Gruyere

It’s a reference to cheese, if you’re wondering.  It’s also a reference to the comment one makes about “would you like some cheese with that whine?”  Specifically, I think the Pittsburgh Penguins could use some Gruyere.  It’s good cheese and it goes with just about any wine these highly-paid athletes could care to purchase.  What am I talking about?  I’m talking about the comments made by players and coach after the second consecutive shutout loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. 

In case you’re wondering, among other things, the Penguins players and coaches are up in arms about the number of goaltender interference calls that went against them in the game, last night.  In listening to the game, the call from the game went something like, “…and Malone goes hard into the boards again, goes hard for the puck and down goes Osgood, a heavy push from Malone from behind…”  Just so you know, while I can’t remember the names of the play-by-play or color fellas in Pitt, I was listening to the game on the Pittsburgh stream from NHL.com.  As a Red Wings fan, I began listening to the opposing call back in 2000, just because of the whining about “all the calls going the Wings’ way.”  I wanted to hear what they saw.  So, in listening to the Pens commentators, it didn’t sound to me like they were getting jobbed, as the players (Malone, et. al) and coach Therrien were insinuating. 

The problem is this: once you’ve started making excuses for why you’ve lost (i.e., “clutching and grabbing,” “flopping goalies,” “biased referees,” etc…), you’ve send a very clear message to the opposing team: “We’ve given up.”  You may not think you’ve given up, but your actions and words speak louder than any inner pride you may have left after you left your dignity in the press conference.  It’s time for another “Story Time With Phil.”

Dateline May 1998, Edwin D. Smith Elementary, Oakwood, OH — The final score was 12-0.  It was the final game of the season and the Blue Dolphins had sent notice that they were the team to beat the previous game with a 7-0 win against the only other team to post multiple shutouts.  Midway through this game (the score 6-0, at the time), however, something strange started happening.  I started hearing the players on the other team throwing around phrases like, “they’re cheating!  They have to be!” or “it’s cheating when they do that” where “that” could be translated to “changing the defensive style to account for a slight change in offensive strategy by the opposition.” 

As a coach, nothing rotted my socks more than players making excuses for their own problems by blaming some aspect of the other team.  My team was scored on twice in 7 games and when we were scored on, aside from Anna asking if they had actually scored against us, I fielded a comment from Levi after the second goal in Game 3 of the season who said, “He was too fast for me.”  Now, that’s not as bad as, “He dives” a la Therrien, but I still felt the need to correct it with 1-part coach-speak and 2-parts Eastern Philosophy: I told him,

“He may be fast — we’ll give him that.  However, you just weren’t in the position you needed to be in order to disrupt the play.  That’s OK — I’m not saying it’s your fault.  I’m just saying that you’re giving the other team too much credit when you don’t acknowledge that you had some part in the play — he was fast and you weren’t in a position to stop him.  It happens.  Acknowledge it, move on, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Obviously, it worked.  We weren’t scored on for the rest of the season.  I wasn’t harsh to Levi.  There’s no reason to be, especially when the kids are 4- and 5-years-old.  However, while these youngsters don’t really understand Zen or the Tao, they understand that when you make a mistake, you just need to own it and fix it.  It’s not that hard a concept to grasp, really.  So, understand that I couldn’t bite my tongue after having listened to “They HAVE to be cheating!” for 30 minutes.  I finally said, “It’s called coaching.  You may want to look into it.”  I know…bad Phil.  Still, I took most of my coaching lessons from one Scotty Bowman.  His mantra was simple, “if you’re not adjusting, you’re not coaching to win.  If you’re not coaching to win, you have no business coaching.” 

