Conference finals: A look at the coaches
HOW HE GOT HERE: There is the impression, because he is a rookie head coach, that Carlyle came out of nowhere to lead the Mighty Ducks to the Western Conference finals. He didn't. He actually came out of the coaching strip mines.
Carlyle, who turned 50 the day after the regular season ended, spent six years between 1996 and 2005 as coach of the AHL Manitoba Moose, the top affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. In between, the native of Sudbury, Ontario, shuttled off to Washington, where he was an assistant, before returning to Manitoba, picking up -- at various times -- the titles of GM and president. Although Anaheim GM Brian Burke didn't hire Carlyle himself, he sure liked what he saw. Of the three coaches Burke has hired in his managerial career, Paul Holmgren, Marc Crawford and Carlyle, "they're all the same," Burke told ESPN.com. "They're ass-kickers on the bench."
"He's been exactly what I was hoping for," Burke said of the longtime NHL defenseman. "We make a good team."
"He's been a very good coach for a long time. Very underrated," added former coach and GM Rick Dudley, who is now a senior scout with the Chicago Blackhawks and who played against Carlyle.
HOW HE EARNED HIS KEEP: Perhaps no coach in the NHL, let alone among the final four, has seen his team go through the transmogrification Carlyle has seen with the Mighty Ducks this season. Early on, Carlyle identified players he didn't think were a good fit, and bingo, Sergei Fedorov and Petr Sykora were gone. Later, Sandis Ozolinsh and Keith Carney also were jettisoned. In their place, a gaggle of untested youngsters. As Carlyle began to see what his young players were capable of, the team went from a defensive posture to an attack-oriented squad that ultimately bested the Calgary Flames in seven games, then destroyed the Colorado Avalanche in four straight.
"Anaheim, that's the team that adjusted the most during the course of the season," said former NHL netminder Darren Eliot, now a national NHL analyst. "They trapped their way back into the playoff race."
Now, the Ducks play a variety of styles that suit their immediate needs. There has, Burke said, been total buy-in among the players for Carlyle's systems.
"I saw Teemu Selanne skate backward between the blue lines. That's when you know the whole team has bought in," Eliot added.
Perhaps the most significant move Carlyle made, and one that might yet yield a Stanley Cup, was the decision to replace 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere with untested rookie netminder Ilya Bryzgalov after Game 5 of the opening round.
Bryzgalov had started in place of Giguere, who was injured. But when Giguere returned, he struggled, and Carlyle pulled the plug. That he did so in an elimination game showed tremendous faith in Bryzgalov, who responded with otherworldly play that includes the second-longest shutout streak in NHL playoff history.
"[Carlyle] may be a curmudgeon, but he's done a really remarkable job," Eliot said.
THE MOMENT: Before Game 7 in Calgary, Carlyle wanted to give his team a day away from the rink. The weather wasn't conducive to bike riding, so the hard-nosed coach took the Ducks to a local billiards hall in Calgary and the team had a pool tournament.
While they were there, the players looked up to find a rebroadcast of the 1985 Smythe Division playoff series between the Oilers and Winnipeg Jets on the pool hall televisions. There, manning the blue line, was their head coach. Unfortunately for Carlyle, it was a game in which the Oilers crushed the Jets, a game in which he was victimized regularly by Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, et al.
The Ducks players began hooting and yelling out some of the same comments Carlyle has been known to bestow on his players after their on-ice gaffes. Carlyle, to his credit, laughed at his own foibles, and the Ducks cruised to a Game 7 victory the next night.
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HOW HE GOT HERE: It's easy to see how Ruff ended up behind the Sabres bench. Essentially, he never left. The 32nd overall pick by the Sabres in the 1979 entry draft, Ruff played 608 regular-season games with the Sabres as a defenseman and sometime forward. He went on to become a player-coach in Rochester and San Diego (IHL) before jumping to the NHL ranks as an assistant in Florida in 1993-94. He returned to the Sabres as head coach in 1997 and has the longest tenure with the same team as a coach. He also holds the franchise record for victories, surpassing Scotty Bowman. During Ruff's time in Buffalo, his Sabres advanced once to the Stanley Cup finals, but they also endured the team's descent into bankruptcy and uncertainty over its future in Buffalo.
HOW HE EARNED HIS KEEP: This season marked the completion of a dramatic on-ice reversal for the Sabres, a reversal that began in the latter stages of the 2003-04 season, when the normally staid Sabres ended up 10th overall in offense.
