Crunch Time Hockey's postseason is a war of attrition, and the team with the best survival skills is likely to be the one that hoists the Stanley Cup

May 28, 2000

That's what the playoffs are--a little bit about winning and a
whole bunch about surviving.
--KEN HITCHCOCK, Dallas Stars coach

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Raymond Bourque returned to the
Stanley Cup playoff wars for Game 3 of the Western Conference
finals last Friday, a brace on his left knee, a bull's-eye on
his back. The Dallas Stars were going to dump the puck into his
corner and then take shots at him. The theory was sound, the
execution abysmal. The 39-year-old Bourque, who hadn't played in
18 days, was barely mussed by Dallas as he gamboled for a
coltish 35 minutes, 35 seconds--more than seven minutes longer
than any other skater in the game. He was on the ice for the
last 2:40, and while he didn't need a line change, he did need
to switch gloves. The meticulous Bourque exchanged his soggy
ones for a dry pair before a face-off with 26.3 seconds left in
Colorado's 2-0 victory, which gave the Avalanche a 2-1 series
lead.

The performance was as typical for Bourque as it was
inspirational for Colorado. The Avalanche had won despite the
absence of defenseman Adam Foote, Bourque's physically imposing
partner who had sustained a severe cut around his right eye in
Game 2 four nights earlier. Bourque and Foote formed the NHL's
best defense pair after Bourque was acquired by Colorado in
March, and their injuries forced the Avalanche to finesse four
wins in the five games that they didn't play together. "Ray
hasn't played in more than two weeks, and to step in and perform
the way he did in those circumstances was amazing," says
Colorado left wing Shjon Podein, who earned a goal and a
five-stitch zipper above his left eye in Game 3--a souvenir of
trifling consequence at a time when everybody gives at the
office. "But that's what you have to rely on in the playoffs. In
the regular season you need all 20 guys going. In the playoffs
it seems like you need 25, 26, whatever."

Colorado had several guys rise to the occasion, including
defenseman Aaron Miller, who was playing with a surgically
repaired broken jaw sustained at the end of the regular season;
rookie defenseman Martin Skoula, who stepped up to the first
unit in place of Bourque and then Foote; and one high-stepping
woman. A Tina Turner concert fortuitously scheduled for Denver's
Pepsi Center on May 17 delayed the series by two days, stalling
Dallas's momentum after it knotted the series with a win in Game
2 and giving Bourque additional time to recover from a strained
knee.

The 2000 playoffs, like many postseasons before them, have
become a war of attrition, a last-man-standing battle that has
put the win back in Darwinian. If the fittest were not
guaranteed survival, the teams with the most finely honed
survival skills would advance. The battered Avalanche was tied
with the merely dented Stars following a 4-1 Dallas win in Game
4 on Sunday; the lumpy, discolored Philadelphia Flyers were
holding off the healthier New Jersey Devils three games to two
in the Eastern Conference finals after the Devils avoided
elimination with a 4-1 victory on Monday. The requisite
postseason survival skills are luck (as in avoiding injury, a
Tina Turner concert date and Craig Berube's deflection for the
Flyers' game-winning goal in Game 4), depth (the 1994 New York
Rangers were the last team to negotiate the tricky path to a
Stanley Cup with a short bench) and courage. "It's all about
will," says Dallas center Guy Carbonneau, an 18-year veteran who
has been playing with a removable cast to protect the right
wrist he broke in early March. "Obviously what it comes down to
is if you battle enough, the other team might quit. There are
times in the playoffs when you ask yourself, Why do I keep doing
this? Maybe we should lose and go home. Everybody has that in
the back of his mind at some point. I'm sure in that
five-overtime game [between Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh
Penguins in the second round] somebody was thinking, 'As much as
I want our team to win, please somebody score so I can get out
of here.' This is a long haul. You're going to get banged up.
With the size and speed of the guys and with the [unforgiving]
seamless glass, it hurts more now. With the pressure of winning,
guys are more inclined to hit. Years ago two or three guys would
be doing the hitting. Now the whole team has to play that way."

"Before the playoffs start, all teams talk about the fact that
you're going to lose players to injuries," says New Jersey
captain Scott Stevens, who caused Flyers center Daymond Langkow
to suffer a concussion in Game 2 with a vicious but clean
open-ice hit. (Langkow missed Games 3 and 4.) "The tempo's
faster. It's more physical. More hitting. In return, more people
get hurt."

The quest for hockey's Holy Grail bears a striking similarity to
Monty Python's, at least in regard to injuries: If the teams'
spokesmen are to be believed, the carnage amounts to only a
flesh wound. Of course, the almost comic double-talk about
injuries--for example, before Game 3 between the Stars and the
Avalanche, Hitchcock held winger Jamie Langenbrunner out of a
practice because of an injury he described as "something minor
between his waist and head"--doesn't lessen the actual toll.
Dallas and New Jersey both lost feisty, significant rookies in
the conference finals: The Stars' first-line left wing, Brenden
Morrow, suffered a chipped right ankle late in Game 1 that
sidelined him for two matches, and the Devils' supreme penalty
killer, center John Madden, sustained a right knee injury after
colliding with Philadelphia's Keith Primeau in Game 2. But the
team most under siege was the Flyers, who seemed to have grown
more powerful as their physical state eroded. Trainer John
Worley got more ice time than some fourth liners, but it has yet
to matter. The players, bonded by their misfortune, play like
Ray Nitschke and think like Friedrich Nietzsche: Whatever
doesn't kill them makes them stronger.

