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Francis: Bowman best at matchups

by John McGourty

Hall of Famer Ron Francis played for Scotty Bowman when he coached the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1990s.
Scotty Bowman, who coached nine Stanley Cup-winning teams and was the director of player development for another, has been in the Hockey Hall of Fame since 1991. Four of those Stanley Cups came after his induction, once with the Penguins and three times with the Red Wings, the 2008 Stanley Cup finalists.

For many years, some people felt Bowman benefited from his association with the 1970s Montreal Canadiens, where he coached five Stanley Cup winners. His teams were enormously talented, including players like Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden and a long list of fellow Hockey Hall of Famers. Those teams also produced many successful coaches, like Lemaire and Bob Gainey.

Bowman is a great strategist and the best hockey coach ever in getting favorable on-ice matchups. But in coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings to Stanley Cups, Bowman proved that he was more than a one-dimensional coach.

He has been given great credit for identifying the Red Wings' personnel needs and changing the team's style of play. Yet in Pittsburgh, he mostly kept to the strategies of his predecessor, with a few refinements.

"We had won the Stanley Cup the year before when Bob Johnson coached us, but then, in an unexpected and most unfortunate circumstance, Bob was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor right at the start of training camp," recalled Hall of Famer Ron Francis, now the Carolina Hurricanes' assistant general manager and director of player development. "I wasn't in camp then because I had a contract dispute and joined them a few weeks into the season.

"Scotty came in and continued to build on what Bob had in place. The thing that sticks out about his coaching that year was in the playoffs, the job he did in getting the matchups that he wanted on the ice at the right time and right situations. With all due respect to all my other coaches, I thought that season was the best I've ever seen in getting the matchups we wanted.

"I'm not sure which of our Stanley Cup-winning teams was better, the first one had two more wins and one more point and won the Patrick Division while we finished third in the Patrick the next year, with Scotty. I think the team that followed the two Cup winners might have been better, but we were eliminated by the Islanders in the Patrick Division Final.

"The first Stanley Cup-winning team, in 1991, was bittersweet because Mario Lemieux missed a lot of that year and John Cullen centered Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens on a line that really carried the team through most of that season. Then Mario returned and they made the deadline deal with the Hartford Whalers, trading Cullen, Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski to get me, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings. I was thrown right into the battle.

"That team really didn't play together as a team for a whole season and then they made more changes going into the next season and later in the year. The most impressive thing was the second Stanley Cup team won 11 straight games to close out the year, the last three against the New York Rangers, swept the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference Final and swept the Chicago Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup.

"It's takes a very, very good team to do that at that time of the year. It's not easy to win one game in the NHL, let alone 11 straight in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Then we go on to a 119-point season in 1992-93, on a team that was, arguably, the best team I played on in my career and we lose Game 7 in overtime to the New York Islanders in the second round. I guess that's why you have to play the games."

"We didn't do some of the things that Scotty did in Detroit, like the left-wing lock or the forecheck he used there," Francis continued. "We did make an important strategic change in the first round of the playoffs against the Washington Capitals (in 1992). We were down three games to one with Game 5 in Washington and their defensemen, Al Iafrate and Kevin Hatcher, were killing us with their offense.

"A few of us were sitting around and trying to figure out what we could do. We went into Scotty's office and suggested we play a 1-4 defense and he agreed. We made the change, with a few adjustments, and it got us over the hump. We won Game 5, 5-2, went home and won Game 6, 6-4, and went back and beat them, 3-1, in Washington.

"You could always go to Scotty with ideas. His mind is interesting to watch because it never shuts off. He's always looking at things and analyzing them. He has a great mind for the game. I always felt comfortable with him and his door was always open. Remember, we lost Mario and Joey Mullen in the second round against the Rangers and we made adjustments and won. He was constantly doing that.

"We benefited from his non-stop work ethic and he's not always thinking in the present. He's thinking two games ahead or a series ahead. He covers all the bases."

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