Little things can have a big impact

Updated: May 23, 2004, 12:13 AM ET
By Scott Burnside and Eric Adelson | Special to ESPN.com

If you're lucky, you'll catch them on the tail end of an instant replay, one likely used to illustrate something else entirely.

Chances are, you don't see them at all.

Those moments that happen a dozen times a game, perhaps more -- a blocked shot, a forward who gets back to thwart an odd-man rush, a faceoff won in the defensive zone on a penalty kill. Tiny specks of sand on the long beach of a playoff series, a playoff season.

Ken Hitchcock
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock got results in Game 6 when he put Jeremy Roenick on the same line with Keith Primeau and Simon Gagne.
Yet each in its own way is a catalyst for something greater, perhaps an overtime goal, a game-winner, perhaps even a defining moment for a player, a franchise. It's an old hockey chestnut that those players and teams who take care of the little things are the ones left standing at the end.

And now, as we examine the Calgary Flames, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers, they prove that point beyond a shadow of a doubt. And those teams and players that litter the path thus far are further proof that many things may go right, but when the little things go wrong, so too do Stanley Cup dreams.

"The thing is, when a team loses now, it's not because they played bad," Calgary coach Darryl Sutter said just before the Flames clinched their first berth in the Cup final since 1989. "When they win, it's not because they played good."

In a game that is the epitome of fluidity, of instinctual play, there are countless areas where doing the little things come into play. There are the little things a coach does, between series, between games, between periods. Sometimes the little things are in the brain, the ability to think ahead and see the flow of a game and what has to be done to change the momentum or to reverse a trend.

In the deciding game of the Western Conference final, Craig Conroy, whose faceoff acumen was a crucial cog in the Flames' victory machine, saw a different San Jose alignment on defense.

"He gave me a little eye and said, 'Go for it,' " recalled Martin Gelinas, who took a perfect Conroy pass off the draw and scored the series-clinching goal, the third straight series in which he has done so.

As the series evolved, Sutter altered his faceoff routine, allowing Conroy and Stephane Yelle to choose the side of the ice on which they felt most comfortable to take crucial draws.

"And so those guys got puck possession," Sutter said. "It made a big difference."

The faceoff is so crucial to so many elements of the game.

Take Philadelphia.

From Game 4 of the Toronto series to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final with Tampa Bay, their power play has been abysmal. People asked what was wrong with the power play, but according to Pierre McGuire -- former coach and top analyst for TSN in Canada -- it wasn't so much the power play structure but a basic element leading to that structure -- the Flyers' inability to win the initial offensive zone draw.

"That's really hurt Philadelphia. They don't win a lot of the initial draws, and Philadelphia doesn't have a lot of retrieval players," said McGuire.

Said Keith Primeau, not without some respect before the Flyers' emotional 5-4 overtime win in Game 6: "They are doing a nice job of cheating in the faceoff circle. (Dave) Andreychuk doesn't come down (with his stick). He's waiting for me to come down on every draw. He's allowed to just come through (with his stick). Sometimes I get away with it at home, too."

That crucial fifth game in the East final was decided by a Tampa Bay power play that tallied three times, including twice in the second period. Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said assistant coach Craig Ramsay made a couple of adjustments to player positioning between periods that paved the way for two Brad Richards' power play markers.

People often talk about protecting a lead as though it's a set play. But the little things help teams accomplish what is a significant task.

When the Lightning appeared on the verge of blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 5, hanging on in the end for a 3-2 victory, they looked like a team that didn't understand how to complete the task at hand.

"I think it's the maturity of our team," veteran Tim Taylor said after. "Not realizing the situation."

Often maturity is equated to experience. Not necessarily so.

Look at the success a relatively inexperienced playoff team like Calgary has enjoyed, rolling to a 10-1 record when it scores first. Look beneath the surface, said McGuire, and you see a Calgary team that rarely gives up an odd-man rush.

Did you see one in Game 6 after the Sharks made it 2-1 in the second? Didn't think so.

"Calgary has done it as well or better than anybody else in the league," during the playoffs, McGuire said.

"That's coaching; that's all coaching," McGuire added. "The Flames match up better at the point of attack on the forecheck than any other team."

Much is made of playoff matchups, as though it's simply a matter of two players being on the ice at the same time. But the key is why the matchup works and whether it can be achieved without disrupting a team's flow and productivity.

McGuire credits Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock for getting Keith Primeau more physically involved against Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in the East final.

"That really elevated Primeau's game because he thrives in that kind of role," McGuire said.

Along with providing big plays in crucial situations, Primeau has also delivered the nuts-and-bolts plays that set the table for those highlight-reel contributions. After setting up the tying goal and then scoring the eventual winner shorthanded in Game 4 against the Lightning, Primeau blocked two passes in the neutral zone in the last 30 seconds to prevent Tampa from registering a shot before time ran out.

