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Youngsters can make a difference in playoffs

by Larry Wigge
I've seen a lot of first-year players grow up fast under the pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- and this year could be another of those years.

We too often hear about how veteran skill and experience are so important down the stretch and in the playoffs -- and that's no stretch, don't get me wrong. But veterans will often talk about the energy youngsters can provide in this fast-paced game.

Who can forget the young New York Islanders' success in winning four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-83 and the eager Edmonton Oilers in their five Cup victories in seven years from 1984 through 1990? Or how about that goaltending battle of rookies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon in which Roy's Montreal Canadiens beat Vernon's Calgary Flames in 1986, or those exciting Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr-led Pittsburgh Penguins teams of the early 1990s? Those were all young teams, young players, making their way.

Some may say that's ancient history. But wasn't it just three years ago that we watched rookie goalie Cam Ward step in for Martin Gerber in the first round of the playoffs and lead the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup? And didn't Carey Price take over as the No. 1 goalie in Montreal at the trade deadline and carry the Canadiens to a big first-round playoff victory against Boston?

I don't think you look at a player's birth certificate and say he can't do this or do that. If you don't believe me, take it from Wayne Gretzky, whose eyes have been opened by the young players in today's game now that he's the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes and never looks at the age of his young team as a handicap.

"I can't speak for the other teams, but this group of young players we've brought into the NHL the last few years is more prepared to play," Gretzky told me a while back. "With the salary cap we have in place, there's a reason to supplement your roster with some entry-level salaries. It's becoming more of a young man's game, but that kind of statement doesn't do justice to what these kids have done for our game.

"I'm not just talking about the elite players. I'm not just talking about the superlatives we can say about the Sidney Crosbys, the Alex Ovechkins, the Evgeni Malkins, the Jonathan Toewses and Patrick Kanes. Young players on the whole are more ready to play. They've been taught to eat better, train better and I think they are coached better in juniors and college.

"There's no hesitation with a lot of these youngsters. They see players they've played with and against getting the opportunity to play at this level and it's only natural that they wonder, 'Why can't I do it, too?' "

They come in all sizes and shapes, ages and backgrounds -- trying to make their NHL playoff debut a memorable one.

I've seen so many of those performances up close and personal. But to me, there are none better than the stories of Ken Dryden and Jeremy Roenick.

Dryden, fresh off the campus of Cornell University, was a tall goaltender who played in just six regular-season games, but he led the Montreal Canadiens out of the doldrums to a Stanley Cup in 1971. Les Habitants were in the midst of a swoon after missing the playoffs the previous year for the first time in 22 years. They entered the 1971 playoffs with an unproven netminder, but all Dryden did was beat the Blackhawks at Chicago in Game 7 to earn Montreal another Cup.

The other playoff memory happened in 1989, when the Blackhawks faced the St. Louis Blues in the Norris Division Finals. The grit, determination and leadership of Jeremy Roenick, a 19-year-old Boston kid who passed on a scholarship to Boston College to turn pro, created a legend in Game 5 of that series that youngsters like Toews and Kane would be wise to study before they make their NHL playoff debuts.

I remember walking into the locker room afterward and seeing this kid smiling behind two broken teeth, with blood still oozing out of a cut across the bridge of his nose that required eight stitches to close and more blood on his undershirt.

Earlier that night, at the old St. Louis Arena with the Blues leading 1-0 in the second period of a hotly contested game, Roenick went up against men and prevailed. It was one of those heroic performances you never forget.

Blues defenseman Glen Featherstone stood 6-foot-4 and about 215 pounds. Roenick was 5-10, 160 pounds soaking wet ... maybe. But in the heat of the action, Roenick kept his wits about him after a series of cross-checks between the two that infuriated Featherstone to no end before he took his stick and rammed it into Roenick's face.

"Your first instinct is to spit the teeth out," Roenick said afterward. "But I kept them on my tongue so I could show them to (referee) Kerry Fraser."

The kid's smarts earned Featherstone a five-minute major for cross checking, compared to the two minutes Roenick was assessed.

