NASHVILLE — A few days ago, as a high-flying, lightning-fast series shifted to Winnipeg, Nashville coach Peter Laviolette was asked about how times have changed for coaches in these playoffs.
The questioner wondered if, compared to old-time coaches whose systems mandated those 2-1 playoff snoozers, he and Jets coach Paul Maurice had teams so fast and creative that the coaches lost some measure of control over these high-scoring, wide-open affairs.
“I can tell you that we want to put the pedal down. We want to play in the offensive zone … and forecheck as hard as we can,” Laviolette promised. “When the (two clubs’) identities are the same, you either switch your identity, or you play to your identity. Both of us are trying to play to our identity right now.”
The two most important words in that quote, as it turned out, were the last two: “right now.”
Because, when it turned out that playing hyper-aggressive hockey against the younger, bigger and perhaps faster Jets was a bad idea, Laviolette pulled a 180. Jets captain Blake Wheeler put it best: “They were really committed to clogging things up and playing a greasy road game.”
In Game 4 Nashville won 2-1, ironically, by limiting the forecheck, clogging the neutral zone, and exiting its zone using high flips and banging the puck off the glass. It was masterfully opposite to the way it had played thus far, and the Preds won — so it worked.
As for the “put the pedal down,” statement, well, like every coach, there is fine print below every one of Laviolette’s promises: “Valid only until we lose a game or two.”
Like the first time we met Laviolette, at the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, where his Carolina Hurricanes would best the Edmonton Oilers in seven games. That spring, one of Laviolette’s best veterans, hard-charging winger Erik Cole, had not played a game since breaking a vertebrae in his neck on a hit from behind by Brooks Orpik on March 4.
As the rounds wore on, and April turned to May, and then to June, media would periodically ask about the possibility of Cole returning. Three games into that Final when Laviolette was asked again, he was positively indignant that a soulless sports writer would even have such a thought.
“If it’s only a .01 per cent of a fraction that he can reinjure it, that’s enough for me,” Laviolette scolded. “His life with his family and his future and his career is far too valuable.
“It is about his future. It’s not worth the risk.”
Two games later, veteran Doug Weight injured a shoulder, the Canes were one game from closing out the Cup, and guess who skated out for Game 6?
“Well,” Laviolette explained post-game, “after further examinations from the doctors that have been looking at him, the healing process has probably gone as far as it’s going to go.”
It’s a rite of spring that coaches concoct alternative facts.
Remember the time Marty McSorley pitch-forked Mike Bullard in that Battle of Alberta tilt? Speared him so hard he left the ice on a gurney. Glen Sather told McSorley to plead amnesia when the media came around, and McSorley followed orders.
And Bullard? He was lyin’ too. Turns out he jumped right off the stretcher as soon as it got underneath the stands.
This week, Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault swapped out his yellow (inactive) jersey at practice, sending the local scribes into a tizzy. “That was me messing with you (media) guys,” he laughed. “And then the next day (coaches) said, ‘No, you have to wear yellow.’ I was just having some fun.”
Laviolette gets paid to win. Talking truthfully to the media is simply a small part of his job. If he is going to stray a tad, we’ll let you guess which of those two areas gets compromised.
In fact, let’s go back to ’06 for one last whopper. Three rounds before meeting the Hurricanes in the Final, the eighth-seeded Oilers went up against No. 1 Detroit out West.
Head coach Craig MacTavish knew the only way to beat the mighty Red Wings was to employ the trap. The problem was, so-called “Oilers hockey” was all about skating, pressure and speed.
Playing the trap in Edmonton was like playing Augusta in cut-offs, but even MacTavish’s players knew that trying to live up to the Oilers history was a farce.
“We don’t have Mess and Gretz anymore, do we? Andy? Kurri? Coffey on defence?” asked fun-loving winger Todd Harvey. “We’ve got Harvey, man. It ain’t the same thing.”
MacTavish was sheepish, dragging that Oilers logo through the same muddy neighbourhood that teams like New Jersey and Minnesota had once inhabited.
“The Trap.” It was like a swear word in Edmonton, and MacTavish knew he had to slip one past the goalie when speaking with the media.
“We would never call it that. We won’t call it a trap. We’ll call it a press, we’ll call it a whatever,” he said.
Groused Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, “Edmonton Oiler hockey in the ‘80s was all flow and go. That was trap, trap, trap, trap, trap. Stand back and wait for you.”
The Red Wings lost that series, and two months later Laviolette and Cole were both drinking from the Stanley Cup.
Today, the Predators have their home-ice advantage back, and the Jets are scratching their heads.
Those, dear friends, are the only facts that truly matter, at this time of year.