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This time of year is money time for coaches

by Larry Wigge
No panic. But there is an urgency in every move, every coaching decision down the stretch and in the playoffs. Welcome to money time for coaches. This crunch time is when coaching truly makes a difference.

Usually I reserve this theory until the playoffs, but this entire season has been so ultra-competitive that general managers around the National Hockey League are keenly aware that there are points to be made in the standings and behind the bench.

And that's part of the reason why we've already seen seven coaching changes this season. More important, we've seen the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens change voices behind the bench so late in the season.

Players have to be ready for battle -- and that means mentally prepared and motivated for these important games that mean playoff money at a time when the economy makes it imperative that whatever can be done will be done.

Listen to the carefully-thought words Montreal GM Bob Gainey, who replaced Guy Carbonneau behind the bench with just 16 games remaining in the season, used to announce the change:

"Our players were not emotionally engaged. ... We need to put in place button-pushing mechanisms. ... My task is to get players playing to their ability. ... I don't think anyone watching this team hasn't had the same questions over the last month or so."

That's not panic. It's a planned response to challenge a team that has not performed up to expectations.

And wasn't it interesting to see captain Saku Koivu have perhaps his best game of the season, as well as a solid outing from Carey Price in goal, in Gainey's debut behind the bench, a 4-3 overtime victory against Edmonton on March 10?

Usually we talk about adjustments, motivation and how they become ultra-important in the playoffs. Well, this long and tedious 82-game journey has become a playoff run for all but a handful of the NHL's 30 teams -- right now.

And here's more good advice from John Tortorella, who is just a few weeks into his new job behind the New York Rangers' bench after replacing Tom Renney:

"You can throw a million things at the players ... new systems ... but I've also thought we can over-coach at a time when the players have a lot on their minds," he said. "Look at it this way: It's still an instinctive game. You go out there and play."

Add Pittsburgh's new coach, Dan Bylsma, to the mix after he replaced Michel Therrien in February and ran off an 8-1-1 record in his first 10 games:

"You have to make it fun for the players. You have to give them something they can believe in. For us, that's trying to force the play with our offense, trying to dictate how the game is going to be played."

So you see, subtle adjustments with a lot of motivation is the key.

For those who were caught off-guard by Gainey's decision, don't forget the pressure to make this 100th anniversary season for the Canadiens something the fans never will forget.

You can put all of your attention on that, but you also can get to know Gainey a little, and the way he always has operated.

Here's a little story about Gainey the relentless competitor and leader: A year after Gainey coached the Minnesota North Stars to the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh in 1991, he offered these theories on how coaches really earn their money in the playoffs:

"As a coach, you prepare all season to get your players together and ready. You experiment with lines. You push certain players to see what they are capable of. You teach and motivate. You get in their heads. Give them direction.

"And then you're in the playoffs, where you expect your guys to be ready. That's when you develop an us-versus-them mentality. You prepare a game plan. Then, if that doesn't work out, you make adjustments. The key is to be fluid."

He had a big smile on his face.

"This is the fun time," he added.

I saw that same spark in Gainey's eyes when he was talking about the job at hand in Montreal. It was clear he knew his team wasn't ready or prepared for the playoffs, or this season's pre-playoff run.

That's not panic -- it's realism. It's a challenge to Gainey and the rest of the Montreal Canadiens to get their act together -- now.

More coaching -- In case you wonder about the staying power of Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, get a load of this number: The Sabres have a .601 winning percentage in the months of March and April since Ruff took over behind the Buffalo bench in 1997.

A baker's dozen? -- No, I prefer to look at it like a Mason's dozen -- just 12 games played at London of the Ontario Hockey League before Steve Mason's addition into the 2006 Entry Draft.

"We needed to be sure about what we were seeing when we saw it," Columbus Blue Jackets Director of Hockey Operations and Player Personnel Don Boyd said. "But two of the OHL games I saw him start, they were 50-save efforts."

Here we are less than three years later watching Mason, who was picked in the third round of that draft, stand on his head for the Jackets -- his 2-0 victory against Boston on March 10 tied him with Marc Denis for the team record of 27 wins in a season.

Want more? It was Mason's ninth shutout -- the most in one season by a rookie since Chicago's Tony Esposito had 15 in 1969-70. Besides Esposito and Mason, the only rookie goaltenders with at least nine shutouts in one season in the NHL's modern era (since 1943-44) were Hall of Famers -- Glenn Hall with 12 in 1955-56, and Terry Sawchuk with 11 in 1950-51.

One more stat -- the victory gave Mason a 10-1-0 record, 0.89 goals-against average and six shutouts against Eastern Conference teams.

Did he say snowball? -- On one hand, New Jersey Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner was talking about pride in avoiding back-to-back losses -- they haven't dropped consecutive games since Jan. 6-8 -- as New Jersey rallied from a loss on Long Island for a 3-2 victory against Calgary on March 10.

