that solid guy in your room — he cracks a joke or says something ridiculous.

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Rupp
The whole mood changes. Ken Daneyko was perfect for that stuff in New Jersey. Bill Guerin, too. Super witty guy — one of my favorite teammates ever. It’s no coincidence that Pittsburgh won the Cup in ’09 with Billy. He would say things at unexpected times to cut through the tension in the room.

Whitney
Dude, the worst feeling in the world is when you walk into the room and you see a guy who’s usually super loose just totally mean-mugging and looking really serious. That’s when you know. You just know you’re done. Because your guys aren’t comfortable. They’re not being themselves. That’s a bad, bad place to be in a playoff series.

Rupp
I remember being in this super-serious meeting in New Jersey. You know the kind I’m talking about. Heads were about to roll. It was bad. So the coach and GM gather every single player on the team, and we were supposed to go around the room and state our role and what we were going to do to help the team going forward.

Whitney
Hahaha. I’ve been in those.

Rupp
I mean, it’s easy to laugh now, but we’re talking about guys’ jobs here. Lou Lamoriello is standing at the front of the room. It was tense. So everyone’s extremely serious, pledging to do this and that. Then it gets to Mike Mottau.

Whitney
Oh, God. Boston guy. Here we go.

Rupp
Mike’s not a big fighter. Not a big goal-scorer. Just a solid, standard hockey player. So you can just imagine him with the Boston accent, he goes, “You know, uh, my job is to be solid on both sides of the ice. Make the simple play. Be reliable …”

Then he pauses a beat.

“… and I just want to let every single middleweight in the NHL know that I’ve got my fighting strap tied down, so if they want a shot at the title they can come and get it.”

Guys were dying. The whole room loosened up. I think even Lou was laughing.

Whitney
“You want a shot at the fackin’ title?” That’s perfect.

Rupp
What I’m trying to say is, look at Washington vs. Pittsburgh. That series was so tight. Washington was down 0–3 in an elimination game. They came back and scored three unanswered to force overtime. What do you think the mood was like in that Pittsburgh locker room when they walked in? I would have loved to be a fly on the wall, because they came out flying in OT. If you don’t have the right mentality, you’re going to roll over in that situation.

Whitney
I mean, just think about Pittsburgh’s goaltending situation. That alone is interesting. You have a 21-year-old kid in Matt Murray starting because of Fleury’s concussion, but Fleury’s ready to go now. What’s Fleury doing during this whole run? He’s beaming. He’s smiling and congratulating Murray, and it’s not fake. You can tell. He’s genuinely happy for him. Let me tell you something: That’s rare.

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Rupp
That’s very rare. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player more beloved in the NHL than Marc-Andre Fleury. I seriously have never heard a single bad word said about him. You ask any guy in the league and they’ll say, “Love him.”

Murray is obviously extremely talented. His AHL numbers were unbelievable. He went 301 minutes without a goal scored on him in Wilkes-Barre. That’s the AHL record, and he did it as a rookie. That’s just stupid. It doesn’t even make sense. This is pro hockey. It’s not supposed to happen.

But all that talent aside, he’s 21 years old. He gets handed the reigns in the playoffs and he’s got to go against Henrik Lundqvist. Then he’s got to go against Braden Holtby, a guy who just tied Marty Brodeur’s regular-season wins record.

Look, you can have all the talent in the world. But if Flower was putting on a show of being unhappy? Forget about it.

Whitney
Yeah, Murray would have been a mess. You can’t handle the pressure of the playoffs if a guy of that stature is looking over your shoulder.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player more beloved in the NHL than Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rupp
We’ve all seen that in the league. Goalies want the net. They just do. If Flower had been coming off the ice, slamming his helmet down at his locker, pouting, talking crap to the goalie coaches, it would’ve been a different story. But he didn’t. Does Flower want to be in net? Of course he does. Are you kidding me? But he’s supporting this kid genuinely.

That speaks speaks volumes about him as a human being. Flower is going to be in the Hall of Fame some day. I don’t think a lot of goalies in his position, with the swagger his name carries, would be as supportive.

Whitney
No way. They’d be like, “Hey, thanks for the help kid, but this is my net,” and then there would be this weird tension that the whole team would feel.

Rupp
We will talk a lot more about Pittsburgh, but what do you think the average fan needs to know about Tampa?

Whitney
People don’t understand how good Tampa’s D and Ben Bishop can be. People are starting to become familiar with Bishop. He’s in those terrible World Cup of Hockey commercials so I guess he’s getting some shine now, but he’s still very underrated.

Then there’s Victor Hedman. I really do not know if Steve Yzerman would trade Hedman for any defensive player in the NHL right now. He’s been that good.

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Rupp
Here’s the crazy thing about Hedman: Even if you look at the guys in the Norris Trophy discussion every year — guys like Karlsson, Subban. They are world-class players. But they’re not necessarily No. 1 shutdown defensemen. Hedman is both an offensive leader for Tampa (10 goals, 37 assists this year) and a No. 1 shutdown guy. Do you know how hard it is to be both of those things, especially on a winning team?

Whitney
It’s absurdly hard. Those guys who can do it — like the two guys in this series, Hedman and Letang — are absolute freaks of nature. I played with Letang, and he’s totally shredded, strong as an ox. He never got tired. These guys remind me of the Ultimate Two-Way Guy: Scotty Niedermayer. You know him well, Rupper.

