The NHL playoffs have arrived, and not a moment too soon. After
a regular season marred by ham-handed scorers, fighting goalies,
skates in the crease, contract holdouts, injuries that shelved
star players (Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros, Mike Modano) for a
month or more and the sophomoric high jinks of U.S. Olympians in
Nagano, the 1997-98 highlight tape could have been shot with an
MRI machine and a security camera. All of which makes this
Stanley Cup tournament so critical. If the postseason is magic,
it can make the regular season disappear.
The playoffs have their own rhythm: Teams play almost every
other day, with short practices and more film work than Matt
Damon. There is a passion to these games, a sense of purpose far
more noble than earning money. After all, if a team needs, say,
25 games to win the Cup, each player's cut of the $1.75 million
winner's share works out to little more than $3,000 a
game--hardly a bounty for eight weeks' work. But most NHL
players revere the postseason because it triggers memories of
childhood, when they played for kicks and a trophy at the
end-of-season banquet, although not one that weighed 35 pounds
and had the names Howe, Richard, Orr and Gretzky engraved on it.
This is our seven-step program for winning the Cup. (For Pierre
McGuire's analysis of the first-round matchups see page 106.)
1. AVOID SABRES GOALTENDER DOMINIK HASEK IN THE EARLY ROUNDS
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Swift but smallish Buffalo has a gang
of forwards who all look as if they wear 40 regular, a spotty
defense and a bleak playoff history of only two series victories
since 1984, but Hasek can win one or two rounds by himself.
After finishing with 13 shutouts and a .932 save
percentage--Hasek has topped the latter category for five
straight seasons--the human Gumby has validated himself as the
world's best player. (That's a tag hung on him by Gretzky, an
expert on the subject.) The only thing missing on Hasek's resume
is a memorable playoff performance.
Last year he was sidelined by a mild knee sprain in Game 3 of
the Sabres' first-round series against the Senators, an injury
some believed he could have played with. That triggered a
bizarre incident in which Hasek punched a reporter who had
suggested the goalie's problem was more mental than physical.
Playing without Hasek, Buffalo went on to beat Ottawa, then lost
to Philadelphia. However, his gold medal performance for the
Czech Republic in the Olympics removed any lingering doubts
about his nerve.
"These playoffs are really important for Dominik," says Bruins
coach Pat Burns. "With that contract he recently signed [a
three-year, $23 million extension] and what happened last year,
he's still got something to prove. But he's at the top of his
game. He's like an excellent pitcher. Get him some runs, he
wins. The Sabres know that if they get one goal, they might win.
If they get two, they usually do win."
2. COME UP WITH AN UNSUNG HERO
Blues coach Joel Quenneville says that in the playoffs your best
players have to be your best players--logic as circular as a
Hasek goose egg--but few teams have won a Stanley Cup without
help from unlikely sources. Grinding forwards Joe Kocur, a
former beer leaguer, and Darren McCarty each scored an artistic
goal in last year's Cup finals for the champion Red Wings. Those
two players joined a list of small-timers who came through big
time in the past dozen years, including Brian Skrudland, who
scored a record nine seconds into overtime for the Canadiens in
Game 2 of the 1986 finals; Petr Klima, who was buried deep on
the Oilers' bench in Game 1 of the '90 finals until he was
finally given a shift and scored at 55:13 of overtime; John
Druce, who spent a third of the '89-90 season in the minors,
then scored 14 goals in 15 playoff games for the Capitals,
including four game-winners; Stephane Matteau, whose wraparound
goal in double overtime of Game 7 in the '94 semifinals against
the Devils allowed the long-suffering Rangers to play for the
Cup; and Randy McKay, who had eight playoff goals in New
Jersey's Cup run in '95, three more than he scored in the
"You know other players are going to have to carry you a little
because your stars are going to be checked [very closely] in the
playoffs," says Kings coach Larry Robinson, who finished his
20-year Hall of Fame career with Los Angeles. "I remember when
we played the Oilers in '92, and Edmonton put Esa Tikkanen on
Gretzky. The coaching staff here played Gretzky 28 or 30 minutes
a game. Tikkanen almost single-handedly controlled him, and the
Oilers won, a perfect example of how dangerous it is to expect
one guy or one line to carry you. If our [Jozef] Stumpel line is
being checked, I'm going to look to my second and third lines."
3. BE READY TO PLAY 60 MINUTES--AND MORE
In an era of constipated offense, the number of sudden-death
overtime games has zoomed. In 1980, when first-round series were
best of five, a then record 13 overtime games were played in the
Stanley Cup tournament. In the past nine years there have been
an average of 17.4 overtime matches per postseason, including 28
in '93, when Montreal won the Cup with wins in its last 10 OT
games. Last season Detroit won three games in sudden death
against Anaheim in the second round.
While overtime success is rooted in goaltending, depth becomes a
factor when ESPN Hockey Night turns into Good Morning America.
