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Rattled Sharks need a red herring, Sabres fallout, and more notes

I'm not San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan, so I'm going to do what all good sports writers do when they have to give advice: I'm going to pretend I'm him. And the first thing I'm going to do with my team facing what now amounts to a best-of-three series and a serious challenge from a team that may well add its name to the long list of clubs the have beaten the Sharks when it matters most, is rent a movie.

I think it will be Bull Durham so I can view that classic scene when the character played by Kevin Costner, a long-standing veteran of the baseball scene at most every level, tells his manager to act up, to go "a little crazy" on his team not just to get their attention, but shake them out of their status quo and give them, and for that matter the people who watch and cover them, something to talk about.

If you don't like that idea, Todd, I'd suggest you give former Montreal, Toronto, New Jersey and Boston coach Pat Burns a call. He'll tell you there's something more to playoff coaching than getting the right match-ups and talking some sense into an overly nervous goaltender. He'll tell you that emotion matters and that creating some, even when you don't have a proper cause, can go a long way in taking pressure off a team that lives with a history of past playoff failures after outstanding regular season successes.

I mention this because I saw it first-hand when Burns was pretty much getting his NHL career started with the Canadiens. They were playing the Buffalo Sabres in 1990 and Burns, who had a pretty good team, was getting a first-round test. After a couple of games in Montreal, I wrote a piece for the Buffalo News bemoaning the fact that this wasn't the old Canadiens who played fire wagon hockey with speed and grace and waves of talent and never resorted to the kind of physical tactics this edition of the franchise was using to seemingly beat the Sabres into submission.

I don't know if Burns read the piece or just seized on what someone told him, but he had a field day with it. He convened a press conference and railed about someone telling him how his team should play. He defended -- I would argue with a vengeance -- his team's right to play physical against an opponent with a reputation for not handing it well -- and that his Canadiens were no more the Canadiens of old than the Sabres were the swashbuckling team that had such early success with the likes of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert, the famed French Connection line that put Buffalo on the NHL map.

Years later, in a most informal session, I questioned Burns about that incident and he laughed. We both knew what he was doing: he took something that amounted to next to nothing and blew it into a major event. In so doing, he changed the discussion of the series. He took the onus off his players and led the media off in another direction. The players had to be grateful for the day of relief and it showed in their performance. They won the series four games to two.

I'm not saying that was the difference, Todd. I'm saying sometimes it's not just the players who have to go to another level, but the coach as well. Okay, if not another level, at least in a different direction.

No one is talking about how San Jose has the advantage of having two of the three games at home. They're talking about "here we go again" and about how the Sharks "shouldn't be in the position what with their being the No.1 seed and the Avs. No. 8." The players can, to a man, say it doesn't matter and that this team is different and all the usual clichés that apply, but the truth is that they would welcome the distraction and it's up to you to provide it.

I wouldn't advise going all Jimmy Playfair on the bench, but it might be worth a fine or two complaining about the referees or making some noise about the opposing goalie and the size of his pads or something.

It doesn't hurt to try the old saw about the NHL wanting certain teams to advance over others. It's not true, of course, but it sure seemed to inspire the Vancouver Canucks to a win on Wednesday night over the Kings of the big Los Angeles market that the NHL would love to have in its ratings books for awhile longer. Heck, you can even trot out the old saw that the Avs are playing on the idea that your team isn't mentally tough enough to win, when the truth is that the Avs have lost more Stanley Cups than they've won and it happened because, when the pressure was on, they didn't always respond.

That's sure to get a "discussion" going. Me, I'd settle on the hoary complaint that the refs are "letting the Avs get away with a lot of things that seem to be penalties in the regular season but, hey, they have a tough job out there and we'll just have to fight through it."

There isn't an old media dog in either city who won't chase that bone, and by the time you get to the rink, even the refs might be intimidated by the way the crowd is acting. Hey, is it the same as drawing up the perfect power play? No, not even close, but you're team is at a disadvantage right now what with all the baggage it collected, some of which was there even before you arrived.

That's not going to change the fact that Dany Heatley won't sacrifice his body in front of the crease or Joe Thornton will struggle with his scoring touch or that people aren't going to question Patrick Marleau's leadership ability. Your job is to change the conversation, even if you have to bend the truth a bit.

Ask Burns or just settle in for a good movie. Either way, it's a good bet you won't lose for trying.

Almost as if he were handing me a validation of the above item, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, in a fit of pique that he does better than any coach alive, railed about two controversial calls against his team in Wednesday's double overtime loss to the Bruins. A questionable (or at least debatable) goaltender interference call when one of his players appeared to be pushed into Boston goalie Tuukka Rask led to a Bruins power play that cut the Sabres' lead to 2-1. Ruff was equally adamant about a boarding penalty to Patrick Kaleta that seemed for all the world like a clean hit from the side that knocked a Bruin down and separated him from the puck.

"If that's a penalty, why is it any different than (Mark) Recchi's hit on (Sabres forward Tim) Kennedy?" Ruff asked while tossing a water bottle cap to emphasize his point. The reference was to Recchi knocking Kennedy to the ice in a battle for the puck in Game 3, a play that set up Boston's game-winning goal.

Now, it should be noted that the Sabres killed the Kaleta penalty in the third period without incident and lost the game on a sloppy line change in the second overtime that produced a deserved too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. But Ruff did something he or any other coach seldom gets credit for. He left a mindset that the Sabres were done in by poor officiating in Boston and when his team takes the ice for a must-win game on Friday, maybe an official or two noticed and will keep it in mind.