Primeau was again spectacular in Game 6, scoring twice including the tying marker late in the game and adding two assists including one on Gagne's overtime winner. But a small detail that went into those heroics was Hitchcock's decision to move Jeremy Roenick onto Primeau's line with Gagne in place of Branko Radivojevic, whom Hitchcock referred to as "kind of snake bitten."

"I just felt if there were those same kind of opportunities again we might get some finish with it, and that's what happened," Hitchcock said.

Roenick helped set up the winner.

Early in the West final, the Sharks' top defenseman, Scott Hannan, was most often engaged with Calgary star Jarome Iginla as Iginla attacked on his natural right wing. But Iginla's attack pattern shifted during the series to the left side, usually against San Jose defenseman Jason Marshall.

"That's an easier matchup for Iginla," McGuire said.

Much is made of matching lines in the playoffs, but sometimes lost in the shuffle are the defensive pairings and how the personalities involved say much about the outcome of a series.

It was Pat Quinn's use of Dmitry Yushkevich and Danny Markov a couple of years ago that neutralized former Ottawa Senator Alexei Yashin and allowed an overmatched Toronto team to advance.

McGuire said Sutter's pairing of Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr after Game 4 against San Jose allowed Regehr to concentrate solely on his defensive responsibilities while Leopold shouldered more of the offensive burden.

San Jose employed a "flood forecheck" style to bottle up less mobile defenses in series victories over St. Louis and Colorado. But the Flames' coaching staff managed to use the offside defense to consistently break free of the Sharks' tenacious forecheck, McGuire said. They used a pattern that saw the first defenseman pass to the same-side wing, who would relay a pass to the second defenseman instead of trying to chip it past a greater concentration of checkers.

Then there's the traditional rim shot employed by a defenseman in an attempt to clear the zone, rimming the puck around the end boards. That play, although easier, means the puck has to travel significantly faster and farther than if a defenseman stops and controls the puck and looks for a forward breaking out.

Robyn Regehr
Calgary's Robyn Regehr thrived against San Jose when he was paired with Jordan Leopold.
Calgary assistant Jim Playfair says their defenseman has an initial responsibility to make the harder play. If they can, it prevents the forward from having to retreat too deeply into the defensive zone and allowing an opposing team to further employ a forecheck.

Sometimes the little things means employing a little physics.

It's harder to stop a 185-pound body on a dime than to simply take a slow curve or J-stop, which is essentially stopping on one blade. Players late in a shift, a game or a series may be tempted to take those shortcuts. But the time it takes to stop and go properly may be the difference in stopping a scoring chance or being part of an offensive play.

A defenseman will ideally try and make contact with an opposing player when his inside shoulder is parallel with the defenseman's outside shoulder for maximum control. Still on defense, 90 percent of the time you'll see a defenseman with his stick in the shooting or passing lanes toward the middle of the ice. Those who don't are usually watching at this time of the year.

And then there's the crafty forward who may sneak a peak into the end glass to see if he can catch a glimpse of the closest defender in the reflection to gauge how much time he has to make a play.

Sometimes the little things aren't in the hands or the blades but in the head. Heart and drive will carry you only so far before it is negated by skill, McGuire said. That's why the little things become so crucial.

In the second round, Tampa swept Montreal in four games. Yet in games 2 through 4, the Canadiens enjoyed as many quality chances and as much time of possession. Yet they could not deliver the knockout blow or prevent one from being delivered to them.

Witness Lecavalier's crushing goal with three seconds left in the second period of Game 2. With the teams playing four aside, Lecavalier took a Cory Sarich pass and beat Jose Theodore while the Canadiens' top defensive pair of Sheldon Souray and Craig Rivet were on the ice.

In Game 3, Montreal fans were already celebrating a victory when veteran Andreychuk won a draw from Yanic Perreault, the best faceoff man in hockey. Rivet and Andrei Markov were unable to control Lecavalier, who redirected the puck past Jose Theodore with 17 seconds left. Richards scored on the first shift of overtime to seal the Canadiens' fate.

"It's part of going to Playoff University," McGuire said. "The Montreal Canadiens were freshmen this year."

"One of the main things is not losing ground and controlling those swings in momentum," McGuire said. "Young teams don't know how to control momentum."

That's what has made the Tampa/Philadelphia series so compelling, that each team has taken turns taking care of the little things and stealing away momentum.

McGuire pointed to the third period of Game 5, a swing game in the series, where Lecavalier played perhaps his best-ever defensive hockey, Richards as well even as the Flyers were pressing for the tying goal.

"Those surges and momentums are the most dangerous things but the most interesting things in playoff hockey," Tortorella said.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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