"It is a focus of ours, not losing back-to-back games," Langenbrunner said. "It has to be. You can't let things snowball. I think we've done a good job of responding when we've had a bad game or a tough loss. It's a good thing to have that we can elevate our game when things go bad."

The other snowball reference is a personal pride for Langenbrunner, who with a goal and an assist against Calgary now has 17 multi-point games this season -- all of which have resulted in Devils wins. Carrying that a step further, New Jersey has won the last 28 games in which he has registered at least two points since November 2007.

The defense rests -- Calgary GM Darryl Sutter told the Florida Panthers that his defense stands pat. That's how Sutter told the story of finally acquiring center Olli Jokinen after trying to obtain him from the Panthers last summer at the draft before deciding Florida wanted way too much at the time.

"They wanted a top-four defenseman, plus Matthew Lombardi and a first-round pick," Sutter said. "When you look at our top four, it's not hard to see we weren't about to give up either Dion Phaneuf or Robyn Regehr."

Sutter then added, "After we traded Alex Tanguay (to Montreal), we had two first-round picks and we offered both to Florida for Jokinen. When that didn't work, we made the trade for Michael Cammalleri."

At the trading deadline, Sutter obtained Jokinen from Phoenix (who dealt defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton, and a second-round draft choice to the Panthers). And in the end, Sutter wound up with the best of both worlds -- he had Jokinen and Cammalleri playing along with captain Jarome Iginla.

Ales in wonderland -- How long has it been since the Edmonton Oilers have been trying to find a linemate to go along with multi-talented Ales Hemsky?


At the trade deadline, the Oilers didn't get a center to work with Hemsky. But they did the next best thing -- they acquired his former Czech national team linemate, Ales Kotalik, from Buffalo for a second-round draft choice.

"It's not like he's going to jump in and it'll be magic the first game," Hemsky said. "But hopefully we can do something."

How close are the two?

"I actually found out that I was traded from Hemmer," Kotalik said. "He was watching on TV and sent me a text message before anybody called me."

The Eric/Erik show -- There's no denying the chemistry a couple of players can have, even if they haven't played together all season. Take Eric Staal and Erik Cole, who was recently brought back to Carolina in a deadline-day deal from Edmonton after working together with Staal for the previous four seasons.

Two games into his return to the Hurricanes, Cole helped Staal to his best offensive game of the season -- 4 goals and 2 assists in a 9-3 victory against Tampa Bay.

"It's a speed game with him and kind of opens up the ice," Staal said. "He brings that powerful stride where he can catch a defenseman flat-footed. That speed element really backs off teams. We're going to bring that speed to the game, and that fire, and hopefully create a lot of offense and help our team win some games."

Growing up in front of us
-- There's been a lot of pressure on Steven Stamkos, the first pick of the 2008 Entry Draft. But look at the numbers since he turned 19 on Feb. 7 -- 8 goals in 13 games, after getting only 6 goals in his first 49 games.

"The hardest part for me was living up to my expectations at the beginning of the year. For me, it was tough to handle that a little bit," he said. "It just boils down to confidence. Now I don't feel the urgency to force plays like maybe I did at the beginning of the year. I take time and make the right play."

Welcome back, Kurtis -- Back on the ice 11 months after he crashed into the boards and broke his femur in three places and needed surgery that required a steel rod and three screws placed in his left leg, Minnesota Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster made it back -- playing 9:28 in a 4-3 loss at Los Angeles on March 7.

Feel-good story? One of the best.

"I asked the doctor this summer if I could get a note from him when I was going through (airport) security, but they don't believe in that sort of thing," said Foster, who was injured last March 19 in San Jose after being pushed from behind by Sharks forward Torrey Mitchell.

"When I saw him (back) on the ice for the first time, I couldn't believe it," said Wild coach Jacques Lemaire. "This guy was limping; I said he would never play. But he's got so much drive to come back."

Risk/reward contract -- Tim Connolly is productive when he's in the lineup. Keeping him healthy, though, has been a problem for the Buffalo Sabres. That's why the new two-year, $9 million contract extension is perfect for both sides.

Considering the highly skilled center played in just 80 of 228 games after he signed his last contract -- a three-year, $8.7 million deal in 2006 -- the Sabres had to think long and hard about re-signing Connolly.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier thought ahead to this summer's free-agent possibilities and trades he could have made at the deadline, and said "For us, it is better than a trade."

Connolly had 31 points in his first 33 games this season, including 11 goals and 13 assists in 23 games since Jan. 17.

Goaltender interference? -- If you ask Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, a little bump or a crowd in front of him is just part of the job in the goal crease.

Said Luongo: "I kind of enjoy those challenges. The only thing is that sometimes it impedes me from making a save. As long as the ref can recognize that and call it off if there is a goal, then I have no problems with the bumps and the crowd."

