The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs by former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Rocky Thompson and Dave Barr will take turns providing insight. Thompson's focus will be on the Western Conference, Barr will handle the Eastern Conference.
In this edition, Barr, a former assistant with the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks, discusses the focus for the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals as each prepare to open the first round Tuesday.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are not worried about how they played against the New York Rangers in the regular season. Similarly, the Rangers should not and likely are not thinking their success against the Penguins is a prelude of what's to come in the Eastern Conference First Round.
It's amazing how things flip-flop sometimes, so the fact that the Rangers won three games against the Penguins from March 25-April 7 is not part of the conversation in either dressing room prior to Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, SN, TVAS, MSG, ATTSN-PT).
What the Penguins care about now is trying to combat what is a confident team they're about to face, and the emphasis is put on team.
The Rangers are a better team defensively in the past six weeks than they were for the first five months of the regular season. They're suppressing shots better. They're keeping teams to the outside. They're insulating their goalies. They're playing a more structured game.
The Rangers are confident with their play as a group. Their forward depth is strong first line through fourth line. It has a good blend of skill, speed and forwards who will get dirty to get the job done. Coach Gerard Gallant can feel confident in putting any line out in almost any situation.
Better all-around play by the forwards highlighted by trade deadline pickup of Andrew Copp makes the defensemen and the goalie's job a little bit easier. That will definitely play a part in this series against the Penguins.
For the Penguins, the struggles they had in going 6-9-1 since March 25, when they lost 5-1 to the Rangers, and losing goalie Tristan Jarry to a lower-body injury, won't be forgotten but they don't have to matter now either.
It's not like a team can flip the switch and get back to a high level, but if you're a young player and you look across the dressing room at Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter, that's a pretty good feeling.
The players in Pittsburgh believe they can win and they know they need to raise their performance level. This is all being guided by two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Sullivan, who knows what it takes to get through a grueling NHL playoffs.
Sullivan's message will be for the Penguins to keep their game. That holds true even though Casey DeSmith will be in net instead of Jarry.
Most important to coaches is good defensive structure. Sullivan will emphasize defending against the Rangers rush and special teams, particularly preventing New York's first power-play unit that features Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Adam Fox from beating them.
Defense wins. Goaltending helps you be good defensively. DeSmith can win in the playoffs if the Penguins make a commitment to defending.
Goaltending and defending in front of the goalie is the focus for the Panthers and Capitals as they get ready for Game 1 at FLA Live Arena on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN360, TVAS2, BSFL, NBCSWA).
Florida, which won the President's Trophy as the team with the most points in the regular season, is the favorite going in, but can they defend well enough to win a playoff series against an experienced team?
Sergei Bobrovsky is the Panthers' guy and he's more than capable of providing a good performance in net. The consistency of that is necessary. Every second night they're playing so it's game after game after game. That's the question mark for the Panthers because it certainly looks like they can score enough goals, leading the NHL with 4.11 per game, the most any team has scored since the Penguins averaged 4.41 per game in 1995-96.
The pressure on the Panthers matters too. They're expected to win, and a loss in the first round would make a very good season feel wasted.
It'll be interesting to see how the elite players handle it, because it's those guys that are going to make a difference like Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Claude Giroux and Aaron Ekblad.
How they perform in the playoffs will define their season, fair or not.
The Capitals are a little different. I'm not sure how they viewed their regular season even though they had 100 points, but they have a chance to have a great year.
One of the important things in this series will be making the Panthers play in their defensive zone. There should be emphasis on controlling the puck, taking care of it, making it hard on them. No blind plays. Make sure shots get to the net. Establishing a consistent forecheck will only help the Capitals.
Washington is four years out from winning the Stanley Cup and has a lot of players remaining from that team. I believe that makes them hungrier as they recognize that they won't be together forever. They might not have another opportunity like this again.
It's a little bit like the Penguins. Both teams will be out to prove that point, that they still have the character, the will and ability to win.