It’s with this in mind that I turn my attention back to Coach Therrien who’s not setting a good example for his players by buying into the whining about calls and blaming everything but the play of his players for the loss.  Here’s my take:

  • You don’t like the interference calls?  Don’t have your players put themselves in the situation where it would be an issue.  If it looks like running the goalie, it might be called as running the goalie…
  • You feel like there’s “clutching and grabbing?”  You remember the 1995 New Jersey Devils?  THAT was clutching and grabbing.  The Red Wings are playing a tight defense.  You don’t like it?  Figure out a way to beat it.  It’s that simple.
  • It’s hard to win if you don’t score.  That’s pretty simple, too.  If you’re not scoring, there’re plenty of reasons other than blaming the Red Wings’ defense.  Try asking your star players to show up for games.
  • If you’re complaining about getting so many penalty calls against you, try listening to the message that the referees are sending you.  It seemed obvious, to me, that the refs were sending a clear statement that running players, goalie or otherwise, wouldn’t be tolerated.  The Red Wings were getting these penalties, too, so it wasn’t as if they were one-way calls.  It pays to listen.
  • Punching a player in the side of the head who had just returned from “concussion-like symptoms” is Iron-league bush.  Saying that he “flopped like he’d been shot” is probably fairly accurate: if you’ve ever had a concussion, and I’ve had my fair share, you know that any contact with your skull hurts like hell, let alone getting sucker-punched.  Remember, also, that a “harmless sucker-punch” like the one Gary Roberts administered to Johan Franzen, ended Jeff Bukeboom’s career.  You don’t toy with the brain, and you don’t take cheap shots like this.  I liked Gary Roberts.  Currently, I wouldn’t mind seeing him smoked by a good, clean, Niklas Kronwall check.  Why is this under my take on the loss?  Because if this is the mentality of what it takes to win from Pitt, then they’ve already lost the series.

Let me expound on that last thought.  When a team starts creating excuses for their own team to be able to make as to why they didn’t win or, on the other hand, for the other team to have that much more energy the next time they meet, you’re not only quitting on your team, but you’re stupid, besides.  It’s obvious to me that the Penguins are a superbly talented team.  It’s also obvious to me, that — at least in the first two games — they were completely outplayed.  If they don’t like being made to look like Div II-A hockey rejects, do something about INTERNALLY.  Don’t say, “they played a better game” until the series is over.  Right now, it’s “we didn’t play well and here’s what we need to do in order to fix it.”  This may be my miniscule locus-of-control score coming through, but it’s not entirely the Red Wings’ fault no one on the Penguins has scored a goal.  Osgood has been excellent when he had to be, but he hasn’t had to be outstanding and he hasn’t been challenged.  How is that the Red Wings’ fault?  Bingo — it’s not.  There’ve been Rare Bird Alerts issued for Sid the Kid, Malkin and Hossa.  If you should happen to see them outside of their indigenous habitat in the Igloo, don’t tell Terrien — he’ll be cheesed because they surely didn’t show up at the Joe.

“We just have to execute,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “Did they really get that many scoring chances on us? I don’t think they did. They got a few and put them in. We hit a post, and pucks go through us by the net that we don’t put in. That’s the difference.”  Analyze that sentence with me…  “They got a few and put them in.”  According to the box score, the Penguins were outshot 34-22.  “They got a few…”  A few, eh?  There were 12 shots in the first period, alone, for the Red Wings, where 2 went in.  Of the 11 taken in the third, one went in.  Of all 22 taken by Pittsburgh players, none went in.  It comes down to this: tell yourself what you have to, but show up and “execute” when it matters.  You also may want to look at stats like Giveaways, where the Pens had 9 to Detroit’s 7 and PIM where Detroit had 16 to Pittsburgh’s 46.  That speaks to discipline.  If you don’t like all the penalty calls, try not getting 8 roughing calls.  EIGHT.  Hello?  The answer is in the question.

So, the Red Wings play a solid, tight-checking defense that teams have a hard time penetrating.  Don’t feel bad.  The Predators couldn’t penetrate.  The Avalanche couldn’t penetrate the defense.  The Stars couldn’t penetrate the defense.  What does that mean?  Oh, yeah, you’re playing a team that won the President’s Trophy, has a Norris Trophy winning defenseman (or 2), has a couple of Selke Trophy candidates and, oh, yeah, not only won 7 more games during the regular season than you did, but allowed 32 fewer goals.  What does that mean?  It means they’re a good team.  That doesn’t mean that you’re not a good team.  It does mean that you’re going to have to figure out a way to beat a team that schooled the best in the West and you haven’t played a team like this, yet.  That means you have to adjust.  It may take a game or two.  Hopefully, it won’t take four.  If it does, look into Gruyere, it’s tasty.

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