ESPN The Magazine: Hradek's NHL 180

4/25/2007 - NHL

Sean Avery thought he knew playoff hockey. He had a great view of it from the stands during the Wings' 2002 Cup run.

Five years later, with the Rangers, "It's a totally different level of play," he said. "I'll never use the phrase 'It's like a playoff game' during the regular season again. There's no comparison."

Right you are, Sean. To define the differences, we went to players, coaches and league personnel who've been there and back. They've given us -- and you -- an inside look at what makes springtime hockey so special.

Illustration Jason Lee for ESPN The MagazineIn the playoffs, veterans understand how to save their energy for games. Brendan Shanahan remembers Steve Yzerman would do puzzles 15 minutes before the Wings went on the ice.

Save the date
• Creating the regular-season schedule is about careful planning and balance. The playoff slate is pieced together with one eye on TV demands and the other on arena availability.
The playoffs begin early for NHL scheduling guru Steve Hatze-Petros. A month before they start, he begins a daily exercise. Each morning, Hatze-Petros pretends the season is over and the playoff matchups are set. Then, he puts together a schedule based on that day's standings. By repeating the drill, Hatze-Petros tries to anticipate the pitfalls he might face when he goes live.

"By the time we get to that final weekend, I have an idea of where the problems might be," he said. "On that final day, it can get heated with networks competing for games."

This year, the biggest donnybrook was over the Pens-Sens series. The CBC wanted to broadcast Game 2 -- Canadian team vs. national icon Sidney Crosby -- in its night time slot. But NBC wanted the game for its afternoon coverage in the States. (NBC won.)

Arena availability is also a major headache.

"Last year, Dora the Explorer kept following us around," Hatze-Petros said, referring to the kids stage show. "This year, the reunion tour of The Police could pose problems."

Unless Sting can play on the Rangers penalty kill.

• Players aren't the only skaters hoping to keep skating in June.
After 13 years as an NHL referee, Stephen Walkom hung up his stripes in 2005 to become the league's head of officiating. Now, instead of skating with the stars, he gets paid to rate the refs.

Throughout the season, watching every game, Walkom and his staff grade each of the NHL's 67 officials (33 refs, 34 linesmen). Those evaluations determine which zebras advance to the playoffs. Who makes the cut? Those who call games in strict adherence to the rules of the "new NHL" -- specifically, evidencing zero tolerance for obstruction violations like interference, holding and hooking.

Exhibits A and B: Dennis LaRue and Kevin Pollock. In Game 3 of the first-round series between the Sabres and the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, the ref tandem called a pair of tripping penalties against the Isles in the final eight minutes with the home team trailing by a goal. The last penalty, whistled with just 1:34 remaining in regulation, drew an angry response from the crowd, which escalated to some fans pelting the ice with garbage.

That's just the sort of thing Walkom likes to see (minus the littering).

"Our guys have to have the courage to make the call regardless of the score or time left on the clock," he said. "Those are the guys who will advance." For those who don't, of course, there's disappointment. "If you don't feel that," said ref Tim Peel, "you shouldn't be in this business."

Few-minute drills
• In the regular season, teams take time to practice. In the playoffs, time for practice gets short.
Early in the season, Sharks coach Ron Wilson might keep his team on the ice for 75 minutes. In the playoffs, it's 40 minutes tops. Why? Two reasons. First, there's not much new to add in terms of strategy, especially as a series progresses. There's time -- and brain matter -- only to make incremental tweaks. Wilson explained: "Facing the same opponent, you might make some changes to things like your special teams, and you work on them briefly."

The second reason is the long season. Short sessions allow teams with valuable vets -- like the Wings (D Chris Chelios, 45) and Sabres (D Teppo Numminen, 38) -- to give their geezers precious rest.

Illustration Jason Lee for ESPN The MagazineChilling arena ice to 24 degrees (or below) cuts down the potential for injuries and keep players -- not to mention pucks -- moving at optimal speed.

Cold comfort
• Maintaining a good sheet of ice in December is relatively easy. Maintaining one in late spring is anything but.
For six months, the worst thing Dan Craig has to worry about is the occasional circus or Cher goodbye tour. But as the playoffs move into late spring, the man responsible for ice quality at all 30 NHL arenas faces his greatest challenge: keeping his sheets cool when the temps in, say, Dallas or Anaheim aren't.

The secret, according to Mr. Freeze, is keeping the ice at 24 degrees or colder. Craig is in constant contact with arena managers throughout the playoffs, often on site, in an effort to outwit thunderstorms, heat and humidity. But, sometimes, the greatest enemy he faces is the witless. In a recent year, Craig said, one team, thinking it had no postseason shot, melted down the ice after the club's last regular-season home game. The team -- Craig won't say which -- snuck into the playoffs by winning its last few road games. So management had to make new ice on short notice. The ice's poor quality was unmistakable, and the team lost both of its home games.

Home, sweet Hyatt
• On home stands in March, players sleep in their own beds. In May it's, What do you prefer, queen or king?
Forget what you've heard about you know what weakening the legs. During the postseason, team execs like their players to stay in hotels -- even at home -- for morale and focus. "We want to keep the team together," said Lightning GM Jay Feaster. "It helps keep distractions to a minimum."

Movie nights help. Goalie Martin Brodeur, who refers to hometown hotel stays as "jail," said the tradition started during the Devils' first Cup run in 1995. This spring, he and his 'mates gave a thumbs-up to "The Shooter" and walked out on "Grindhouse." But the longer you win, the more likely you'll start scraping the bottom of Hollywood's barrel: In 1995, the team was reduced to watching kid flicks during the finals.

The new big thing
• A few big early-season wins might get you a flurry of buzz on sports talk radio. In the playoffs, a few big wins will definitely get you buried under an avalanche of requests.
During their magical run to the finals in 2003, which began with a first-round sweep of Detroit, the Ducks' national Q-rating took them from "Who?" to "The hottest quackers in Anaheim since Donald."

Their baseball brethren bought in first. After the Ducks went up 2-0 on the Wings, the Angels asked Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer to throw out the first pitch at a game. And then: "All of a sudden, we were getting calls from 'The Tonight Show,'" remembered Ducks spokesman Alex Gilchrist. Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere wound up making two appearances. "It was crazy," said Gilchrist. "Good crazy."

As Bolts forward Martin St. Louis put it: "As you go deeper into the playoffs, it's like being in Canada every day." Suddenly, guys who are used to dealing with a handful of media outlets on a regular basis are being surrounded by what seems like the entire Canadian press corps.

This spring, the Ducks could take Gilchrist on another two-month media frenzy. But this time, he's prepared. "After 2003," he said, "I have a good idea what to expect."

Yeah, 18-hour days.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.