Jon Cooper doesn’t get much sleep from September through June, even less when the NHL playoffs begin.
After coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning to the league’s best regular-season record in 2019, getting swept in the first round in stunning fashion and then winning the Stanley Cup back to back, he knows all too well how hockey changes when the playoffs start.
“You know when you’re in a deep sleep and your alarm goes off at 6 in the morning? That’s what it’s like,” Cooper said. “That’s the difference.”
The shift from Game 82 of the regular season to Game 1 of the first round in the NHL playoffs is perhaps the most dramatic shift in sports given the level and style of play, how goals are scored and prevented, and often how post-season games are officiated.
That explains the unpredictability and upsets, the reliance on goaltending and why those hoisting the Cup sometimes are so banged up they can’t hold it over their heads.
“It’s just changes everything,” Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman said.
Still, with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers, Western Conference-leading Colorado and other top contenders so dominant on offence and rapidly evolving play predicated on skill and talent, this may be the first post-season a team can win it all with offence.
“Usually at the end of the day defensive hockey wins in the playoffs,” said St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong, whose Blues bruised their way to the Cup three years ago and won’t try that this time around. “But I think there’s so many high-scoring, good-scoring teams that this could be maybe the start of something different where you can score your way through the playoffs.”
There were 6.28 goals scored per game this season, the highest average since the salary cap era began in 2005 in what could be the start of an offensive renaissance and bleak times for goalies. Games are faster than before with more young talent entering the league, so a six-goal average could become the new standard.
But the playoffs? That’s usually where high-scoring hockey goes to die.
‘You’ve got to make power plays count’
Last year, coming off leading the league in scoring with 105 points in 56 games, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid was limited to four points in a first-round sweep by Winnipeg. After drawing 29 penalties in the regular season, he drew zero in the playoffs.
“The hockey is a little bit different,” said Hedman, who was playoff MVP in 2020. “It’s tight-checking games. The penalties are not called as often as probably during the regular season, so when you get those power plays, you’ve got to make them count.”
The biggest change is just the willingness of the players to go to uncomfortable areas quicker and stay there longer.— Blues GM Doug Armstrong on playoff hockey compared to the regular campaign
Armstrong, whose father spent 22 years as an NHL linesman, doesn’t believe referees work off a different rule book in the playoffs and instead credits the best officials and best teams being on the ice when it matters most. There actually were more minor penalties called on average during the 2021 playoffs than the regular season.
One major difference is how much ice is available in the playoffs, when players are more willing to put their bodies in front of pucks shot 90-plus mph in the name of winning. Scoring goes down, and bruising goes up.
“You probably have 80 per cent of your team willing to play a physical game — willing to finish hits that they normally wouldn’t finish, willing to hang into the battle a little longer than they would hang into a battle,” Armstrong said. “The biggest change is just the willingness of the players to go to uncomfortable areas quicker and stay there longer.”
Between games is also a different level of comfort. Coaching is more valuable in the playoffs because strategies can be implemented and adjusted over the course of a best-of-seven series.
“You just focus in on that one team,” Hedman said. “In the regular season, you go in here, you play and then you fly out to the next city and that’s just natural. But when you’re focusing in on one team, the pre-scouts, the scouting of other players and the way they’ve been playing, it’s a big difference.”
Everything is different because, as Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe points out, the stakes are higher. The prospect of elimination brings out a different kind of urgency in everyone.
Of course, the mental grind is even more taxing than the physicality of enduring two months on the edge. When Justin Schultz got to Pittsburgh for his first post-season in 2015, veteran Matt Cullen told him: “You’re so much more drained after a playoff game than you are a regular-season game, and that’s just not your body. That’s mentally.”
On the way to winning the Cup twice, Schultz learned that lesson and more about playoff hockey.
“You’ve got to be on at all times,” he said. “But when you get a win in the playoffs, it feels that much better.”