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Coaches Room

Tension, attention to detail heighten in playoffs

Corsi believes keeping players loose helps increase focus, concentration

by Jim Corsi / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Jim Corsi, David Marcoux, Paul MacLean and Joe Mullen will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, Corsi, the former goaltending coach of the Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues, writes about preparing for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the attention to detail it takes and the intensity it requires in what is always such an emotional environment.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are almost here and that means players and coaches will soon start feeling a heightened sense of tension.

That tension is what makes the first round great. The intensity ratchets up, and when it's over we're inevitably talking about how amazing it was and how it will be hard for the eight teams remaining to match it in the second round.

With the desperation, emotion and attention to detail heightened, coaches have to try to maintain a business-as-usual approach, although everything about the playoffs is unusual.

The coaching staffs of the 16 teams that make it will try to break tension with humor, which reminds me of a story from 2001 when I was with the Buffalo Sabres, coaching with Lindy Ruff.

We're playing the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round and they had Roman Cechmanek. We kept hearing he was one of the best goalies in the League. Meanwhile, I'm saying, 'Are you kidding me? Dominik Hasek is the best goalie in the League, and we've got him.'

So, I'm in a meeting going over video and I'm saying that Cechmanek kind of hulks when he makes a save, so we've got to get inside and look for rebounds. Lindy says to me, 'Hulks?' I'm like, 'Yeah, like the Hulk, the Incredible Hulk.'

So then, with my little body, I do an imitation of Cechmanek after a save and try to make it look like the Hulk. Well, the whole place starts to laugh and Lindy sees a moment where the guys release all their tension.

Everybody is laughing, and from the back of the room one of the players says, 'Thanks Eugene.' I look back and I go, 'Who's Eugene?' The place starts to crack up again.

Well, it turns out that apparently I look like the actor Eugene Levy from the "American Pie" movies.

So, as intense as it gets, with the fear of the unknown for a lot of guys, there's a moment where they felt some relief and could collectively say, 'Yeah, we can do this.'

We chased Cechmanek from the net that night after four goals and we won the game 8-0 to win the series in six games.

The levity helped, but it didn't take away from their focus on every little detail of the game and it didn't stop the coaches from preparing them to be ready for anything.

 

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The preparation that goes into a playoff series is unlike anything coaches do in the regular season.

You do a prep for every game in the regular season, with a couple bullet points on what the guys are going to do, but in the playoffs, you're looking at the top three guys and what they do, and at the next tier of top guys and what they do. Top teams usually have more depth so the work and detail for your third- and fourth-liners has to be greater.

The meetings are more in depth because you also have more time.

Prior to a game during the regular season it's 'OK, hurry up, because we're playing tonight, and tomorrow it's the next group.'

You use your extra time in the playoffs to pay more attention to what the other team does. You don't do that as much in the regular season, when the focus is typically on what you do.

In the playoffs, you can talk about how a guy plays, but how also to get in his head, how to impact his emotional side. You want guys to go chin to chin. You'll see more pushing and shoving as players get tighter to the net.

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The key here is that in the regular season you do your prep work in broad strokes. In the playoffs, it's detailed strokes.

But the head coach also has a different view on bench management. You don't want to be exposed, so quick changes are important. The emotional quotient is elevated and guys are more desperate, so if you take long shifts you just won't survive.

I was talking to Brad Shaw, an assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets, about penalty killing in the playoffs and he brought up how it's ideal to have six changes during a two-minute kill. Those 20-second shifts are usually 30-to-45 seconds in the regular season.

Generating offense in 5-on-5 play is harder in the playoffs because net accessibility is typically reduced. I'm not sure the shots on goal will be reduced, but the chances and rebounds will be. That accentuates the power play and, of course, the penalty killing.

If you're killing with fresh players you can turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

The skill guys are going to be tested much more in the playoffs because players are going to try to get in their heads.

You don't get as much of that in the regular season, when you might see a team once in November and once in February. Short memories are harder to have in the postseason, which is why the intensity ratchets up, and by the end of the first round we're all saying the same thing.

"Boy, was that great."

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