Momentum building -- Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock hopes his players feel the same way he does in their quest for the team's first ever playoff berth.

"You can't rely on yesterday's energy," Hitchcock said before a recent victory against Detroit. "The one thing you can rely on is the momentum from the feeling, of feeling good and playing well."

The Greatest theme -- Florida coach Peter DeBoer trotted out an old analogy, but a good one to underscore his comments that playing .500 at this time of the year just wasn't good enough.

"It's like Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope in the ring," DeBoer said. "You trade punch for punch to keep you in the game and wait for that chance for a knockout. That's how we have to look at playing down the stretch."

Things that make you go hmm … -- It's hard to believe, but Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski became the first rookie this season to score in overtime, when he led the Maple Leafs to a 3-2 win against the New York Islanders on March 10. In case you were wondering, there were 11 overtime goals scored by rookies last season. ... Columbus' Steve Mason (3-1-0) is the first rookie goaltender to beat the Red Wings three times in one season since Chicago's Ed Belfour in 1990-91 (3-3-1). ... We've talked ad infinitum about the exploits of Washington defenseman Mike Green, but I bet you didn't know Green is tied with Buffalo's Thomas Vanek for the League-lead with 17 power-play goals -- and that no defenseman has ever led the NHL in that category. ... Strong finisher? Try young Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was 21-5-3 down the stretch in 2006-07 and 10-2-1 in 2007-08. This season, he's 12-4-2 since the All-Star break. ... Ottawa center Mike Fisher obviously gets stronger as the game goes on. How else would you explain that of the Senators' six overtime goals over the last two seasons, he's scored or assisted on five of them? ... Power players extraordinaire? Brendan Shanahan used to pride himself on being in the 30-goal/100 penalty-minute club season after season. In today's game, that fraternity is rather small -- only Dallas' Brenden Morrow made it last season. But at 20 and 100 you'll find some pretty intense performers. Last season Anaheim's Corey Perry, Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell and Pittsburgh's Ryan Malone were members. This season, that group already includes Hartnell (24, 119), St. Louis' David Backes (22, 147) and Vancouver's Alex Burrows (20, 107). Perry and Anaheim teammate Ryan Getzlaf and Malone (now with Tampa Bay) have the goals and are just a few penalties away from joining the club. ... Hitting the 20-goal mark for the eighth time is a pretty good measuring stick for an old stick boy, wouldn't you say? Congrats to Carolina's Ryan Whitney, who served as a stick boy for the Oilers in the 1980s. ... Vancouver defenseman Mattias Ohlund still is looking for a new contract, but he found the Canucks' record book the other night when his 321st career point tied him with Jyrki Lumme and Dennis Kearns for the most points in team history. ... When Erik Christensen was with Pittsburgh, I used to always wonder where that individual skill he showed in shootouts and his size and grit might someday take him. Anaheim getting the big center from Atlanta for prospect Eric O'Dell and moving Christensen to the wing alongside Getzlaf and Perry might finally give us some answers. It certainly showed in a recent 4-3 overtime victory against Vancouver, when Christensen had 2 assists plus a goal wiped out because of a controversial goaltender interference penalty called on Getzlaf. ... Growth and development. Those were the strong points John Anderson brought with him to Atlanta from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League this season. While others are pointing to the Thrashers and the draft, Anderson is starting to see some real progress. The addition of Rich Peverley to go with Todd White has given the team two solid centers, and look at the production from Ilya Kovalchuk and Bryan Little. Anderson hopes Anssi Salmela, obtained from New Jersey for veteran Niclas Havelid, can show the same kind of progress and join with top draft pick Zach Bogosian and rising youngster Tobias Enstrom to form the same kind of depth on defense. ... Sami Pahlsson has yet to play for the Chicago Blackhawks, but his presence at practice helped free Kris Versteeg from his center duties. Good thing -- in his 14-game stint at center, Versteeg had just 3 goals and 5 assists. He had 15 goals and 23 assists in 48 games on the wing. ... Salary-cap problems forced the Philadelphia Flyers to return winger Claude Giroux to the minors before the trade deadline. But the demotion didn't last long. Giroux is special. The 22nd pick of the 2006 Entry Draft has the hands and an aura about him that makes you certain he's going to score consistently in the NHL someday. ... The All-trade line? That's what they're calling Phoenix's No. 2 line of Matthew Lombardi (from Calgary) and Petr Prucha and Nigel Dawes (New York Rangers). Watch out for Dawes in Phoenix. He never got a chance to be on one of New York's top lines. He's already showing more confidence offensively for the Coyotes. ... Speaking of depth, when Joffrey Lupul scored his 19th and 20th goals of the season in Philadelphia's 4-1 win against Nashville recently, it gave the Flyers a League-high six players with 20 or more goals. Philadelphia was the only NHL team with six 20-goal scorers last season.

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