|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2010||[Print without images]|
CHICAGO -- Split up Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews or keep the Chicago Blackhawks stars on the same line? For Joel Quenneville, that's the question.
Push the Philadelphia Flyers to play a hard-driving style while maintaining a necessary measure of discipline on the ice? Peter Laviolette, that's your challenge.
As the Stanley Cup finals have reached this best-of-three stretch run, much of the focus has fallen on the coaches for the strategic decisions and motivational tactics that will affect the rest of this extra-tight, never-dull championship series.
So which part is more important? The in-game chess match or the between-games mental battle?
"It's a little bit of both," Laviolette said Sunday after the Flyers skated at the United Center before Game 5. "The X's and O's part, right now I think we're trying to execute our game to the best of our ability. I think there's small changes you make based on the opponent, but not drastic wholesale changes.
"I think staying loose is a big part of it. Like I said, the pressure, if you allow it, it can become crippling. You want to really check that off to the side. It will allow you to play your best hockey out there. I think that is really important for our group."
For the other side, too, of course.
After two straight defeats on the road for the Blackhawks, their first losing streak of the playoffs, and the weight of a sports-scarred city craving a title, Quenneville must help keep his players from being too tense.
"He just keeps it light for us," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "He exudes confidence, and that comes off on us too."
Confidence is a critical trait for any coach to be successful, but it might be the strongest suit for each of these stern teachers. Both bench bosses have refused to publicly express any real concern regarding negative developments for their teams and have toed the line between disrespecting the opponent and giving the other guys too much credit. At the podium with the media, they've struck the balance between keeping a fire lit under their players and defending them from criticism.
Gamesmanship has a place in this, too. Laviolette said it was "human nature" for the Blackhawks to begin to play with "desperation" after being asked if the Flyers have put pressure on their opponent.
Laviolette was then asked Sunday if line changes by the Blackhawks would make it more difficult for him to keep Chris Pronger and the Flyers' other best defensemen on the ice at the right times.
"We have confidence in all of our players on the ice, whoever goes out there," Laviolette said. "We're not going to change too much on what we're doing. I can't speak for what may or may not happen, because I'm not sure where they're going with their changes or with their systems or who is starting in net. Those are answers that I don't have."
There was little mystery about whether Antti Niemi would stay in the lineup, yet Laviolette found an opportunity to subtly and softly raise doubt about Chicago's goaltending situation after Niemi gave up four scores in both Game 3 and Game 4 in Philadelphia.
Quenneville was more blunt when discussing Pronger, who has been a 6-foot-6 constant pest at the blue line and near the net for Kane, Toews and Dustin Byfuglien during the series.
"He's what he is. We have to be more physical, and we have to be harder on him and make it tougher," Quenneville said.
For all the psychological factors in play, the decisions made during the games the rest of the way will get plenty of scrutiny. Hockey moves so fast that it's harder to analyze coaching the way the sports world is all over bullpen management in baseball or goal-line play-calling in football. But there's been a lot going on in this area in this series.
Both coaches have so far stuck with their goalies and made low-profile lineup changes with third-unit defensemen and third- or fourth-line wingers.
Laviolette has effectively sent Pronger and Matt Carle as well as second line forwards Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino to match up against Kane, Toews and Byfuglien, prompting Kane to recently credit that forward group for being well-coached enough to backcheck and play them in the right spots on the ice. An aggressive forecheck ordered by Laviolette has also helped slow the speedy Blackhawks and force more turnovers than they're used to.
Quenneville took the blame for a shift change that helped the Flyers score the overtime winner in Game 3, acknowledging the risk of matching lines against specific opponents.
Quenneville already slid Kane down to skate with Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg in the third period of Game 4, using Andrew Ladd with Toews and Byfuglien. The coach acknowledged Sunday he was considering changes again, but he declined to specify. He downplayed the significance of such moves, as did his players -- citing frequent line switches during the regular season.
Said forward Patrick Sharp of the much-discussed topic of splitting up Kane and Toews: "I think they played this season more apart than they were together. They are dangerous as a duo, and they are also good players with some other guys in there, as well. So whatever 'Q' wants to do, we're going to follow it and play our best."