Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Alanah McGinley on 05/07/08 at 06:16 PM ET
Today, the NHL set up a series of conference calls with the media, in part featuring:
- R.J. Umberger—Philadelphia Flyers, Center
- John Stevens—Philadelphia Flyers, Coach
The transcripts of their individual Q&A sessions are available below.
Q. How excited are you about facing your hometown team, especially the way you and the Flyers as a whole have been playing? Can you put into words the importance of having Danny Briere on your team and how he’s picked up his game in the post-season?
R.J. UMBERGER: For starters, I think I’m just more thrilled than anything to be playing in the Conference Finals. You don’t get many chances in your career to do this. It’s a great opportunity for us guys, especially us young guys.
Playing at home is just icing on the cake, to play home in front of all the fans and everything. It’s going to be a great time.
Your other question about Danny, he’s been a true leader for our team. He stepped up at the big times, scored big goals this year, really elevated his play in the playoffs. He’s a guy you can count on to go out there and just be an offensive threat every time he’s on the ice.
Q. Coach Therrien mentioned earlier there’s too much at stake for both teams for players to allow their emotions to get the best of them. As a player, how do you draw that line between being intense, physical, emotional and not letting it get the best of you?
R.J. UMBERGER: I think he’s correct. I think the players, especially on our end, we just need to be strong between the whistles. We need to finish our checks, be clean, just be hard to play against. You know, take the puck hard to the net, make the goalie have a tough time seeing the puck, make his day tough. Other than that, we’ve got to play hard to the whistle. The stuff after the whistle is going to put us on penalty and put them on the power play and those are things we can’t do.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about John Stevens, some of the changes you’ve seen in him since you’ve started playing for him in terms of his personality or in terms of his bench strength, if you’ve noticed a change getting this far in the playoffs.
R.J. UMBERGER: I think, like anybody, a player or whatnot, he’s a guy that’s gaining confidence as he goes further and further. I mean, this is his second year as head coach. First full season from the get-go, from training camp on. Now that we’re in the playoffs and everything, and our team’s coming together, it’s all from his leadership.
He’s a guy that prepares for every team great. We have our routines, our superstitions, but he’s a guy that studies the teams real well, prepares us, and executes it at practices with us.
I think he’s a great coach. He’s a great guy for us young guys. He believes in us. He plays us. All the players on the team love playing for him.
Q. He always seems to have such a calm demeanor, sort of low-key. Behind closed doors do you sometimes see a different side of him? Do you get a different taste of him than we might see otherwise?
R.J. UMBERGER: He keeps his emotions in check. He’s always a guy that’s even-keeled towards the press and everything. He’s our leader. He never gets overly emotional outside. But inside the locker room he, you know, has so much passion for us to win, for us to play well. That’s more what it is, it’s more about us playing well, us playing up to our capability and playing hard, playing Philly-style hockey.
You know, he definitely shows his emotion to us and gets excited at times. But he’s a guy that definitely knows how to keep his emotions controlled.
Q. I’d like to know if the Montréal series prepared the Flyers in any way to face the Penguins?
R.J. UMBERGER: Well, I think one thing we can take from that series is, you know, the key to Montréal’s power-play, not giving them the chances sometimes that we gave Montréal. Our penalty kill, although I don’t think our overall percentage was unbelievable, but there were times we stepped up and made important kills early in a game. I know five-on-three at home at one time starting the first period, things like that that were big for us.
But I know in this next series, moving on, if we want to continue, we have to limit the amount of power plays that we did give the other team, because this is another dangerous power play, just like Montréal.
Q. A lot has been made of Pittsburgh’s team being really young, an up-and-coming team. You look at the Flyers’ roster and you are probably on average maybe even a little younger. Can you talk about I guess this year maybe being a bit surprised as to how fast you came on as a young group, what that bodes for the future.
R.J. UMBERGER: Yeah, I think for the future there’s just gonna be a lot of great players on both teams, a lot of probably seeing each other down the future, just huge battles back and forth.
