Fri Apr 15 01:36pm EDT
More than any other sport, hockey is prone to having a few top-seeded teams get upset in the playoffs. True to form, a couple first-round games went the way of the underdogs Thursday night, a major first step in their quests to take down their respective Goliaths.
Teams that move past "superior" foes always seem to end up looking fairly similar, and that makes sense -- to pull off a successful upset, there's a certain recipe that needs to be followed.
The top dogs are inevitably going to have the puck more, and as the "lesser" team, you have to be OK with that. Simply having the puck equates to actual goals the same way dribbling a basketball equates to actually dunking it -- it takes a few more steps to make that happen.
So let them dribble all they want. You just need to make sure you keep them out of the danger zones with solid team defense.
Coaches enjoy yelling "keep them on the paint," (the yellow on the bottom of the boards). There's the expectation that a professional hockey goalie should be competent enough to stop any and all shots that come from out there (you listening, Vesa Toskala(notes)?), so as long as your group plays responsibly in their own end, you won't force your tender to either be Patrick Roy or end up with Dan Ellis'(notes) save percentage from Game 1.
Plus, when the puck is kept to the outside, you can flip the switch on step two of the upset plan — block shots.
When the Montreal Canadiens made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals as an eight-seed last year (and started their trend of making me look like an idiot with my playoff predictions), they proved just how valuable of a skill this is.
Well, here we are again: It's playoff time, and they went right back to putting their bodies on the line. A couple of players had the dubious honor of being the end point for 105 mph Zdeno Chara(notes) bombs, and showed no fear in doing it. That takes cojones - even I duck when he winds up, and I'm watching the game from a completely different state.
For the ones that do get through, you need the most obvious component of the upset to come through: Your goalie has to play exceptionally well. It helps to have a name in net like Ryan Miller(notes) or Carey Price(notes), for whom their average play damn-near lives up to that requirement.
If you combine the above three factors, it equals rage in the hearts of shooters — they can pull the trigger a hundred times a night, but when they're taken from outside of the danger zones, half of them are getting through and the rest are easily handled, you want to put your fist through a wall.
Or the goalie's face. Whichever's closest.
The less-talented group has to slow the game down, and that's the responsibility of the coach, who needs to be at the top of his game, too. It's not so much that he has to make his guys play the trap, he just has to have his guys on the same smothery page. The Buffalo Sabres aren't about to try to match the Philadelphia Flyers in a run-and-gun battle, so for them, it comes down to patience -- everybody play their position, wait for chances, and strike when the iron's hot.
Because you've placed an emphasis on patience, not falling behind early is crucial. As soon as you're forced to open up your style of play to catch-up, your goose is cooked. Everything you do is about staying in your shell and waiting. You're essentially trying to win a heavyweight fight using jabs, and it's not impossible. You just have to let your opponent punch himself out.
It all adds up to one advantage in particular -- if the play is largely in the underdogs' zone, that means the other goalie is getting cold. It's comparable to giving a friend a bunch of gimmes in golf before making him putt the ones for money at the end of the round. That goalie hasn't felt the puck much and he's not likely to be as mentally into the game, so you have the chance to take advantage of the cold goalie a couple times a night.
And suddenly, boom. Down goes Frazier.
I'm still not sold that Buffalo or Montreal will be able to take down either Philly/Boston Goliaths, but in Game 1, they both followed the upset manual to a tee. They've stolen home ice at the very least, and planted the seed of upset doubt.
The more that seed grows, the harder it will be for the Flyers and Bruins to kill it.