In the NHL playoffs, the best teams make every second count
The following story appears in the May 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
In the NHL's looooong postseason, great coaches make every short second count. So we asked Cup-winning bench bosses Mike Babcock (Wings, 2008), Randy Carlyle (Ducks, 2007), Ken Hitchcock (Stars, 1999) and John Tortorella (Lightning, 2004) for the secrets to using every trick to their advantage.
00:40 — STOP AND GO
Detroit assistant coach Paul MacLean is never without his stopwatch, clicking it each time the Wings make a line change. "We use our own time," says Babcock, eschewing the arena stat sheet. For playoffs, he wants short shifts -- 40 seconds, tops -- making sure stars like LW Henrik Zetterberg stay fresh enough to sustain the tempo his two-way game demands. Quick, smart line changes are so crucial that the Wings devoted an entire practice to them during an unexpected layover in St. Louis last season. Bonus benefit: Quick changes prevent positioning breakdowns that result in odd-man rushes.
00:90 — WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM ...
TV stoppages after the first six-, 10- and 14-minute marks in regulation can be a coach's best friend. The 90-second breaks let teams reestablish shift rotations to get big guns maximum ice time, one reason top players might add as many as five minutes per game in the playoffs. And what happens after play resumes is rarely a surprise now, thanks to video. "We study what opponents like to do off the breaks," Hitchcock says. That helps in developing a playoff game plan.
00:30 — ... ALREADY IN PROGRESS
Teams get one 30-second timeout per game, but the best time to call it is hotly debated. Coaches used to save it for the end of the game, but that's changing. "I use it when I think I need to," says Babcock, who might do so after an ill-timed icing. Under post-lockout rules, a coach must wait until after the next faceoff to pull the skaters who iced the puck. If exhausted players are stuck in a bad matchup in a critical situation, Babcock will call for stoppage to give players a quick blow. He knows the team that scores first wins 69% of games, so he'll make the call at any point.
06:00 — STAYING FRESH
Riding the pine is no fun, and minutes for fourth-liners and third-unit defensemen are even harder to come by in the playoffs. To keep those guys ready for the six (or however many) minutes they're needed, coaches resort to tricks, such as allowing them to skate during TV timeouts -- rules permit five players to skate during TV breaks. "That's a chance to get them a quick stretch," says Carlyle. It's a small -- but critical -- line change that most fans never see.
01:00 — WHO YOU GOING TO CALL?
An early goal can set a period's tempo, but a late one can seal a game's fate. By the playoffs, coaches have established their final-minute lineup of go-to guys. Carlyle has a unique advantage: He can abandon his usual blue-line rotation and pair future HOFers Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger to shut down opponents at the close of each period.
01:59 — QUICK EXIT
Pulling the goalie is common late-game strategy, but when's the best time to do it? "Anytime under two minutes left I'll try to get him out," says Carlyle. "I've been burned by waiting too long." In a situation where every second counts, a goalie with a quick first stride can be a big help. Hawks stopper Nikolai Khabibulin goes one better than quick feet. "He's good at reading the play and creeping up the ice as the team moves the puck out of its own end," says Tortorella, his former Tampa coach. "That gets him to the bench quicker." Does he have the same rapport with his Rangers stopper Henrik Lundqvist? Not yet. "It's more like a tug-of-war," Torts says.
10:00 — SUDDEN DEATH
In overtime, with no TV stoppages to lean on, coaches must know each player's recovery capabilities, the better to balance performance and fatigue. All fitness testing done in the preseason goes out the window, says Tortorella, adding, "It's still gut feel." Shifts rotate quickly. "The teams are trying to throw knockout punches," Hitchcock says. "After about 10 minutes, it settles into a more counterattacking game." If there's no score after 20 minutes, the cycle starts again. Coaches also must factor in late-spring weather. Translation: a conference final OT in toasty Anaheim is going to feature one short shift after another.
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