April 14, 2011
Before each and every playoff series, hockey teams hunker down to do their homework, getting thoroughly prepared to go to war against whoever's next on their playoff checklist. Unlike the regular season, you actually have the time and reason to worry about more than just your own squad.
Inside those meetings, you get the chance pick apart your opponent. The focus falls squarely on two areas: personnel and X's-and-O's.
When it came to personnel, most coaches have some form of what my junior coach referred to as the "Circle and Block Theory" for dealing with the guys wearing the wrong colors (not all coaches use circles and blocks, of course, but the message will be the same).
With the opposing line-up on the whiteboard, this is the rare opportunity for players to speak up in meetings, giving their two cents on the strengths and weaknesses of ex-teammates as to determine who gets the circles, who gets the squares, and who remains sans-attention.
The circled names are the guys you want to pester until they need to be put in a room with padded walls. You stick 'em, you chirp 'em, and you hack and whack and generally make their life as miserable as possible. The best guys to dig at (and thus the ones most likely to be circled) are the ones we in the media refer to as "enigmatic," a not so subtle euphemism for "inconsistent."
Names like Evgeni Malkin(notes), Alexander Semin(notes), and Marian Gaborik(notes) — these guys are guaranteed to have extra shots taken on them. They'll get facewashed in post-whistle scrums and have each and every check finished on them. Ideally, the goal is to get these players into "y'know what, I'd just rather not take this puck to the danger areas anymore" mode.
The squares — or blocks, if you will, for "blockheads," are the complete opposite. These are the guys you utterly ignore, since the only way they're effective is if they're getting under players skin. As far as you're concerned, they cease to exist. Think Max Lapierre/Sean Avery(notes) types, the pests that thrive on heated verbal exchanges and adrenaline. All they want is attention, so the goal there is that the lack of it will either render them useless, or frustrate them to the point of taking stupid penalties.
The rest of the team, well, they might as well be generic, faceless players that you're going to beat using the next part: the X's and O's.
While teams will invariably have a multitude of power play breakouts, penalty kill forechecks, and ways to defend in the neutral zone, all have their preferences. As a coach, you simply can't inundate your players with too many ways to counter each and every possibility — they're only hockey players, after all - so you can make changes on the fly if and when things change. But first, you start with your competitor's preferences and focus on the best ways to beat those.
Hockey is a fluid game that doesn't allow for football-esque black and white plays. There's a lot of reading and reacting, so as a coach, all you can do is put your players in positions that give them the best odds of breaking up your opponent's breakout. It's all about minimizing odds.
In most cases, your forecheck will be based off what hand the defenseman behind the net is (and your forecheck will flip sides of the ice accordingly) — when they step out, you want to make sure you force him out on his backhand side so it's harder to make a breakout pass. From there, a coach should figure out what your rival's ideal breakout would be, and have his players in positions to angle them towards the bailout options they'd prefer not to take (for example, if they like to swing their center behind the net to grab the puck, maybe your coach has a guy mirror that center so he has to leave the puck with the d — you want to take away option A at all times, and make them have to beat someone one-on-one to advance zones).
In the regular season, you don't know who's going to be in your opponent's lineup, which breakouts they'll be favouring and you just play too many games to prepare the way you do for playoffs. But at this time of year (and in this video-available day and age), there's no excuse for being surprised by your opponent.
As a player, it's bizarre devoting time and energy on your opponent's game, as it's the complete opposite of the regular season, and different from the message that's been sent over the rest of the year — it was always "don't worry about them. If we just play our game and execute well, they won't be able to touch us." Not anymore.
It's a nice change — you still focus on your own game, but you do so with better knowledge of what your opponent is up to.
In the end, there's no such thing as over-preparing. Playoffs are a long haul — if you can minimize your output with good positioning (and by helping your opponent beat themselves), you'll be glad you paid attention during those meetings. Execute the plan well enough, and you may get to sit through four rounds of them.