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Scotty Bowman once had a theory…

Very briefly: we’ve reached a point in the playoffs where last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, and this year’s President’s Trophy winner, in the Vancouver Canucks, the Cup champ from two years ago in the Chicago Blackhawks, the Cup champ from two seasons ago and prohibitive media Cup pick in the Pittsburgh Penguins, and of course the team I cover and cheer for in the Detroit Red Wings face 3-1 series deficits against their respective opponents, and as I’m writing this, the St. Louis Blues are attempting to take

just took a 3-1 series lead on another contender in the San Jose Sharks.

While fans like you and me have been distracted somewhat by the level of gratuitous violence taking place this spring (and while “hit to make your opponent sore” becomes, “I’ve got to hit to hurt you and win my battle or I’m playing golf” in April, May and June, the level of disrespect between players is as silly as the inconsistency of the NHL’s disciplinary policy), the fact that Vancouver, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit and maybe even San Jose could be cleaning out their lockers before the weekend’s over is nothing less than staggering. In the West, the 1-versus-8 and 2—versus-7 series look like they may very well go to the underdog, with the 3rd-place Coyotes and 4th-place Predators pulling off “upsets,” and that alone should give us pause.

Does this stem from, as every coach and GM who gets near a a camera or a digital sound recorder will tell you, “the cap” and “parity” which have yielded a seeming year of the underdog, and “road ice advantage?” Have we reached a point where playoff seeding has simply become irrelevant due to the fact that teams who can barely scrape .500 records together can still make the playoffs thanks to 3-point games and shootout wins?

To some extent, yes. Those factors cannot be denied as looming large in the equation, as does the fact that teams draft from a pool of players that is now as deep as it was prior to the NHL’s mad expansion dash in the mid-to-late 90’s, with every country producing players who are working with strength coaches, nutritionists and skill development coaches who’ve helped make younger players “more ready” to play professional hockey earlier than ever before, as does the fact that advances in sports medicine have allowed players to play for longer than ever before, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that instantaneous digital video scouting allows coaches to react to surprising players or wrinkles in game plans while play is underway, if not, at worst, during intermissions instead of between games or over the course of a quarter to half a season.

But Scotty Bowman used to espouse a pretty simple theory when he coached the Red Wings, and I think that it applies, too. The short version goes like this: “The first round is the most dangerous round.”

The long version goes something like this: regardless of which team gains home-ice advantage, which team finishes the regular season with the best record, finishes the season with most stacked roster and/or finishes the season as healthy as possible after six-and-a-half months and 82 games, when the playoffs begin, it’s not just the scoreboard and series ledger’s “race to four wins” that are re-set to zero.

Teams and players have to adjust to playing at a playoff level of intensity, and they do so, on both individual and team-wide bases, at different developmental rates. Lower-seeded teams that earn early breaks or find surprising chemistry suddenly find themselves one or two wins closer to advancing than an opponent which may have cruised into the playoffs with their spot assured, special teams can fail and a devastating injury or two no longer means a rough couple of weeks. Even with video coaches’ DVRs cuing up the plays which resulted in pucks going into the back of their teams’ nets, the devastating blows to team confidence and plain old bad bounces on increasingly poor ice, as well as an almost inevitable return to the standard of refereeing that was more familiar to teams in October and November than February and March yield so much unpredictability, inconsistency and individual and collective variations in performance that anybody can beat anybody as teams essentially re-forge their identities and re-establish their playing styles at what is nothing less than a completely different level of play than anything that anyone without prior NHL playoff experience has ever experienced. Sometimes, depending on the match-up and the course of events over the first couple of games, the levels of intensity are even surprising to those who’ve been around forever…

And as such, the first round isn’t necessarily something won or lost, but instead, goes Bowman’s theory, something that is survived by teams that continue to play better and better hockey as they advance and the races to four become even harder-won. When we go from 16 playing teams to 8 remaining over the course of the next six days, we’re going to watch the advancing teams really establish themselves and gain their footing, yielding cleaner, more precise hockey from player—and coaches—who are fully acclimated to the kind of levels of competition, urgency, focus, attention to detail, desperation, and very regularly, hate that play huge roles in determining which of the 8 teams remaining will find themselves playing into May and June.

During the hockey season where it only takes winning four out of seven games to advance, and during a hockey season where it only takes everybody getting on the same page at the same time over the course of a few days instead of a few weeks, regardless of whether there’s a salary cap or whether there are 3-point games, the teams that adapt the fastest survive and begin to forge post-season identities in the first round, and the teams which fail to evolve end up playing golf.