This season, the Sabres continued that trend, taking full advantage of the new rules and levels of enforcement on obstruction, and they are the highest-scoring team in the playoffs.
"Probably we kept asking this question: Was what we saw at the end of 2003-04 real? We were a good offense team. We finished 10th in offense. We felt if we cleaned up our game defensively, we could be a much better team," Ruff said. "Does anybody expect to be where you're at and have the number of wins in the new NHL? We thought we could compete with anybody, but I think we're mildly surprised at where we finished. But that confidence grew a lot during the year."
Former NHL coach and GM Rick Dudley, who coached Ruff in Buffalo, understands that Ruff is a defense-first kind of guy and that to ice a team as offensively explosive as this one has taken some mental gymnastics for Ruff.
"He's forced himself to think outside that box. I admire that," said Dudley.
The Carolina Hurricanes are a linear team, but the Sabres use the width of the ice effectively.
Ruff calls it "puck management," but it's really a system of designed plays that allow the team to exit the defensive zone quickly and effectively time after time, analyst Darren Eliot explained. "They have automatics all over the ice," he explained.
It's the kind of system that's difficult to put into place in one season, and that speaks to Ruff's commitment to schooling the Sabres' AHL team in Rochester during the lockout.
While other coaches have employed different styles throughout the season and in the playoffs, Ruff has remained constant. What has not has been constant is his lineup, which has varied wildly as a result of injuries that plagued the team throughout the season. Key contributors, forward Tim Connolly (concussion) and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin (ankle), are expected to miss the start of the conference finals, but Ruff's ability to seamlessly insert players into the lineup and have them respond to significant roles has been key to Buffalo's success.
THE MOMENT: There is a feel of family about the Sabres. All teams strive for such a feel, but Buffalo has accomplished it. In part, it is Ruff's personality. He is caustic and witty, and he knows when to take the foot off. Earlier this season, while on a Western road trip, Ruff took the team bowling instead of having the guys practice. On another occasion, in Canada, he took them curling. When Ruff earned his 300th coaching victory, the boys responded by giving him a black and red bowling shirt with "300 Club" stitched over the pocket. Then, there was Ruff's personal challenge, when his 11-year-old daughter, Madeleine, was diagnosed with a brain tumor late in the season. She underwent surgery and has since returned to school, but the crisis helped forge an even deeper bond in the dressing room.
HOW HE GOT HERE: In December 2003, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford made one of the most difficult decisions of his career and fired longtime Hartford Whalers/Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. The two had been associated for many years, and the move was especially painful. But the Canes had hit rock bottom after a surprise trip to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals. Rutherford needed something different, someone with more of an edge, someone who would make players more accountable. So, he turned to Laviolette, who had been cooling his heels since summer 2003, when he was let go by the New York Islanders after leading them to the playoffs in successive seasons.
A native of Norwood, Mass., Laviolette earned rave reviews for his work with the Providence Bruins of the AHL, winning a Calder Cup and an AHL Coach of the Year award before being promoted to an assistant's role with the parent club in Boston for a season. Although he was passed over for the Bruins' top job (one in a seemingly endless list of miscues by the Original Six franchise), Laviolette, 41, has found a perfect fit in Raleigh.
Although mostly a journeyman minor league player, Laviolette did manage to slip in 12 NHL games with the New York Rangers and twice played for the U.S. Olympic team. He was captain of the 1994 squad.
He returned to the Olympics this season as coach of the U.S. team. He also coached the U.S. entry in the 2004 and 2005 World Championships, winning a surprise bronze medal in 2004.
When he arrived in Raleigh, Laviolette tried to boost the team's tempo. He succeeded, even if the results didn't necessarily show it. Few teams worked harder, and few had as much difficulty putting the puck in the net.
This season, with the new rules and the emergence of players such as Erik Cole and Eric Staal and the renaissance of Rod Brind'Amour, the Canes have played a similar style but with far greater results.
"Whether it was the new NHL or the old NHL, we were probably going to play it the same way," Laviolette said.
HOW HE EARNED HIS KEEP: After riding unheralded netminder Martin Gerber to 112 points, one point short of the conference best during the regular season, Laviolette watched Gerber become unglued against Montreal in the first two games of the playoffs.
Early in Game 2, Laviolette went to rookie Cam Ward, and the 22-year-old has turned in a virtuoso performance since as Carolina has gone 8-1 with Ward as a starter. It might have seemed simple enough: Put in the rookie and hope for the best. But Ward's consistent play has given the Hurricanes the confidence to play their game, a high-risk, high-reward style.