Our team, you know, after last season, no one expected us to be in this situation. But I think the guys that came back came back with the right mindset, worked hard. The new players that we brought in were just great players that add to this team. When you have that situation, it’s how fast you can come together and gel as a team. Throughout the year we did that. We had some hard times, but I think that made us stronger as a team, and right now we’re just all clicking together as one big unit.
Q. What have you learned since that first playoff series you played in ‘05/‘06 when you did receive that kind of—you were out of the series with a concussion. Was that kind of sticking with you the last couple years? Did you learn something about the differences between the regular season and playoff hockey at all?
R.J. UMBERGER: Yeah, that’s what I took from that. I did come back from the hit later on in the series and play. What I did learn from that series is the level it takes to play at the playoffs. You have to really rise your game up and be mentally prepared. It’s tough on your body. It’s tough to be focused. But you have to do it. You have to just get it done.
You know, everybody says it’s just another level. It’s a cliché, but it’s absolutely true.
Q. The Flyers have as much attention to their history as any U.S.-based team. Coming from Pittsburgh, going into that environment, what have you learned about the Flyers’ history and now being a part of it?
R.J. UMBERGER: I learned a lot about the history here. Wasn’t aware of it before I came. But I learned of the Stanley Cups in the ‘70s, the players, the types of players they had. You learn about the Broad Street Bullies, where they got that nickname from, how it just seems to stick here.
This is a city that is passionate about their sport. They’re desperate and waiting for another championship. They’re waiting for a team to be heroes. I think that, you know, it’s a great place, a great opportunity for us.
I think if we’re able to move on, I think it’s a city that will just honor us for the rest of our lives.
Q. It’s been 25 years, the Sixers won the last championship there in ‘83. Do you hear about that like every day?
R.J. UMBERGER: You know, you just hear about how it’s been a long time. Like I said, they’re starved for a championship. They’re just chomping at the bit for a team to do it. The team that does it next is going to be a team that is really going to be a team that is just looked at tremendously here.
Q. This might be a bit of ancient history. After you left Ohio State, you didn’t have a contract, you couldn’t agree with the Canucks, what did you do that year? How did you manage to keep your sanity when everybody else was playing?
R.J. UMBERGER: That’s a great question. Actually, it was tough. It was hard to not be playing. My whole life, that’s all I wanted to do, is play. It was the worst thing.
I did go half of the year up to Ann Arbor, the national program there, and practice with them. Once we got past the halfway part of the year, I came back home (loss of audio).
Q. You played so well against the Penguins in the regular season. Is there any added motivation when you play against your hometown team?
R.J. UMBERGER: Definitely. You know, you get excited to play there with everybody watching. More than anything, it’s the amount of emotion you have inside. The conference final now, I can just imagine it’s probably going to be one of the most intense times of my life.
Q. What do you have to do to continue the scoring pace that you had in the second round?
R.J. UMBERGER: Well, I don’t know if you can keep that exact pace up. For me personally, I just got to keep playing hard. A lot of second and third efforts, never quitting on plays, getting the puck to the net. I’ve been shooting the puck a lot more. Sometimes when you shoot the puck, it finds a way to get in the net.
Q. Can you talk about the importance of Danny Briere to this club, how he seems to have picked up his game to another level in the playoffs?
JOHN STEVENS: Well, yeah, it’s no secret when Forsberg left, we were in the market for a No. 1 center iceman. Ideally we were hoping he’d play with Gagne. But unfortunately Gagne was out all year. Danny made an immediate impact. Our power play was one of the league worst last year. We knew it was an area that needed to get better. We knew we needed a No. 1 center to play ahead of our young guys. With Danny and Kimmo, our power play got off to a great start, was the top two most of the year. Really down to the last 20 games of the year and the playoffs, Danny has got back to the level of play, five-on-five, that he had had before, and continued to be a big contributor on our power play. He really fit the role. He’s everything we hoped he’d be when he came here. Big game player, scores big goals in big situations for us. Is playing his best hockey as a Flyer now.
