The Real NHLer’s Guide to the Playoffs: Conference Finals
I was sitting in the locker room a few hours before Game 4 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals talking about nachos when Pat Burns walked in. I was a rookie who hadn’t played in any of the playoff games, so my main goal was just trying to stay out of everybody’s way. I spent most of my time talking to our other “healthy scratch” player about what kind of food we were going to eat in the press box that night. I remember Anaheim had particularly good nachos, so we were talking about how excited we were about the nachos when Burns walked in and waved his hand.
“Rupp, come over here.”
I walk over and he gets really close to my face.
“Rupp, did you go out last night?”
“What? No coach, no way.”
He gets even closer. We’re like nose to nose.
“Did you go out last night?”
“Coach, no. I’m not that kind of guy. I’d never.”
“I’m going to ask you one more time.”
Now I’m freaking out. What’s he talking about? I was in bed at 11.
“Rupp, did you go out last night?”
“Coach I swear, I didn’t go out last night.”
He tapped me on the chest.
“Okay, go get your gear on. You’re playing tonight.”
He turned around and walked away like nothing happened.
It was a brilliant move on his part. I was so off-kilter from the conversation that I didn’t even have time to be nervous as I was putting on my equipment. If he would’ve told me I was playing the night before, I wouldn’t have slept. Burns was exceptional at playing those mind games.
The reason I mention that story is because as we get into the later rounds of the playoffs, most guys are banged up. There’s not a single player in any of these four locker rooms who is 100 percent. There’s at least one guy on every team playing with broken bones or fractures. So it’s often the young or unheralded guys who have to step up and make a difference in the Conference Finals. How the coaches handle those players to make sure they’re ready to seize the moment is very important.
Think of the last three Stanley Cup winners and what moments do you remember? Alec Martinez. Dwight King. Bryan Bickell. Dave Bolland. Not superstars, but guys who weren’t afraid to have the puck on their stick at crucial moments.
I went 3-out-of-4 last round, making me 9-out-of-12 so far. Not bad, but I’m feeling confident that I can go perfect this round. Let’s go.
New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
I wish there was another way to say it, but the cliche is true in this case: The New York Rangers simply find a way to get it done. I said before that they have the best defense in the NHL, but I’ll take it a step further. The Rangers have the best overall team mentality from top-to-bottom in the NHL. I think Ryan McDonagh deserves a tremendous amount of respect for stepping in as a new captain in a very tough media market and leading by example. The Rangers were unable to get to their speed game against both the Penguins and Capitals, and they still found a way to win both series. That should scare Tampa fans. Being adaptable like that is a skill that very few teams have in the NHL.
On the other side, Tampa is loaded with young talent and I’m a huge fan of their coach Jon Cooper. He’s one of the most intelligent minds in the league, and he’s turned Tampa’s top six into arguably the best in the NHL. When you have a 21-year-old kid in Nikita Kucherov scoring six goals in the Canadiens series, you just know that Cooper is pushing the right buttons. It’s easy to look at this series and see Tampa as the young, inexperienced team, but that ignores the winning mentality that Ryan Callahan brings to that locker room. I can tell you first hand from playing with him that I would not pick another guy to go to battle with over Callahan. It’s impossible to flinch in front of a shot when you just saw him go down and block one with his teeth on the last shift. That attitude is contagious. I mean, the guy is practicing less than three days after an emergency appendectomy. You think those Tampa kids saw that and weren’t ready to skate through a brick wall?
What to watch for:
I’ll say it one more time in case you missed my last two previews: Tampa center Tyler Johnson is a monster. Tampa Bay thrives on using its top 6 to exploit other teams’ lack of defensive depth. Use your shutdown defensive pairing to stop Stamkos? The triplets line will burn you. And vice versa. But this matchup is unique because the Rangers have so much depth that Marc Staal is their no. 3 defenseman. When you have a guy that rock solid on your second pairing, you don’t necessarily have to fret about matchups as much. If I’m the Rangers, I just roll my lines and trust in my depth to wear Tampa down.
Another interesting angle is that you have two of the NHL’s top scorers on both sides, and both have been relatively quiet so far. Steven Stamkos has three goals in 13 playoffs games. Rick Nash has two in 12. Picking this series is dangerous because either of these guys could break out and swing the entire balance.
For the hardcore hockey fan, keep your eye on the defensive positioning and poise of #5 and #27 in blue. It’s not going to make SportsCenter, but it’s what wins hockey games in May and June. Think about this: if the Rangers beat the Lightning, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will have been matched up against Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, and come out the other side. That would have to be considered one of the best defensive performances in playoff history, no?
