- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Hockey coaches treat their high-speed game like a methodical chess match. And the key to being a successful coach is knowing what move to make and when to make it.
On Tuesday, with his team down 1-0 in their Eastern Conference final series against the Senators, New Jersey Devils coach Pat Burns knew he had to do something. No matter what was said publicly, his team couldn't afford to fall behind 2-0 to the highly skilled Ottawa Senators.
So, without hesitation, Burns pulled the trigger. He benched struggling defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky and his partner, Devils icon Ken Daneyko. In their place, Burns inserted journeyman Tommy Albelin and little-used Richard Smehlik, who'd played just once during this postseason.
The move paid off immediately when Albelin, who had one goal in 37 games during the regular season, threaded a slapper from the blue line through a crowd and past screened Senators goalie Patrick Lalime just 4:15 into the game. The Devils built on their early good fortune and tied the series with an impressive 4-1 win.
Burns didn't tinker with his third defensive pair to create more offense. Rather, he inserted the two veteran defensemen to help slow down the Senators' deep group of talented forwards and to keep their plays simple.
Tverdovsky failed to do that in Game 1. He was inconsistent and non-competitive -- not a very good combination for a defenseman, especially one making $3.6 million. He was equally bad against the Lightning in Game 3 of the conference semifinals. After that performance, Burns didn't dress him for the last two games of that series.
Burns re-inserted Tverdovsky against the Senators because of their team speed. But, after another bad effort, the coach wasted no time returning him to the press box.
And Daneyko? He's somewhat a victim of Tverdovsky's poor play. The 38-year-old blueliner, an incredible competitor slowed only by the hands of time, can't be left to fend on his own -- as he was in Game 1. Also, as a left defenseman, he doesn't match up well against speedy right wingers like Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat. If the Devils were facing another team, Daneyko probably would have stayed in the lineup. Against Ottawa, he might be too much of a risk.
The Devils were rewarded with a strong effort from the new third pair of defensemen. Albelin, 38, scored a goal on his only shot and was a plus-2 in 14:29 of ice time. Smehlik, 33, was a plus-1 in his 12:43. Burns can only hope these two veterans can continue their steady play.
Now, it's Jacques Martin's turn. His Senators team was either not ready or a tad overconfident for Game 2. What moves will he make for Game 3?
Martin could be faced with a difficult situation on his backline if Wade Redden can't play. Midway through the third period of Game 2, Redden left the ice with an apparent injury to his left knee as a result of a knee-to-knee collision with New Jersey forward Turner Stevenson. He didn't return.
Unlike Burns, Martin can't turn to experienced defenders like Albelin and Smehlik. Instead, he might have to insert playoff novices like Shane Hnidy or Brian Pothier.
If Redden can't play, Karel Rachunek and Zdeno Chara will need to come up with better efforts. The two players, who play in different pairings, combined for a minus-5 in Game 2. Can Martin -- who has been criticized for his lack of fire behind the bench -- get more out of these players?
And can Martin get more out of Alfredsson? The Senators' highly competitive captain has been almost silent in 5-on-5 play during this postseason. In 13 playoff games, Alfredsson has no goals and only one assist at even-strength. Against New Jersey, a strong veteran team that knows how to win, Alfredsson must be more than a power-play specialist.
Game 3 is Thursday in New Jersey. And Martin is on the clock.