Niedermayer would come off the ice after playing 32 minutes and he would take off his jersey and there would literally only be a nickel-sized bead of sweat in the middle of his chest and the rest of his shirt would be dry. It was bizarre.

Rupp
Hahaha. Scotty would take his helmet off and he would have just a little moisture right around his ears. His hair would be perfect. It looked like he had just blow dried it. Like a Head & Shoulders commercial, after playing 30-plus minutes. Unbelievable.

Whitney
See, it’s not just their physical conditioning. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. It’s their hockey IQ. Hedman and Letang know when to jump into the rush and when not to jump. They know how to keep a reserve tank of energy for the third period. It’s about pacing yourself.

Rupp
This is where I don’t want to screw myself, because last year I kept saying that I thought Tampa’s lack of depth on D was going to be their Achilles’ heel, and then Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison were great in the playoffs. This year, with Anton Strålman injured, I’m even more tempted to think that their defensive depth is going to be the thing that swings the series. Face it, these guys are going to see something they haven’t seen yet in the playoffs — the Penguins’ speed is on another level.

But I’m scared, Whitter. You’re riding the hot hand right now, so help me here.

Whitney
Kessel. Bonino. Hagelin.

I’ll say it again.

Kessel. Bonino. Hagelin.

That’s the best line in hockey right now. And it’s technically a third line. That’s an insane matchup problem for any team. It used to be, if you were coaching against Pittsburgh, you looked at the dry-erase board and tried to pick your poison: Crosby or Malkin? Who were you going to put your checking line on?

Either way, you were a little bit screwed. Now, you add this crazy third line into the mix, and you’re really screwed.

No matter what you pick, your No. 5 and 6 defensemen are going to be matched up against some unreal players.

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Rupp
And let’s just say it again: Phil Kessel. Come on, everybody. I am going to get a little salty with myself here — I’ve disrespected him at times, too. I think a lot of it is just visual. He looks like he just had his pregame meal at the diner. He doesn’t necessarily carry himself like a stud athlete, but who cares? The guy has never not put up numbers.

Whitney
I played with Phil in the Olympics. I’ve got a soft spot for the guy. I love his dry sense of humor. But let’s just look at the numbers. Phil is a point per game player in the playoffs, when hockey is at its toughest. Do you know how hard that is? He never misses games. He’s a freak. What more do people want? I guarantee you there’s a lot of people in Toronto right now thinking, Oh … shit.

And what I love about Phil is that he genuinely doesn’t give a flying f— when the media gets on him. He really doesn’t care.

Rupp
I thought it was really weird when he was the last pick in the 2011 All-Star Game, and some people were almost gleeful about it. People tried to make a big deal out of that, and it really wasn’t fair to Phil.

Whitney
Look who’s laughing now. Do you see how happy those guys in Pittsburgh are to have him?

And what I love about Phil is that he genuinely doesn’t give a flying f— when the media gets on him.

Rupp
It looks like no Stamkos for this series. That’s a huge deal for me.

Whitney
Well, Nikita Kucherov has turned into an elite player.

Rupp
Absolutely. This is going to sound almost like an insult, but I don’t know how else to put it, and I mean it as a supreme compliment: Kucherov reminds me of a poor man’s Patrick Kane. He can dangle it, he can shoot it, he’s so shifty with the puck, but he’s also got balls. For a such a skilled guy, he’s always finishing his checks and even when somebody runs him over, he’ll two-hand them in the back of the leg. He’s really fiery and he really cares.

Whitney
I love him. I love Tyler Johnson. But that’s one line, Rupper. How can they deal with Pittsburgh’s depth over seven games?

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Rupp
You know, I said this last round, and even though Washington lost, I still stand by it: To have a chance against Pittsburgh, you need sustained offensive pressure. You don’t necessarily need to score, or even get a ton of pucks on net, but you need to make them work on their own end.

Whitney
That’s true. If you look at that Game 5 when Washington beat Pittsburgh, the Penguins outshot them like 30–19. But the Capitals were working the puck down low and frustrating them.

Rupp
What you can’t do against Pittsburgh is cycle the puck one time, take a weak chance on goal, and then let them transition on you. That’s exactly what they want. For Tampa to win this, that third line of Boyle, Callahan and Paquette needs to cycle the heck out of the puck. Those guys don’t need to score, but they need to make the game a slog. This almost sounds counterintuitive because Tampa is such a fast team, but Pittsburgh is even more dangerous in transition. Tampa needs possession to have a shot.

Whitney
O.K., that’s cool. But let’s say that line gets dirty and frustrates Sid’s line. Or Malkin’s line. Guess who’s hopping over the boards now? Kessel. Bonino. Hagelin.

Rupp
It’s tough. I …

Whitney
Oh, no. It’s the cops! Rupper, I’m getting pulled over.

Rupp
What?

Whitney
I gotta go, man. I’m getting pulled over. Seriously. I’ll text you my pick.

Rupp
For everybody reading at home, Whitter just got stopped by a friendly police officer. The officer just took his license and registration, but he got off with a warning. He texted me, “Pens in six.”

I’ll say Penguins in six, too.

Do not talk playoff hockey while operating a motor vehicle. This has been a public service announcement. We’ll be back with the Western Conference Preview once Ryan gets home. Thank you.

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