Thursday, May 8, 2014

Regular Season Beauty and the Playoff Beast

When you think about Claude Lemieux, you think about the playoffs. From very early in his hockey career, he was the kind of player who somehow performed on a higher plane when the pressure was on and the games really meant something. In 27 junior playoff games, Lemieux racked up 61 points. In 1985 he was the playoff MVP in the Q, which foreshadowed his future NHL post-season dominance. And, Lemieux didn't just raise his own game when it counted most. His passion inspired the players around him to be better too, which is reflected in the world junior gold-medal team, the Canada Cup winner and four Stanley Cup champions for which he's played. These days, with his playing years behind him, he's spending his spring watching others try to do what came so naturally to him, and he likes what he sees, particularly from his own first NHL team.

"There's a lot of really good teams," he acknowledges. "Unfortunately, only one can win. In the East, it's gonna come down to goaltending...always. It'll come down to the team that is great on special teams and stays healthy. I like the Canadiens right now because they're one of the healthiest, and they've got great goaltending. They could go a very long way."

Lemieux knows well the feeling of winning in Montreal. As a 20-year-old rookie in 1986, he scored 10 goals in 20 games to play a vital role in securing the franchise's 23rd Stanley Cup. He thinks that victory and the players he shared it with inspired the excellent playoff career he'd go on to have.

"I played, I believe, the last 8 or 10 games of the regular season. People ask if I felt the pressure of playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. I was just numb. I was just happy to be there. I was excited about the opportunity. I was always a pretty good tournament performer in my youth hockey career and that translated really well to the next level. Obviously, we had a wonderful run and ended up winning the Stanley Cup in my first year," Lemieux recalls.

He won three other Stanley Cups, with New Jersey and Colorado, taking home the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the 1995 playoffs. His 19 game-winning playoff goals are third all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull. He was unusual in that his average point production over his career was higher in the playoffs than in the regular season. Now, looking back at his post-season success with an analytical eye, he believes the intimate familiarity of teams embroiled in a close series inspired most players, but he was one of those who simply thrived in those circumstances.

"I think the more you play your opponents, the better it gets. You really get to know each other. You know their strengths and weaknesses. You know their patterns. Everyone is studying each other. Then it becomes a real true war of physical play, mental strength and just how bad you want it. And that's why I think my game suited playoffs a little bit better than regular season play. Other guys just disliked me even more, so mentally I was probably a pain to be facing for a six or seven game series, so they probably were glad to go home and not face me any more," he says with a wry laugh, referencing his chippy, abrasive, irritating style.

With all those Cup wins and special moments over 18 playoff seasons, you'd think it would be tough for Lemieux to pick a personal favourite. It turns out it's quite the opposite, though. When asked, he immediately recalls a goal most Habs fans of a certain age will remember as well, scored in Montreal during that very first run to the title.

"I always say the biggest goal I ever scored was against Hartford in, I think it was double overtime, Game 7," he explains. "I'm always going to remember that goal as my most exciting, memorable goal. I still remember scoring it and skating toward the bench and diving on the ice with all my teammates on top of me. It really struck me what it meant to win in Montreal when Larry Robinson was the last guy to congratulate me and he was hugging me and he wouldn't let go. It was just he and I pretty much left on the ice and he just kept hugging me, then he let go and I saw he had tears in his eyes. He was crying. I thought, this is crazy. This man has won so many Stanley Cups already and he's been around forever. But that is what winning does for you, and that's what it means to be a Montreal Canadien. It's quite special."

Lemieux says with his post-season record, he's often asked what it takes to be a winner. He believes players like Robinson and Bob Gainey set the example in Montreal, and he thinks that's why so many of his former teammates went on to win in other places.

"I say a lot of guys are born winners and they won't take no for an answer. Others can be converted. They can learn. It's something you can teach. It's easier to teach young players than older players, but then, I knew older players who didn't have the opportunity to win when they were younger. Bobby Carpenter, for example. He was a gifted goal scorer who'd lost a bit of speed and touch, and he learned to take on a different role as a checker. He took on a different role and became a winner, and he's forever a winner," Lemieux says.

He was happy to teach those lessons to young players on the teams he played for after he left Montreal. Now, he's got a son, 18-year-old Brendan, who's going to be drafted this year. He says he sees a lot of himself and his style in the boy he raised. And he thinks there's a smaller version of himself already playing for the Canadiens right now.

"Gallagher's a player in Montreal I admire. He plays a lot of the same game I played. Especially for a player of his size, he plays with tenacity, he's physical, he's in your face, he won't back down, he scores big goals and makes big plays. Players who have that desire, and that character and tenacity will go a long way in the playoffs." And is Gallagher's ire-provoking smile like Lemieux's too? "I think so!" he laughs.

This week, he says he'll be fighting his wife and daughter for the TV remote to see if the Canadiens can surprise the hockey world like they did during his rookie season. He knows good goaltending, good health and a solid lineup are important, and the Habs have those things, but the real secret ingredient to a long run is something he never lacked: belief.

"I don't think it's magic. I think everything runs downhill. From the top down, if you have winners at the top, it starts to spread. Losing spreads through your locker room quickly, but so does winning," he says. "Playoffs are always very exciting. There are surprises and players nobody knows about who play really well, and goaltenders and players who make a name for themselves. Playoffs are great."

If anybody knows the truth of that, it's Claude Lemieux.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Why even play the regular season, the hockey is so much better in the playoffs. I hope we draft his son. We pick at twenty? and Brendan is in high twenties but why not?