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Coaches Room

Coaches, players must work out kinks with Stanley Cup Playoffs looming

MacLean says maintaining focus is crucial as regular season winds down

by Paul MacLean / Special to

The Coaches Room is a weekly feature throughout the 2018-19 NHL season 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.

In this edition, Paul MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, discusses if a playoff-bound team can change its identity and work out of a funk just three weeks before the start of the postseason.

When a postseason-bound team struggles in the final month of the NHL regular season, it's important as a coach to make sure your team stays the course.

It's easy to get caught up in the panic going on around you. In bigger markets, fans are quick on the trigger to demand for change. All the while, the media is dissecting what is going wrong and trying to come up with solutions about how to try to fix it.

Believe me, the same discussions are being held in the coach's office. The trick is to shut out the white noise from the outside.

A good example is what happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs last week. A top-10 team in the League all season long, the Maple Leafs went 0-3-1 and allowed 23 goals in four games. 

Video: TOR@BUF: Mittelstadt nets own rebound for PPG

It's a good bet they will face the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round. A leaky defense will be the recipe for disaster against a lethal Boston team. Toronto coach Mike Babcock knows it, the Bruins know it, everyone knows it.

It's important that coaches and players maintain perspective when slogging through a funk like this. Every team goes through it over the course of the season. An 82-game schedule will have blips. That's just the way it works.

You can get out of these down times, even when they occur so close to playoff time.

The first thing is, identify the warts in your team's game. When momentum starts going against you during the course of a season, it exposes a team's weaknesses. As the losses build up, it even exaggerates them.

At this point, a coaching staff is well aware of a team's positives and negatives. Part of the solution is to find practice time to work on those things. Sure, you don't want to overwork your guys in the weeks heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially if you've already qualified for them. At the same time, you don't want to enter the first round struggling and still trying to find solutions.

This is the time to get answers, not three weeks from now.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to look at your remaining schedule and block off the appropriate practice time. It's the only way you are going to work out the kinks.

Part of the bugaboo that teams like the Maple Leafs went through recently involves the fact that they pretty much know where they are going to be slotted come playoff time; they're not going up in the standings, nor are they going down. As such, maybe between Games 65 and 75 of the season they can step back and take a deep breath while preparing for the playoffs.

Everybody knows that once the playoffs arrive, it's a different game with a different approach. Open ice disappears and becomes a premium. It's an old adage, but it's true: You do have to fight and scratch and claw for every inch of space. 

Video: CBJ@CGY: Gaudreau wrists one by Bobrovsky

Players know that. And believe me, they get embarrassed when they are on the wrong end of lopsided scores, especially this close to the postseason. Because if it happens in the playoffs, there are far more eyeballs focused on them.

The way to alleviate that is paying attention to detail.

To that point: One of the most frustrating things for coaches is when players try to get cute in the defensive zone, especially within five feet of their own blue line. Watch replays of how many opposition goals originate from turnovers that could have been avoided had the defensive team just taken the conservative play and cleared the zone. 

That's always the danger, especially for run-and-gun teams that start valuing style over substance. More often than not, that leads to "loosy-goosy" play in the defensive zone. That just doesn't cut it.

With a handful of games remaining in the schedule, there remains sufficient time for struggling playoff-bound teams to right the ship. If they haven't solved their woes by Game 1 of the first round, however, well, that's a different and far more pessimistic story.

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