With the teams skating four-on-four, the speedier Hawks scored twice in an eight-second span to go ahead 2-1. When Roenick came out of the penalty box, he scored a power-play goal -- the game-winner -- in a 4-2 victory that won the series, sending the Blackhawks to the Campbell Conference Finals against Calgary.

Too young to make an impact? Nonsense.

"When he came to the bench, I'll never forget hearing this 19-year-old kid say to his teammates, 'Let's get the job done,' " Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan explained. "This kid showed us how the young can lead."

That impressive youngster sounded like a 30-year-old veteran that night when he said, "If you get hit, you get hit. You get sewn up and come back and play. If you get beat up, you come back for more.

"I'd take 15 more in the face if it meant winning a division title like that."

Roenick felt it was an acceptable sacrifice, a Red Badge of Courage.

This season, we've already seen a whole group of young, character players ready to take a hit to help provide some playoff success for their teams.

Watch and learn.

Stepping up ... and out -- Defense doesn't rest -- at least not on teams that compete in playoff time, where the key to attacking opposing defenses is to have a transition game that can catch opponents flat-footed.

"The Sharks have added a winning element to their lineup with Stanley Cup champions like Dan Boyle and Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich and Travis Moen," St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray said recently. "But the key to their success this season has been a defense that moves up on the play and attacks."

The bottom line of this Sharks' backline is that Boyle, Blake and Christian Ehrhoff have all surpassed the 30-assist mark and Marc-Edouard Vlasic had 29 entering the weekend.

More than a depth perception -- One-line teams don't make it in the playoffs. That fact has been proven over and over again. In fact, some might argue that teams that live off the production of one line like the Tampa Bay Lightning and mercurial stars Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis or the Ottawa Senators with the high-powered line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson are getting ready for the end of the season.

Some in Boston have wondered about the slumber of the Bruins. They needn't look any farther than the injuries that knocked wingers Phil Kessel and Michael Ryder out of the lineup and rendered them ineffective for a while now.

But things are looking up with the B's. Kessel and Ryder are back and they are showing signs of adding the depth it takes to win in the playoffs -- not to mention help make Boston's other top six forwards Marc Savard, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Milan Lucic more effective.

With Kessel back for his first game April 7 at Ottawa, Savard remarked, "We were off a bit on the wing tonight. I tried to hit him a couple of times and I was ahead of him. Usually he's like lightning out there. He was a little bit off, but he's going to get better before the playoffs. He's definitely a big addition for us."

Kessel may be a little off, but he still netted his team-leading 32nd goal in his return.

Defending the net -- There are plenty of secrets of being successful in the playoffs, the most pressing is goaltending, goaltending, goaltending.

There's no stop gap for having a stopper in April, May and June.

For the record, only five goalies with Stanley Cup championships on their resumes figure to make the playoffs this year: Martin Brodeur (three Cups), Chris Osgood (two on his own), Nikolai Khabibulin, J-S Giguere and Cam Ward (one apiece).

And while both Osgood and Giguere were struggling, no one was hotter down the stretch than Carolina's Ward, who started a career-best 27 consecutive games following a 9-0 drubbing of the New York Islanders on April 7. During a stretch from March 1 on, he was 13-1-2, two shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.97, and Ward was honored with the NHL's First Star for March.

Next game, I promise -- After Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock watched his team get shut out by the New York Islanders and then fall in the third period against potential playoff matchup teams in Nashville and St. Louis, he said enough is enough.

"Obviously, the message ain't getting across, there's not enough urgency for the teams we're playing," he said angrily, putting an emphasis on better play defensively by all five players on the ice. "Right now, our goal scoring can't keep up to our defense."

Babcock was asked if he was mad.

"Mad is an interesting word, frustrated is a waste of time," he shot back. "This is un-Red Wing-like and not good enough."

Following that 5-4 loss to St. Louis on April 2, the Red Wings had grind-it-out 3-2 and 4-1 victories against Minnesota on April 5 and Buffalo on April 6, respectively.