Former NHL coach and GM Rick Dudley admits some surprise at the success the Hurricanes have experienced but added that there is a constant theme in their success: speed and pursuit.
But to augment that style, especially with the arrival of newcomers Doug Weight and Mark Recchi, Laviolette also has introduced a "chip and charge" tactic that gives the Canes two different looks on the attack, especially below the hash marks in the offensive zone.
Although the Sabres use more set plays to establish their attack, the Hurricanes put more onus on their skilled forwards, Matt Cullen, Justin Williams, Cory Stillman, Staal, Brind'Amour, et al, to read the play on the attack.
THE MOMENT: True story. Lightning struck the tent under which Laviolette and his wife, Kristen, were married. The strike sent about 20 guests sprawling, including Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (a friend of Kristen's family) and former NHLer Rob Tallas. Some of the guests were laid out on Kristen's mother's dining room table.
Luckily, there were five nurses in attendance and they administered to those who were injured and the wedding proceeded, relatively speaking, without incident. The strike came shortly after Laviolette's best man gave his speech. Surely a coincidence. The next summer, guests at a picnic wore T-shirts with a thundercloud and lightning bolt, announcing they had survived the Laviolette nuptials.
HOW HE GOT HERE: Like Lindy Ruff, MacTavish has returned to his NHL roots, taking over the head coaching duties in June 2000. Almost half of MacTavish's 18-year NHL career was spent with the Oilers, with whom he won three Stanley Cups. He added another Cup ring with the Rangers in 1994.
Shortly after he retired in 1997, MacTavish was named an assistant in New York, then joined longtime teammate Kevin Lowe's coaching staff in Edmonton when Lowe was head coach. Thirteen days after Lowe was named GM, MacTavish stepped into the head coaching shoes, the third former Oiler -- after Glen Sather and Lowe -- to hold the post.
It hasn't been a bed of roses for MacTavish, whose teams endured lean, small-market years when top players like Doug Weight and Bill Guerin had to be sold off for prospects. Twice MacTavish's teams missed the playoffs and twice they were felled in the first round by Dallas.
Said Lowe: "He handled it like the true champion that he is. He's a true leader and a champion."
This season marked the first in which the Oilers were able to add significant pieces, in this case, Chris Pronger, Dwayne Roloson, Jaroslav Spacek and Michael Peca. MacTavish has been praised for his coaching acumen as the Oilers have advanced to their first conference final series since 1992.
HOW HE EARNED HIS KEEP: MacTavish made headlines when it appeared his run 'n' gun Oilers actually were playing the neutral-zone trap against the top-seeded Red Wings to start the playoffs. It wasn't quite the trap, but MacTavish recognized that his Oilers couldn't afford to swap scoring chances with a far more talented Detroit team. So, he had the team try to close off the neutral zone to prevent the Wings from using it as a launching pad for scoring chances.
MacTavish recognized that the Wings were a team that relied almost exclusively on scoring off the rush so he could afford to clog up the middle without worrying too much about being beaten by the forecheck, analyst Darren Eliot said.
As that series went on, the Oilers began to pressure the Red Wings in their own zone because they believed Detroit still was generating too many chances out of the neutral zone. They picked up the pace of the forecheck, they just didn't get caught too deep, Eliot said.
Against San Jose, the Oilers changed tactics and, after dropping the first two games, simply outmuscled the Sharks as the series progressed. Ryan Smyth, Raffi Torres, Jarret Stoll, Michael Peca -- all contributed key physical plays (some legal, some otherwise) that helped the Oilers emerge.
The Oilers are a team that will play close to the edge and sometimes over it. They are willing to do that, to take the extra penalties, as opposed to stepping back and being taken out of their game. They can do that because MacTavish's penalty-killing unit is so proficient, allowing the Sharks just two goals on 35 chances.
"You can't be afraid of talking about winning the Stanley Cup, or you're not going to have the chance," MacTavish said. "There's the smell of opportunity in the air."
THE MOMENT: Of the four remaining coaches, it's fair to suggest MacTavish, or "MacT" as he is known, is the most easygoing. He seemed unconcerned when the Oilers dropped the opening game of the playoffs to Detroit after a couple of fluky goals by Kirk Maltby, joking that Maltby was an excellent bunter and was the master of the "thick stick." But if there is a moment that seems to sum up MacTavish's outlook, it's the night in 2003 when he nonchalantly reached up and yanked the tongue out of Calgary mascot Harvey The Hound's head during a game in Calgary. Classic.
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