Those guys don’t get enough credit, because it’s hard to pick up what they do so well in a 10-second highlight. Girardi and McDonagh competed harder in practice than anyone I’ve ever played with (aside from Sidney Crosby, who is in his own stratosphere). And just as I say that, the only other player that I can think of who is on their level? The guy who will be lining up across from them — Ryan Callahan. This series is fascinating because there’s no clear weakness on either side.
Who’s the hero?
I think this series goes 7. And when a series goes 7, you have to look to the goaltenders. Henrik Lundqvist is 10-0 when the Rangers face elimination at Madison Square Garden. I like Ben Bishop. It’s extremely tough to beat a 6-foot-7 goalie who can go down into the butterfly and cover up so much of the net. But I think this is the edge for the Rangers.
Rangers in 7.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Gosh, the Blackhawks are good. Can we just appreciate them for a second? I felt really good about my Minnesota pick last round, and then Chicago came out and rolled. What a job by Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford. Personally, I’ve been in locker rooms where a very good goalie was going through a tough stretch. Goalies take it very personally. I’ve seen guys get up in front of the entire room and apologize. For Crawford to be benched for parts of Round 1 and then face the Wild and only allow 7 goals in 4 games speaks volumes about him. Don’t forget — Minnesota was the hottest team in the NHL since January 1.
I’m as guilty as anyone in sleeping on Crawford. When I went to the Western Conference, I was kind of like “What’s the big deal about this guy?” Then every single time we played Chicago, he was a unbeatable. He reminds me of Jonathan Quick in his mentality. He’s kind of quiet, but he has a really intense focus underneath. When Crawford is locked in, he’s one of the best goalies in the league.
For Anaheim, it comes down to Corey Perry. When I think of the prototype of a Canadian hockey player, I think of Perry. When you are that skilled and you play with that big of an edge, other players do not want to get dressed to go out and play you. You can’t rattle him like other superstars, because he will simply fight you. He doesn’t care who you are. I can’t wait to see him and Ryan Getzlaf matched up against Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for two weeks. That’s too much competitiveness for one ice surface. The poor refs. Jeez.
What to watch for:
Can Anaheim get the puck deep into Chicago’s zone and just grind the game out for long stretches? They’re going to have to play the possession game, because I look at this matchup on paper and I see problems for Anaheim’s bottom six. Chicago has the luxury of playing Patrick Sharp on the third line and Andrew Shaw on the fourth. If you’re going up-and-down with these guys, you’re going to lose.
The key is that Anaheim is huge — and Chicago’s defensemen are not. If I’m Bruce Boudreau, I’m telling my guys this: Dump the puck. Get it below their goal line. Then don’t even try to make a pass when you first gain possession. Wait for Johnny Oduya or Duncan Keith to come to you. Play with your chest to the boards until they engage you. If you try to play face-up with them, they’re going to strip you with their stick. Instead, use your big body to spin away from the check and wheel toward the net. Jam it. Create rebounds. Cause havoc.
This is the recipe for Anaheim. You’ll know how this series is going to go by watching the first 20 minutes. If you see Anaheim trying to go east-west with pretty passes, Chicago is going to roll. Those defensemen are simply too good with their skating and sticks in open ice. But if you see Getzlaf and Perry mucking it up behind the Chicago net for long stretches, Anaheim has a chance.
I don’t want to go into a long riff about advanced stats and possession, but there’s a huge difference in the kind of puck possession that teams have. Not all puck possession is the same. A team like Vancouver might cycle the puck on you for 45 seconds, but it might all be on the fringes. A shot from the boards outside the dot is never going to hurt you. Anaheim’s puck possession, especially when Getzlaf and Perry are working it low, is an entirely different threat. Those guys are working it in very dangerous areas, pounding you with their bodies and genuinely wearing you down. Even if they don’t score, guys come off the ice dying after those shifts. I’m not sure how you quantify that as a statistic, but guys hate playing against the Ducks.
Who’s the hero?
I’m just waiting for Bryan Bickell to do his Bryan Bickell thing. The guy always elevates his game when Chicago needs it. I read a lot of stuff these days debating whether or not “clutch” is a real thing. All I can say is this — when the game is tied in the third period of a playoff game, there are some guys who want the puck on their stick. In fact, they’re dying to get the puck on their stick. And then there are some guys who don’t want the puck. They get the alligator arms. You can see it on their faces. There are Top 10 talents in this league who disappear in playoff games simply because they do not want the puck. When you talk about “clutch,” what you’re really talking about (excuse my language) is balls. Chicago has a crazy amount of guys on their bench who look up at the clock with 40 seconds left and are thinking (or saying), “Put me on the freaking ice, coach.”
Chicago in 6. In 10 years, I think we’re going to look back on Jonathan Toews’ career and see the most accomplished player since Wayne Gretzky.