The Stanley Cup playoffs are defined by many things. They're fast, they're exciting and they're high stakes. They feature games in which players spit out their teeth, calmly hand them to the trainer and keep going to turn in the best post-season performance of their lives. There's no doubt the Cup is the toughest trophy to win in pro sports, and the games are a test of endurance, toughness and strategy as much as they are of pure skill.
There are a couple of Stanley Cup cliches about how to win playoff games. Number one, they say, is to have superior goaltending. When all other things are equal, or even if one team's an underdog, a hot goalie can steal a game or more. Number two, according to the experts, is that defense wins championships. A solid D can shut down the best players in the world. We know cliches are true for a reason because we've seen Patrick Roy, Jose Theodore and Jaroslav Halak steal playoff series for the Habs. And we saw what happened to Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin when the Habs defensive blanket covered them up.
Perhaps undervalued in the lexicon of playoff advantages is the impact a coach can have. It's not so much in terms of systems or in-game adjustments, although those things matter. However, once the playoffs arrive, there's not much a coach can do to alter the patterns and habits installed throughout the season. No, at that point, the coach's role is different. Instead of being the guy who calls out the room or bag-skates a team after a bad game, or who calls an unwanted Sunday practice to work on the power play, he becomes an emotional bellwether. Players look to the coach for direction in what can be highly-charged games with very big consequences.
So, while the goaltenders in the Ottawa/Montreal Northeast Division quarter final have each had an excellent victory and the defense for each team has registered a win, Michel Therrien is beating the emotional pants off of Paul MacLean.
MacLean's "we're the poor underdog" routine before Game One was disingenuous and a disservice to his players, who fought hard all year to remain relevant. Therrien indulged in no such theatrics. He calmly said his team would rely on good goaltending and solid team play and would keep the style that got them to where they were. Therrien came across as being calm and professional. MacLean looked like his guys needed a reason to get pumped.
MacLean really lost his credibility as an emotional manipulator, however, after Game One, and the devastating hit on Lars Eller that left the Habs player bleeding and unconscious. Rather than take the high road and say it was unfortunate to see a player hurt, or he'd wait to see what the league decided, he decided to blame Canadiens Raphael Diaz for making the pass Eller was receiving when he got hit. Not only that, but in pretending he didn't know exactly who'd been hit or "Player 61's" name, he look like a smug, rank amateur. That's when Therrien ate him for lunch.
His reaction was masterful. He talked about how he was so hurt inside to see a fine player like Eller bleeding like that. He got angry when asked about MacLean's comments, but refused to stoop to his level and talk about blame on the hit. He was the soul of the righteous wronged and he set the emotional tone for his team. (His reaction may also have had something to do with Gryba's two-game suspension, but we'll never know for sure.) Make no mistake, if Brandon Prust wasn't following the lead of his coach, he would never have felt free enough to call MacLean a "bug-eyed fat walrus." Therrien's show of emotion allowed his players to react with passion as well, and that gave them the mood they needed for Game Two.
With the absence of not only Eller, but Max Pacioretty and captain Brian Gionta as well, the Canadiens needed to rely on the scrubs to take their places. Those are players who need an emotional touchstone to play their best. Ryan White needed a chance after his over-the-edge play cost the team earlier in the year, and he needed the coach to have patience and faith in him. Therrien provided both, and he also gave White the charge of passion he needed to play his best game in the NHL. Jeff Halpern, Colby Armstrong and Gabriel Dumont are loyal soldiers who react well to the feeling that they're fighting in the trenches. With his words and actions, Therrien gave his team someone to rally around, and helped create the feeling he wants his players to carry onto the ice.
It may not be a playoff cliche that among coaches the best emotional manipulator wins, but that's what happened last night. Therrien, having learned from going too far in the past, has become a master. MacLean may win coach of the year, but Therrien knows a few tricks the Walrus still can't pull off.