Coaching 101 -- It looks like some of the teams are finally getting the idea. You don't change simply for the sake of change. That's an abdication of leadership.

Pick the right guy in the first place and you don't have to go through a coaching carousel. Use common sense in finding a teacher for the young rosters we now have in the game, plus someone with good communication skills and a game plan to compete in a sport that is more up-tempo than ever.

Of the seven in-season coaching changes, six posted winning records. Here's the records from the time of change to April 9:

Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh 16-3-4
John Tortorella, N.Y. Rangers 20-9-2
Paul Maurice, Carolina 33-17-5
Joel Quenneville, Chicago 43-22-11
Cory Clouston, Ottawa 19-10-3
Bob Gainey, Montreal 6-5-3
Rick Tocchet, Tampa Bay 19-31-14

So often these replacement coaches are just around for the remainder of the season ... and then gone. For four of them at least, there's much more coaching to come.

Not a power-play guy, but ... -- Alex Burrows' performance has certainly been powerful for the Vancouver Canucks since he was put on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin in St. Louis on Feb. 10 -- he had 16 goals and 11 assists in 28 games, after getting just 12 goals and 12 assists in his first 52 games.

But the number that stands out with Burrows is that he has no power-play goals. And only Winnipeg's Doug Smail (31 goals) in 1984-85, Los Angeles' Mike Donnelly (29) in 1991-92 and Boston's John Wensink (28) in 1978-79 had so many goals without getting a man-advantage tally.

"I can't speak for the other teams, but this group of young players we've brought into the NHL the last few years is more prepared to play. With the salary cap we have in place, there's a reason to supplement your roster with some entry-level salaries. It's becoming more of a young man's game, but that kind of statement doesn't do justice to what these kids have done for our game."
-- Wayne Gretzky