Conventional playoff wisdom suggests teams shorten their benches
in the postseason, but the four 70-second TV timeouts per period
that coaches use to rest their top lines in regulation vanish in
overtime. "You hope you have a decent fourth line that can eat
up [overtime minutes equal to] what would have been the TV
timeout," Burns says. "It depends on how you approach overtime.
I tell my guys [to play cautiously], but some teams go out and
shoot their bolt. Teams like us will be looking to play long
4. WIN THE FIRST ROUND
Have we mastered the obvious or what? In the past four years top
seeds have twice lost to the No. 8 team (Detroit fell to San
Jose in '94, and Quebec lost to the Rangers in '95), and No. 2
seeds have been eliminated four times. Last year Edmonton used
speed and superior goaltending to knock off second-seeded
Dallas, even though the Stars had won all four regular-season
meetings with the Oilers by a cumulative score of 18-6.
There are surprises in the first round because the series format
and the sudden rise of intensity can be a shock to the players'
systems after they have meandered through the seemingly endless
regular season. "It might be the most difficult round to get out
of because everything is fairly even," says Maple Leafs coach
Mike Murphy, whose team didn't qualify for the '98 postseason
but who has 11 years of playoff experience as a right wing for
three teams from 1971 to '83. "The adrenaline is pumping. Mental
strength and endurance are very important."
5. YOU NEED SPECIAL PLAY FROM SPECIAL TEAMS
The $1.75 million question is, How will referees call the games,
especially obstruction? If the annual spring rodeo returns--when
some of the striped shirts figure, no autopsy, no foul--then
power plays and penalty killing will be as important as ever.
But if the league continues its war on obstruction and there is
a constant flow of players to the penalty box, something that
has yet to happen in the postseason, then the Blues' potent
power play with sniper Brett Hull and dangerous point men Al
MacInnis and Steve Duchesne, could practically win a Cup by
"Most playoff teams match up pretty evenly skating
five-on-five," Robinson says. "The team that gets knocked off is
the team that takes the most penalties and doesn't kill them.
You don't want to give five or six power-play opportunities a
game because that's asking for trouble." That theory would seem
to favor a tough, disciplined team such as New Jersey, which
allowed the third fewest power plays--and the second fewest
power-play goals--during the regular season.
6. DO NOT SELF-DESTRUCT
There is a long, inglorious history of postseason suicide that
stretches from Boston coach Don Cherry, whose team was assessed
a penalty for having too many men on the ice in the dying
moments of Game 7 of the '79 semifinals in Montreal, to Oilers
defenseman Steve Smith, who shot the puck off the leg of
goaltender Grant Fuhr and into his own net in Game 7 of the '86
quarterfinals; from defenseman Marty McSorley, who was penalized
for an illegal stick when the Kings were 1:45 from taking a 2-0
lead back to Los Angeles in the '93 finals, to Philadelphia
coach Terry Murray, who labeled his team's performance in the
finals last spring a "choking situation."
As important as avoiding odd acts of self-destruction, teams
must not give up soft goals. Consider: Jacques Lemaire's shot
from center ice that beat Chicago's Tony Esposito and turned
Game 7 of the '71 finals in Montreal's favor; Ron Francis's
65-foot bouncer in '92 that eluded Mike Richter with the Rangers
poised to take a 3-1 series lead back to Madison Square Garden
in the second round against Pittsburgh; and Flyers goalies Garth
Snow and Ron Hextall fanning on 55-footers in last year's finals.
"Those bad goals can just zap the life out of a team," Robinson
says. "It's not so much what you keep out but what you let in."
7. STICK WITH ONE GOALIE
In the last 25 years no team has won a Stanley Cup without a
clear-cut No. 1 goaltender. In '96 Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman
vacillated between Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon and lost in the
semifinals, but then avoided making the same mistake last year
by starting Vernon in every game. On the other hand, in the
finals against Detroit, Philadelphia shot itself in the head
playing netminder roulette with Hextall and Snow. On Monday, new
Flyers coach Roger Neilson named Sean Burke, who was acquired
for Snow in March, the starter for the postseason, distancing
himself from Murray's blunder in '97.
Montreal coach Alain Vigneault, who divided the team's work
almost evenly between veteran Andy Moog and youngster Jocelyn
Thibault, seems prepared to ride out the playoffs with the
38-year-old Moog. Ottawa's Jacques Martin, meanwhile, is going
with Damian Rhodes over Ron Tugnutt, although neither is going
to scare anyone. Those are the goalies and those teams better
stick to them.
So who will take home the coveted trophy? There will be a long,
bumpy ride in the Western Conference, where the three
established powerhouses--Dallas, Detroit and Colorado--have been
joined by a fourth, St. Louis. However the Red Wings can win
either by banging or with finesse, and they should advance to
the finals, assuming Osgood's goaltending holds up.
The class of the Eastern Conference is the Devils. New Jersey
will scuffle for goals and won't play the most eye-catching
hockey, but it is more committed to its system than the 15 other
playoff teams are to theirs. "The bottom line," says Robinson, a
New Jersey assistant when the Devils beat Detroit in the 1995
finals, "is winning the Cup."
That's what the Devils will do.