The NHL will tell you that the tactic never works, but coaches keep trying, largely because they know that sometimes it does and they would be foolish not to try.

That said, the Sabres are losing their series for reasons that are decidedly their own. They've been outmuscled in almost every game. Their power play, nothing great to begin with, has been completely neutralized and their penalty killing, one of their strongest points during the regular season, is being broken down because the Bruins find ways to get the puck to the net and do something with it. The Sabres get lots of shots on Rask, but don't have the same success around the net largely because the players on their so-called top two lines don't go there. Ruff has had more success from his third and fourth lines, but they can only do so much, and two goals per game haven't been enough.

It would be wrong to say that Rask, a playoff rookie, is outplaying Ryan Miller, who has been sensational. But as important as good goaltending is, Miller usually needs three goals to win and his teammates haven't been measuring up.

I suspect that if Ruff is truly upset, it's in large part because his team was beaten by former Sabre Miro Satan, a player the organization ran off and deemed too selfish. Satan has had the last laugh, however, winning the Stanley Cup last spring with Pittsburgh and putting a dagger through the Sabres with an OT winner that just might prove to be the beginning of the end for the Northeast Division champions in the playoffs this spring.

Any team could have had Satan, who was a free agent waiting for a call when the Bruins picked him up for their late-season run. That list includes Buffalo, which passed on his proven scoring ability (he once netted 40 goals for the Sabres) and instead gave up a second-round pick for soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Raffi Torres at the trade deadline. Torres has contributed a bit with some physical play, but did not score a goal for the Sabres in the regular season and hasn't during the playoffs to date.

Hard to say what happens to Ruff if the Sabres lose this series. The club is said to hold an option on an expiring contract, but the history in Buffalo is that someone always pays a price. Some would argue that Ruff would welcome change, if not in his lineup (like more size and scoring), then with an opportunity to move on.

Not sure which way the Detroit-Phoenix series is going to go, but you have to admire Phoenix's resolve on the ice and in the front office.

No franchise in the history of sport has been mangled as badly as the Coyotes, what with court cases over ownership, bankruptcy proceedings, and the still uncertain circumstances that has the team playing the role of spoiler while being financed by the other owners in the league, including the Detroit Red Wings.

Yet through it all, the franchise has kept it together. That's a tribute to GM Don Maloney and the hockey department regarding the on-ice success, and to President Doug Moss who has kept selling the team as a viable franchise in the crowded Phoenix sports market even when it seemed destined for a different location.

Who knows? This year's edition of the club just might entice a fan or two to believe again, which would make Moss' job a whole lot easier no matter who ends up owning the team.

Let me say this about the conspiracy theories out there:

If the NHL truly wanted to manipulate games so that large market teams were in the playoffs garnering big TV ratings and selling loads of merchandise, then why hasn't the league found away to make the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers good?

The Rangers have been a mostly out of the playoffs, or out in the first round, almost since the time Neil Smith put together the squad that won the Cup in 1994. Meanwhile, the Leafs haven't won since 1967 and haven't even qualified for the postseason in any of the past five seasons.

Mistakes get made in the NHL, too many and too often for my tastes, but the idea that you can arrange a conspiracy to deny a team success and then keep it covered until all parties involved are well past dead is ludicrous.

The Leafs and Rangers, two teams in the largest markets in North America, also make money, especially in the years when they don't earn nearly enough points.

I think Mike Murphy, the NHL's second in command when it comes to manning the war room and making the final decisions on video replay, made a poor choice of words when he said the newly created DVD regarding interpreting pucks that are or are not kicked in for goals was an "addendum" to the rules. Fair to say the DVD was produced to provide an "explanation" or "interpretation" of how the rule will be handled. The "addendum" pronouncement created a firestorm of controversy and cries of conspiracy in Vancouver where fans and some media think the Canucks got a bad call in Game 3. But the ultimate mistake by the league was drawing up yet another version of an interpretation of a rule and not informing the general public that they did it (again).

These "well, the GMs know" interpretations that make it through the back corridors of the NHL are forever a problem for a league that tells its fans there is an absolute and then admits after the fact that there are some shades of gray. People saw it when Brett Hull scored his controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal for Dallas in the 1999 final. The league, well after the fact, acknowledged that the absolute zero tolerance for being in the crease wasn't as absolute as fans had been led to believe.

It's happening again this season with the interpretation of "a direct kicking action." Little wonder some fans are crying foul. If only they had been told, they might better understand.

And one other thing on Murphy: He's being criticized for the amount of time it took to make a ruling on what is clearly a difficult situation. Yet, ask yourself this: Why would Murphy favor the Kings with a ruling (as many Canucks fans are charging) when he was let go by them? The argument is that he disallowed the goal because he was a former Kings coach. Hard to believe he's sticking it to the Canucks by rewarding the team that replaced him.

And let's give the NHL some credit in its overall look at kicked goals. Lots of fans and media argue for any goal being a good goal whether it is shot, passed or bumped into the net by a skate, but allowing the players to kick at the puck in a crowded goal crease is a ticket to disaster. The NHL is often accused of not caring enough about the health and safety of its players -- particularly blows to the head and even seamless glass -- so one can make an argument that that's true, but in terms of kicking at the puck, well, the NHL has always recognized the danger in that and has acted accordingly.