Things that make you go hmmmmmmm -- It's OK to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and that your favorite team has a chance to win the Stanley Cup, but statistically speaking, the last time a team that didn't finish in the top five in the final standings and won the Cup was the 1995 New Jersey Devils. Before that, it was the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. In other words, seeing the 2006 Edmonton Oilers make it to the Final before losing to the first-overall Carolina Hurricanes was exciting and gave us hope that Cinderella could win. But it's not likely. ... There was still an outside chance that all five members of the Central Division -- Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis and Nashville -- would qualify for the playoffs with just a couple of games left in the season. Rare? It hasn't happened since the 1980-81 season, when the old Adams Division placed Buffalo, Boston, Minnesota, Quebec and Toronto in the playoffs. ... Sami Pahlsson may have had only one goal in his first 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks, but the team was 7-2-2. That, my friends, is the depth and experience of a Stanley Cup champion showing through down the stretch. ... Remember how difficult it was for opponents when Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle could put out Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin on defense one shift and then come right back with Chris Pronger and Sean O'Donnell the next? The resurgence of the Ducks late this season has a lot to do with GM Bob Murray finding Ryan Whitney to play with Pronger and James Wisniewski to play alongside Niedermayer at the trade deadline. And Beauchemin, presumed lost for the season in October, looks closer and closer to a return. ... First-year players for the Detroit Red Wings have been known to put up some big numbers. In fact, Marian Hossa became the fourth player to score 40 or more goals in his first season with the Wings -- joining Danny Grant (50 goals in 1974-1975), Dino Ciccarelli (41 in 1992-1993), and Brendan Shanahan (46 in 1996-1997). ... Jonathan Toews' 56 goals in his rookie and sophomore seasons combined is the most for Chicago since Jeremy Roenick had 67 goals in his first two seasons. ... Toronto scribes are poo-pooing the additions of college free agents Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson, saying they are more like Ray Staszak than Adam Oates -- college kids who went undrafted and yet got big bucks a couple of decades ago. There's no guarantee, of course. But look at how Anaheim supplemented their championship roster in 2007 with college free agents Andy McDonald, Dustin Penner and Chris Kunitz. Bill Torrey once told me you can't use a cookie-cutter approach to building a championship team like he did primarily through the draft -- you have to procure players from scouting the minors, college and NHL free-agent signings and trades. And the entry-level salaries of $850,000 in today's economy are far less than the $1.3 million Detroit forked over for Staszak out of the University of Illinois-Chicago back in 1985, right? Oh, by the way, Hanson already has a goal and an assist in four games for the Leafs. Staszak wound up with just one point in his days with the Red Wings. ... Speaking of Toronto, isn't it a terrific story about how Mikhail Grabovski could shift from the wing to center and be better individually and for the team since the Leafs traded Nik Antropov to the New York Rangers? ... Last week, we gave a little testimonial to the skills checker-turned-No. 1-line-winger Ryan Callahan has displayed since John Tortorella became coach of the Rangers. Now, Tortorella is taking it a step further by saying he thinks Callahan could score 35 goals next season. ... Recently, St. Louis coach Andy Murray was talking about Detroit's top three on defense -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall as the best threesome in the game. Then, he wondered aloud about the best defense period. It didn't take him long to suggest that Vancouver with Kevin Bieksa, Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell, Alexander Edler, Ossi Vaananen, Shane O'Brien and Rob Davison would be his choice. ... Here's a number than could knock your eyes out: San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov posted 40 wins in just 58 games this season. Now that's efficient. ... No one in the St. Louis hierarchy is moaning about having to match Vancouver's three-year, $7.5 million offer sheet last July any more as being more than they wanted to spend on Backes. Not now that Backes has gone from 13 goals to more than 30 and rescued the team when he agreed to move from wing to center when St. Louis had a number of injuries in the middle. ... Last season, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was far and away the best waiver wire pickup in the NHL. This year, look at the contributions Kyle Quincey made on defense in Los Angeles, center Rich Peverley made in Atlanta and don't forget the two-way play of B.J. Crombeen in St. Louis. ... Claude Giroux (at 22 in the NHL Entry Draft) is just another tribute to the job Philadelphia Flyers scouts have done with late first-round draft picks where other teams miss more than they hit. Luca Sbisa might be another one in time. Others in that list include Mike Richards, Justin Williams, Simon Gagne and Brian Boucher. ... Mixed feelings? Naw. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis wants to see his nephew Matt Pelech do well in his stint helping fill in for injured Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr. It's a great story, but the success on the job stops there when the Flames are doing battle for top spot in the Northwest Division with Gillis' Canucks. ... From the best trades we didn't make department: Nikolai Khabibulin, who didn't help the Blackhawks in his first three years after leaving Tampa Bay to sign a big free-agent contract and was on the market in trade earlier this season, now has a 23-8-7 record and is enjoying his best season since leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2003-04. ... Remember those Dale Hunter predictions about what a great leader Rick Nash could become after he left Hunter's London junior team and went to Columbus as the first pick in the 2002 Entry Draft? In his first full season as captain, Nash leads the Blue Jackets to their first ever playoff berth. We heard you, Dale. ... Like David Backes in St. Louis, Travis Zajac is one of those big bodies doing a pretty good job of centering a top line at the NHL level. And doing it with former University of North Dakota buddy Zach Parise makes the story even richer, doesn't it? ... Since putting recently acquired wingers Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz on a line with Sidney Crosby, the production of Ruslan Fedotenko with Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora has been downright amazing. Add to that Jordan Staal with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, and it's easy to see why the Pittsburgh Penguins have been on such a roll since Dan Bylsma became coach. Depth. Depth. Depth. ... Big, strong forwards. That's been the topic of conversation when opposing teams talk about the success of the Washington Capitals. But there's still room on coach Bruce Boudreau's roster for a too-small (5-8, 165 pounds), 30-year-old career minor leaguer like Keith Aucoin. A never-give-up energy has given Aucoin a shot at providing the Caps with some much-needed secondary scoring down the stretch and into the first round of the playoffs. Not a bad memory for a guy who got started on his career at Norwich (Vt.) University, eh?

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