Q. Obviously it’s going to be an emotional, passionate series. Everybody talks about the bad blood. Do you address with your players, remind them they need to draw the line between that passion and emotion and physical play and not letting the emotions get the best of them?
JOHN STEVENS: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s a big key right now. The buildings are so intense. The fan support is just terrific. It tends to ratchet it up even more each step you go.
We want to be aggressive. We want to play with urgency and intensity. But if we’re undisciplined, we’re just neutralizing ourselves. That’s certainly something we can’t afford to do. We’ve seen the power play. We’ve seen two terrific power plays in Washington and Montreal already. You know, Pittsburgh, we all know dangerous their power play is. There’s always going to be penalties in the hockey game, but they can’t be unnecessary penalties. They’re going to put us at a disadvantage and keep their good players on the ice in a power play situation.
Q. I’d like to know if the Montreal series prepared the Flyers in any way to face the Penguins.
JOHN STEVENS: Yeah, you know what, it really did. The one thing I was really impressed with in Montreal was their defense, ability to move the puck. It wasn’t just one line. They had two really good lines, and the third line was effective as well.
If you look at Pittsburgh, you know, I think Pittsburgh is a little different just because their top three players are probably unlike anybody else with Crosby, Malkin and Hossa. I mean, they’re almost in a class by themselves. I think Koivu was a great player. They might even go up from there when you go up to Crosby, Malkin and Hossa.
Certainly had to be a real good awareness in terms of our team defensive player, the transition game, their ability to really create momentum on the power play. There are some similarities in terms of structure with Montreal and Pittsburgh, but I don’t see it getting any easier, that’s for sure.
Q. Do you feel the adversity this team faced last season and again this season with the losing streak has somehow played a part in the team coming together in the second half of the season and now the playoffs?
JOHN STEVENS: Well, I don’t know how much last year—I think last year was a difficult year on everybody. I think once it was over, I think everybody was looking forward and not behind.
But we had an awful lot of new players over the summer and at the end of the year last year. This group really needed time together to get to know each other and develop that bond, I call it affection, but a bond, get to know each other where they learn to trust each other. And I think that’s a process that takes time.
Certainly once we got beyond that losing streak this year, we got into a situation where we had to win games, had some continuity in our lines, we got healthy, we played our best hockey at the end of the year.
I do think it’s a process that takes time. You know, you can see the group now. These guys all know each other well. They have fun coming to the rink together. We’ve got great team spirit. But, again, that takes time to build.
Q. Can you just describe the play of Scotty Hartnell and what he’s meant to the team on the Briere line?
JOHN STEVENS: There’s been a lot of talk about Danny and Vinny and the chemistry they’ve had. We’ve tried different things. Hartsy’s been a really good fit there. He’s a big guy. He’s got good skills for a big guy. He’s a physical player. He goes to the net. He’s been a really good complement. He’s actually done a great job moving from left to right wing. Seems like he gets in position to shoot the puck, he reads off of our guys really well. He’s been a very effective player on that line.
Q. The play of Martin Biron, as a starter, people wondered about him, but he’s been pretty good for you.
JOHN STEVENS: Yeah, I mean, what can you say? I think it was new ground for Marty. Nobody really knew what to expect. I think we all had confidence in his abilities. But the fact that he’d never been in the playoffs was a little bit of an unknown for him and for us.
Seems like he settled right in. He’s really thrived on the atmosphere. He’s had this ability to focus every game. He’s grown with confidence from beginning till now. You know, he’s playing his best hockey of the year. Obviously in big games and big environments, intense buildings, he’s had an ability to be the difference. I think there’s lots of nights where he’s been our best player and he’s a big reason why we are where we are.
Q. Most coaches shudder at the thought of facing one superstar. Here you have two in Malkin and Crosby. How do you approach this? Usually you try to put a shutdown line out there, but they have two.
JOHN STEVENS: Yeah, you know, the thing for me with Pittsburgh is that they’ve got stars, but they’ve got a really good team game they play within there. They don’t just free-lance and play on their own. I think the structure of their game is very good. I think it’s going to take a really strong team performance from us to try and check them. You know, not just one, they’ve got Sykora, Malkin, Hossa, Crosby, Malone is having a great year, Staal is there. They have many weapons there. They’re a very good team.