It’s been that way in the NHL since Bowman started coaching the

Montreal Canadiens

St. Louis Blues, and it will remain that way regardless of what economic conditions the new CBA forces owners to operate under. The first round is the most dangerous round, and some years, the favorites and contenders’ Cup hopes are dashed on a highly unpredictable basis because that’s simply the nature of the 16-team mash-up’s beast.

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Comments

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Ummm…If we’re defining the salient perspective as Scotty Bowman’s (which I think we are, as his insight seems to be the defining point of the article) then please forgive me for the rewrite:

“It’s been that way in the NHL since Bowman started coaching the St Louis Blues…”

Not to be nit-picky…but.

Posted by icehound on 04/20/12 at 03:24 AM ET

George Malik's avatar

Sorry. Writing tired.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 04/20/12 at 03:37 AM ET

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Nice summary and explanation, George. The results from the Western Conference, should give pause to the “fire Holland, fire Babcock” crowd. It’s not just the Wings who are struggling in the first round.

Of course, this is merely wishful thinking on my part. Rationality and perspective is too much to expect from the interwebs and all our fake friends thereon.

So, let the unreasonable hating of the greatest hockey organ-I-zation’s leadership & players commence with full fury and force of fools blindly thrashing about for someone to blame for our disappointment as fans. It is nice to have such first-world problems, however.

Captcha: “93system”; I’m not superstitious, but 93 keeps appearing when I post lately. Omen or coincidence? Does it matter? We’ll find out soon enough.

Posted by Seaner from San Jose on 04/20/12 at 06:20 AM ET

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While everyones playoff predictions look as bad as their March Madness brackets, I can say at least one of my predictions became reality.

Last summer during free agent frenzy, San Jose got rid of Heatley and Setoguchi and replaced them with Havlat and Handzus.

I immediately fell on the floor laughing and posted in a few places that San Jose wouldn’t win a thing this season because they’d be relying on Jumbo Joe too much. Boston got rid of him for a reason.

After watching last nights game, don’t be surprised if San Jose does the same thing.

As for as our beloved Red Wings ... we knew going into this season there was a hole in the defence that didn’t get filled and there still isn’t a Dmac kind of tough guy up front to “keep the flies off”, so we should have known this was coming.

Everyone should know that a 37 year old Todd Bertuzzi can’t make enough room out there for the little guys that won’t play physical like Fil & Huds. If Cleary’s knee was in better shape I’m sure he’d lend a hand but the 2 disappointments so far in the physical department are Ericsson and Abdelkader.

Playoff hockey is some serious shit and Abby needs to crank it up a couple of notches and blast people into the boards a bit more (he ain’t doing much else so why not).  As for Ericsson, the very last player picked in the 2002 draft, he needs to remember why he was drafted in the first place ... he’s a big body ... he needs to use it.  He’s not going to get by on skill alone.

I don’t know what kind of leadership was lost in the locker room when Drapes and Osgood and Rafalski retired but someone needs to have a sitdown with these guys individually and give them a little direction. I always thought that was the Captains job (hint hint hint).

Posted by Hockeytown Wax from West Bloomfield, Mi. on 04/20/12 at 06:57 AM ET

George Malik's avatar

Stop being rational, Seaner…I’ve still got some tomatoes to throw! raspberry

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 04/20/12 at 07:26 AM ET

Vladimir16's avatar

@ Hockeytown Wax   I’m not sure what is going on with Abby but we’ve noticed his lack of physical play as well. Our theory is he’s injured (which I boubt) or he’s a bit gun shy. If my memory serves me correctly, wasn’t he a one man wrecking crew last year but made some silly penalties? Maybe the brass got on him heavy last year for it and he has over compensated. Or not.
Just me over analizing everything due to the anxiety of this series.

GO WINGS!

Posted by Vladimir16 from Grand River Valley on 04/20/12 at 10:46 AM ET

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One issue that skilled teams have to deal with is that the officiating and the game changes from starting in February and definitely by April. There is much more clutching and grabbing allowed. Penalties called in October are omitted in April and May. Skilled players struggle under such a system. Of sure the can pot the amazing goal or come up with the great save but over the course of 60 minutes they suffer because the game no longer matches their skills. The grinders and grabbers become the glue which limits a stars performance.

For GMs you have to build two teams. One to compete between October and January and a second team to for the February to June Cup run. For coaches you have to teach one style early in the season and then another for the Cup run. In some ways it is a travesty. The game should be consistently played and called from October to June but alas the conservative nature of the NHL means the game must change to a defensive struggle where cheap shots and after whistle scrums determine the champs rather than ice hockey.

Posted by frankjacob on 04/20/12 at 11:32 AM ET

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The results from the Western Conference, should give pause to the “fire Holland, fire Babcock” crowd. It’s not just the Wings who are struggling in the first round.

