knew that if he was going to steal a game plan, he should borrow from the best.
So when the Philadelphia Flyers' assistant coach, who coordinates the team's defense, sat down to formulate a strategy for defending Alexander Ovechkin in the Flyers' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with the Washington Capitals, he knew just where to turn.
Murray was the coach when the Flyers advanced to the 1997 Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Leading the Flyers was the gargantuan "Legion of Doom" line of Eric Lindros (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), John LeClair (6-3, 226) and Mikael Renberg (6-2, 215).
The Flyers' trio had trampled all competition in the Eastern Conference en route to the championship series. In the first three rounds of the playoffs, Lindros racked up 11 goals and 12 assists; LeClair had seven goals and 11 assists, and Renberg had five goals and five assists.
It was assumed the Flyers would trample the Red Wings and their smaller defenders. But rather than try to match strength on strength, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman went with a different approach. He had his top defense pairing, Nicklas Lidstrom and Larry Murphy, use sound stick and body positioning to force Lindros, LeClair and Renberg into places they didn't want to be.
The plan worked, as the Flyers' threesome was taken out of their element and mostly kept off the scoreboard. They combined for three goals, four assists and a minus-12 rating as the Red Wings swept the Flyers to claim their first Stanley Cup since 1955.
So, Murray used Bowman's plan to help the Flyers get past the Caps in the teams' grueling seven-game first-round series.
"It's position, contain situation, make players play in small spaces, then you're looking for support from other people," said Murray. "We're looking to do the same thing with Kimmo. With Kimmo and Cobie (defense partner Braydon Coburn), you've got speed, you've got skill, you've got finesse against the Ovechkin line, and Ovechkin in particular. If you can keep everything in front of you as a defenseman, then close fast whenever there's an opportunity to take away time and space from good players, then you can defend on a pretty consistent basis.
"You're always drawing on situations that have happened over the years. You're learning from one of the best in Scotty and the game plan he had at that time. … Scotty was one of the best, there's no doubt."
Playing the role of Lidstrom for the Flyers was the veteran Timonen. The pair play similar styles in that neither is big or strong enough to put opposing forwards through the back boards; rather, they have relied on skill, smarts and positioning to become All-Stars.
"You can compare Lidstrom and Kimmo in how smart they are as players," said Flyers coach John Stevens. "Lidstrom isn't an overbearing physical guy, but he's extremely competitive and he's an extremely smart guy, and he reads thing and closes gaps. Part of his defense is how good he is with the puck and the decisions he makes with the puck, and those are all things you can say about Timonen."
"They're just very intelligent players," added Murray. "You watch Lidstrom still today, and as age grows on him, he's still one of the best defensemen in the League, in positioning and intelligence and reading and reacting, and that's where Kimmo is. … He's a very cerebral guy … positioning is everything and he's doing a great job right now."
At 5-10 and 194 pounds, Timonen also was smart enough to know he wasn't going to win anything if he was standing on the tracks when the No. 8 train arrived from Washington.
"I got to the NHL not by my size and strength, it's more my thinking of the game and being in the right position, hopefully all the time," Timonen said. "I can't out-hit him, that's not my game. I can't change my game now. It's more stay on him and when he gets the puck be on him all the time, stay on him, body him when you have a chance. I'm not that kind of (physical) player. I'm not that big of a guy. I can't change my game."
And his coaches weren't about to ask him to change now. Ovechkin scored the winning goals in Game 1 (Timonen wasn't on the ice) and Game 6, and had another goal in Game 7, but for long stretches, the Flyers were able to silence the League's leading regular-season scorer.
"He's a physical guy, he embraces the physical game," Stevens said. "You have to be physical at him, but you can't just run at him because he might just run you over and keep going. You have to contain him and you have to take his time and space away."
And for the most part, that's what the Flyers, led by Timonen, did.
Murray also saw similarities in how he handled the 1997 Cup Final to some of the decisions made by Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. Murray admits he struggled to find the right matchup for his trio of giant forwards, just like Boudreau did with Ovechkin. After experiencing the other end, Murray believes the matchup is in the defending team's favor.
"What happens in those situations is you as a team that's trying to get that player matched up, you change on the fly," Murray said. "And that's their best player, so he's not going to take him of the ice and limit his minutes, he's going to get him out there and let him play. … We can change two guys very quickly."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.