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Keenan knows Game 7 pressure

by John McGourty
Unless you've played for the ultimate championship in your sport -- and most of us haven't -- it's hard to understand the feelings that players for the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins are having as they prepare for Friday night's Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).

Longtime NHL coach Mike Keenan has been there twice, winning once with the 1994 New York Rangers and losing in 1987 with the Philadelphia Flyers. As a result, Keenan has insights into Friday's game that few other people have. He shared those thoughts with Is there a sense of desperation for both sides, since each has won three times and lost three times to the other?
"I think there is, certainly the team that tied the series feels they have an element of momentum. When you go into Game 7, the fun aspect is that it is the final game of the season and it's for the Stanley Cup. When you approach it that way, both teams have that level of readiness and preparation, knowing it will be final. At the end of the evening, there will be a winner and a loser. I've been on both sides of that ledger and losing is not a lot of fun but winning is an incredible experience."
Is the home-ice advantage insurmountable? Your Flyers lost Game 7, 3-1, on the road in Edmonton and your Rangers won Game 7, 3-2, at home in Madison Square Garden? Close games, but advantage home team?

Keenan: "The statistics support that. Of the last 16 Game 7s, the home team has won 14. I can remember the New York media asking me why I was pressing my team so hard to win the President's Trophy in the final weeks of the regular season and my response was fortuitous, it was 'I want to play Game 7 of the Stanley Cup in Madison Square Garden.'

"Having the experience of losing on the road in Edmonton and knowing the importance of home-ice advantage, where you get the last change, if you want to match up players, you have a better opportunity. You also have the support of the crowd and statistics have proven that to be important. There's a great deal of pressure on the officials when they are in these situations. They can feel the building and they know it's going to be electric.

"Detroit will feel that support and energy Friday night. There haven't been many visiting teams that have been able to overcome all those things." If you are the home team, is there comfort in knowing the home team has won an extraordinary number of times?

Keenan: "You don't take any comfort at all. It's something else. I remember going into our dressing room in New York before Game 7 and there was a certain level of confidence, whether it was based on statistics or just the confidence of that group. I knew that it was a different feeling than the one we had with Philadelphia going into Game 7 in Edmonton.

"We had a very young team in Philadelphia but it was their second time to the Final in three years, kind of like Pittsburgh this year. I remember in New York, we had the level of confidence among the players and we were looking forward to the game because of the energy level in the building and the hype around it. The players are energized by it, moreso the home team than the visitors." Does it make a difference if you won or lost Game 6? How much momentum do you get from winning Game 6?

Keenan: "We won Game 6 in Philadelphia to go back to Edmonton for Game 7, which we lost, and we lost Game 6 in Vancouver to go back to Game 7 in New York, which we won. So, no, I don't think it matters at this point. With two days off before the game, that will make a big difference. It gives players another day off to recover physically, mentally and emotionally. It really makes a difference for veteran players who are playing a lot of minutes. The health of your club is very important.

"When you get to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, a lot of things that matter during a season, or even earlier in the playoffs, don't matter. It's one game, winner take all. It reminds me of when I played in the NCAA and Canadian college hockey, win or you're gone. That's where these two teams are now."
The Rangers were up three games to one before you lost Games 5 and 6 to Vancouver, but you said there was no tension before Game 7?

"No tension at all. Once we got to Game 7, it dissipated. Any negative feelings we were feeling had dissipated. We were very confident. I remember specifically recognizing that with our group. They were very confident going into the final game. Detroit has gone way beyond their Game 6 loss in their thinking, especially with two days to process it."

"Hockey is a game of momentum, whether you're on the power play, killing penalties, playing five-on-five or four-on-four, whatever the case may be. Scoring first would help Pittsburgh ratchet down defensively while Detroit, the home team, would try to get the next one to run the momentum as hard as they can."
-- Mike Keenan How would you coach the start of a Game 7? Before the first goal, are you attacking or counterpunching, playing a neutral-zone trap and hoping to win with your transition game?

Keenan: "When I coached, we went for the offensive side of it and Edmonton always did. With Philadelphia, we knew that was coming and Pat Quinn, in Vancouver, always coaches an assertive and aggressive game. It's a matter of being on the offensive and trying to capitalize and score first.

"Hockey is a game of momentum, whether you're on the power play, killing penalties, playing five-on-five or four-on-four, whatever the case may be. Scoring first would help Pittsburgh ratchet down defensively while Detroit, the home team, would try to get the next one to run the momentum as hard as they can.

"The referees can make a difference. If you have two veteran referees doing the game, they've had that Game 7 experience. They'll be rock-solid in their calls and they'll try not to be part of the outcome." Do you coach a Game 7 the same way as you would if you were playing that opponent in the 20th game of the season, say a November game?

Keenan: "Good question and one that's difficult to answer but mostly, yes. It depends on the health of the team and the personnel, but there's nothing to hold back for in Game 7. You play the players most prepared and ready to go. You play your best players the most. I always agreed with Scotty Bowman and Sam Pollock that you win or lose with your best." With all the excitement and hype, how long does it take before it just feels like you're playing a hockey game?

"That doesn't happen in Game 7, this isn't just another hockey game. It's for the ultimate prize. That feeling doesn't come into the mix at all."
Do you address players before the third period?

"That depends on what's going on, but most likely you share a couple of views. Or some tips, maybe what to expect. It depends on whether you're winning or losing. You want to tell them what to anticipate from the opposition and the referees; what to expect from matchups and ice-time distribution. A lot of things come into consideration.

"I wouldn't spend a lot of time, just have something ready on the bench before or during the third period. I might have a strategy mapped out for when we are up or down a goal. I might have to use that strategy late in the game, or with our goalie out of the net. I might have to take a time out to stop or gain momentum. Time and score become very important. When you get this deep and have Detroit's experience, they understand this completely. With Pittsburgh's learning curve over two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, they probably understand that now too."
"Now, the experience of facing elimination becomes important. Pittsburgh has already had that game and won. Now, Detroit has to face elimination for the first time in this series. How will they respond?." -- Mike Keenan Under the new rules, can you play the style you won with in 1994?

"Our style with the Rangers was more fitted for the current rules than any other team then because we had dynamically proficient skilled players. We had Mark Messier, Alex Kovalev, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch, Steve Larmer, Sergei Zubov, Esa Tikkanen and Glenn Anderson. That's a highly skilled group, game-breaking players that could have easily played, for the most part, the game played today. We had a couple of players who would struggle today but we were suited for the game then and the game now." Finally, Mike, this is the second-straight year these teams have met in the Final. Is there any reason to expect a different result?

"This is similar to the case with us in Philadelphia in 1985 and 1987. Fundamentally, both teams were the same in those years. Has the learning curve been great enough for Pittsburgh? The emotional investment and commitment is there, I can see it in their play. They got blown out in Game 5 and came back and won.

"Now, the experience of facing elimination becomes important. Pittsburgh has already had that game and won. Now, Detroit has to face elimination for the first time in this series. How will they respond?

"What does this outcome mean for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury as opposed to what does it mean to Nicklas Lidstrom, who has won before? Or to Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk? That will be an interesting part of observing Friday night's game.

"When Wayne Gretzky played for me, he identified three parts of a run to the Stanley Cup, the regular season, the playoffs and the Final. You have to meet different levels of needs to be successful. The needs become greater as you go along. The competitiveness needs to become greater. I'm quite interested to see how this young group in Pittsburgh responds. Their level of desperation will be interesting to watch.

"They don't want this to slip away again, but they are up against the odds of the home-team advantage."
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