So to concentrate just on one or two of their players I think would be a big mistake. We’re going to have to all be responsible. We’re going to have to all work and check if we hope to have a chance in this series.
Q. It seems as if for whatever reason Malkin has just been playing at the top of his game and almost become more of a focal point on their team than Crosby. Is that the way you look at it?
JOHN STEVENS: Well, you know, it’s really interesting for me this year when you look around the league. There’s a lot of situations this year where key players have gone down. If you look at what happened with Carolina with the emergence of Staal, when Mike Richards got here, and the emergence of Jeff Carter. And certainly in Pittsburgh, when Crosby went down and Malkin kind of took over there, they needed him to really step up and he did.
I think you know, he’s obviously a world-class player, but he showed an ability to be a real leader there, as well. Even with Crosby coming back, there’s been no letup in his game. I think he’s really, really showing everybody in the hockey world just how good he is. It seems like he relishing the responsibility.
He’s really emerged as a world-class player and he’s continued to play really well right through the intensity of the playoffs here. Certainly bodes for a big concern for us trying to shut them both down.
Q. Where do you think you’ve come in terms of your coaching style, maybe some of the things you’ve learned from when you stepped behind the bench the first time? In what way are you a better coach than then?
JOHN STEVENS: Well, you know, I’ve said this before, I hope I’m a better coach today than I was yesterday. Seems like every day we try to get better, do things better. My philosophy about building a team kind of has been the same. We did the same thing at the American League level. But just getting to know the league now, getting to know your own players better, getting to know the matchups in the league, being able to adjust to the schedule, finding out when you can rest and when you can work. It’s been a great learning experience for me and one that I think I’m much better prepared for now than I was maybe a year ago.
Q. During that stretch in February, were you concerned about whether you were doing the right things? When you go through a period like that, as a coach, how do you try and get beyond a bump like that?
JOHN STEVENS: Well, you know, just like we always do, I think you try to figure out things you’re doing well and continue to use them as strengths and try to eliminate weaknesses.
We went through that stretch, I think we lost six or seven games by a goal. We had some games we played extremely well. We had some injuries we were dealing with. We just felt it was a matter of time before we got going. It was almost like we were starting to play well, but just weren’t able to win. We had guys step up. We really didn’t change our belief or philosophy. I think sometimes as a coach you try to change things just to try to bring focus back just to narrow the focus and allow you to win hockey games, then you can go from there and the confidence builds. Just like when you’re winning, you keep trying to get better. If you’re losing, you try to figure out ways to give your team the best chance to win.
I thought the guys did a great job of staying on board and working through it together, and we’re a better team now because of it.
Q. Michel Therrien was talking about the rivalry, not only as far as the National Hockey League is concerned, but a lot of players and yourselves as well, you and Michel go back to the American Hockey League. Does that add to the intensity in a series like this or is that something in the past?
JOHN STEVENS: Obviously there’s a history there. But we’ve had a few series in the American League, the Phantoms and the Penguins, the American League, have a great rivalry. Had two great series that we played before with a lot of the players that are now playing in the National Hockey League.
As a coach and as a player, I think it was a great experience to be a part of. And now, you know, at this level, it’s obviously a whole different ballgame. You know, to me it doesn’t really play that much into it. It’s the Flyers and the Penguins. I think Michel Therrien is a great coach, obviously done a great job there. We’ve got a great challenge in front of us. But certainly an exciting series that we’re happy to be a part of.
Q. Do you happen to recall when those years were you faced each other in the AHL?
JOHN STEVENS: I think it was back-to-back years. I know the lockout was the last year for me. And I think the year prior to us they beat us the first year and went on to the final. We won the next year, went on to win the Calder Cup. That division in the American League is extremely competitive. Seems like there’s a team come out of there, whether it’s Hershey, us or Wilkes-Barre, has a chance to win it every year. Again, a great learning ground for the next level.
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