You are employing a logical fallacy. The “fire Babcock” crowd has taken their ammunition from multiple sources, the playoffs being only the latest in a string of I-told-you-so’s.

Not prepared to start games throughout the regular season, relying on players who are not giving enough effort, there are many reasons why some of us feel Babcock has worn out his welcome in the Motor City.

I love the guy to death, and think he is a great coach. But he’s not a great Red Wings coach anymore.

Time to move on.

Posted by Red Winger from work on 04/20/12 at 12:26 PM ET

Nate A's avatar

Posted by frankjacob

TRVTH

Well put, and one of many things NHL Inc needs to deal with. An ever-changing rulebook brings down the quality of the game,. confusing fans and players both.

Posted by Nate A from Detroit-ish on 04/20/12 at 12:54 PM ET

WingsFanInBeanLand's avatar

Posted by frankjacob on 04/20/12 at 09:32 AM ET

But it has been the total opposite this season.  From February to last week they were letting everything under the sun go as far as interference.  Once the playoffs started it was a constant parade to the sin bin for looking at a player wrong.

Posted by WingsFanInBeanLand from Where the GM likes his team. on 04/20/12 at 01:17 PM ET

WingedRider's avatar

My opinion on Wings penalties is they are not playing like a puck possession team (for a few weeks), you have the puck it is tough to get penalties with the exception of Homer.  I really don’t care who the Wings are playing!  It is up to the guys in the room to win or lose, in most cases.  The 93 thing is a curse for me, very hard to believe that any athlete can not work hard at the very least at any level and go from there.  Still can’t remember the dudes name, should be easy as he is not moving his hooves very much!

Pav needs wingers! Bert and that other guy on his wing be it Cleary, with one leg, or that other guy aren’t top 6 especially with arguably the best 2 way player in the NHL.

Fil is struggling but he is still young and still has upside.

Babs and Holland aren’t going to be fired, maybe an assistant Coach?

Win or Lose Game 5 is up to the players on the 22 man roster tonite. GO WINGS!!!!!

Posted by WingedRider from Saskatoon, SK on 04/20/12 at 01:52 PM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

George, great post.  I’m still saving my thoughts about the team until after the Wings’ season actually ends.

This probably won’t happen, I admit, but if the Wings won the next three games and then went on to win the Cup, would all the fans be calling for coaches’ and players’ heads?

It really ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

LET’S GO RED WINGS !!!!!

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 04/20/12 at 02:24 PM ET

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Each series has been different. The Hawks Yotes has been an uncalled obstruction fest.
Puck possession is not desired by the NHL and the powers that be. John Vanbeisbrook was on NHL home ice this afternoon and he said the less flow in the game the more penalties and more goals will be scored. I would love to see a Wings/Hawks series only because it would be a great series without the BS. Alas we will most likely be stuck with a western conference clutch and grab series featuring Nashville, LA, the Yotes, and the Blues. Time to watch some movies instead of hockey.

Posted by frankjacob on 04/20/12 at 04:40 PM ET

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You are employing a logical fallacy. The “fire Babcock” crowd has taken their ammunition from multiple sources, the playoffs being only the latest in a string of I-told-you-so’s.

I appreciate your points, but I still disagree. I also disagree that I used a logical fallacy. If I did, could you name it so I can avoid doing so in the future? I’m pretty familiar with most of them, but I may have missed one.

It is clear that the Wings are underperforming, but I don’t know that all of the blame can be put on Babcock (or Holland, etc.). Playoff performance is a multiply determined event, in which strange combinations of variables interact (I’m thinking chaos theory here). It’s not just about the coach.

That said, the other “ammunition” against Babcock might include a litany of frustrations for fans, but you cannot argue with the man’s record as the Wings’ head coach. He has brought the team to the playoffs every year he has been in Detroit, winning the Cup once and coming within seconds the next year. He is in the top 3 in points percentage and playoff wins. He has won the Central 5 times and produced 7 consecutive 100 point seasons. The Wings just set the all-time home-win record. Therefore, the other ammunition doesn’t seem to have sound statistical justification. We may complain about slow starts, etc., but the data speak for themselves.

Stop being rational, Seaner…I’ve still got some tomatoes to throw!

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 04/20/12 at 05:26 AM ET

Sorry, George. Throw away, my friend. I’ll get our of your way now.

Posted by Seaner from San Jose on 04/20/12 at 08:11 PM ET

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He is in the top 3 in points percentage and playoff wins.

*Among active coaches.

Posted by Seaner from San Jose on 04/20/12 at 08:12 PM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.