Primeau has become Philly's rallying point. While deposed
captain Eric Lindros hasn't played in more than two months
because of postconcussion syndrome, Primeau returned, either
courageously or foolishly, to start the conference finals five
days after having been wheeled off the ice in Pittsburgh.
Primeau suffered a concussion when he was steamrollered by
Penguins defenseman Bob Boughner in Game 6 of the second round,
a clean check at center ice.

With the exception of his nifty goal over the shoulder of
Pittsburgh goalie Ron Tugnutt to end the five-overtime Game 4
marathon, the playoffs hadn't been kind to Primeau until the
Eastern finals. His first postseason with Philadelphia had been
a jumble of lost face-offs, soft defensive coverage, missed open
nets and bungled passes to wingers John LeClair and Mark Recchi.
After seven games Primeau was demoted from the first line and
replaced by Langkow. The 6'5", 230-pound Primeau looked as if he
might be hockey's equivalent of Von Hayes or Shawn Bradley,
another oversized Philadelphia athlete destined to be a
disappointment. Then came Boughner's hit. The victim crumpled
like Keith Primeau but returned like Gordie Howe.

After taking a baseline neuropsychological test three days
before the start of the New Jersey series--"I studied by looking
at my daughter's connect-the-dots book," a smiling Primeau
says--he played Game 1, a 4-1 Devils win, with no noticeable
aftereffects of the concussion, either on the scoreboard or to
his synapses. Then in Game 2, a 4-3 Flyers victory, Primeau
engaged tough Devils winger Randy McKay in a fight. The
fisticuffs may have permanently disqualified Primeau from a
Mensa membership but have eternally endeared him to his
teammates. "He's shown a lot of guys how tough he is and what a
competitor he is," LeClair said last Friday. "His playing did a
lot for this team. When you see what he went through, putting
his neck on the line, the guys respect that."

LeClair was speaking with a nasal twang, the result of a broken
nose he suffered in Game 3 when New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur
followed through on a clearing pass and inadvertently carved
LeClair's face. A thick line of blood poured out of his nose as
he lay behind the New Jersey net late in the third period.
LeClair took 36 stitches to his nose and another three to his
right eyelid. He would have returned to that game, a 4-2
Philadelphia win, if the doctors had had more time to sew him
up. "At this time of year," says Miller, the Colorado defenseman
who was a college teammate of LeClair's at Vermont, "stitches
are just about the best thing that can happen to you. Sew it up.
No problem. Let's go."

LeClair was back for Game 4, wearing a visor and volunteering to
move from his natural left side to the right on the Crazy Quilt
Line that had natural center Simon Gagne at left wing and
natural right wing Recchi at center. LeClair repeatedly drove to
the net, had perhaps five good scoring chances and assisted on
the final goal. "LeClair's cut up pretty badly, but that'll just
make it more inspiring when he comes back," right wing Rich
Tocchet predicted last Friday. "You know we've got Primeau one
night, LeClair one night, and Langkow will be back. Real
warriors."

There's a silver lining to every black eye. In the short and
maybe medium term, the natural rate of attrition can spur a
team. The Flyers have survived nicely without Lindros, Colorado
thumped the Detroit Red Wings in Round 2 without Bourque for
half the series, and last year Pittsburgh seemed to improve for
a few games against New Jersey while Jaromir Jagr was nursing a
groin injury. And having a star come back can provide a big
lift. The Stars took a quantifiable bounce in the second round
against the San Jose Sharks after puck-moving defenseman Sergei
Zubov returned from a sprained knee. (Dallas's power-play
efficiency improved from 7.7% in Round 1 to 22.7%.) Stars wing
Jere Lehtinen, who played only 17 games this season because of a
right ankle injury, provided similar inspiration in Game 2
against Colorado, taking over for Morrow on Mike Modano's line,
which accounted for all the Dallas goals in a 3-2 win. "As long
as you know you're getting a guy back," Hitchcock says, "you
might get something positive out of his injury."

During the 1999 playoffs Stars trainer Dave Surprenant said
Dallas was operating "on guts and tape--and I've run out of
tape." As the Stars prepared to play Game 6 of the Stanley Cup
finals against the Buffalo Sabres last season, six Dallas
players knew they needed off-season knee surgery, and Modano was
playing with a broken left wrist. Needles and intravenous drips
were everywhere. The most extraordinary thing about this grim
tableau was that none of the players thought it was exceptional.

"Sure, it's survival," Dallas right wing Mike Keane says, "but
what's the big deal? We get three months off to rest. We're just
like schoolteachers, except we don't work for a living."

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Crunch Time Hockey's postseason is a war of attrition, and the team whose players have survival skills (like John LeClair, right) will hoist the Cup. [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Pressing Engagement Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor gets his glass waxed by Avalanche wing Dave Andreychuk during Game 3 of the NHL Western Conference finals (page 42). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA BELL RINGER As a result of getting leveled by Stevens (second from left) in Game 2, the Flyers' Langkow suffered a concussion. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) ICING The Stars' Derian Hatcher nailed Miller in Game 2 (right), while the Avalanche's Greg de Vries got all over Joe Nieuwendyk in the following match. COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA BIG-BANG THEORY A concussion didn't stop Primeau (here being flipped by Ken Daneyko) from playing a physical style.

The Flyers played like Ray Nitschke and thought like Friedrich
Nietzsche: What doesn't kill them makes them stronger.

Primeau returned, either courageously or foolishly, to start the
conference finals five days after being wheeled off the ice.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)