By Stu Hackel
One major aspect of the playoffs careening out of control, the subject of our post yesterday, is that players misdirect their heightened emotions. There is much on the line, of course, and every hockey fan admires the fact that NHLers can invest so much more of themselves in the game and play with a committment that is unparalleled in all of sports. The problem comes when they cannot channel their emotions correctly, and that has been the defining characteristic of the first week of the tournament.
We saw it again on Monday night when Washington’s Nick Backstrom could not control himself and crosschecked Boston’s Rich Peverley in the face at the conclusion of Bruins-Capitals Game 3. Here it is with some relevant commentary by Jeremy Roenick and Mike Keenan, whose words apply to so much of what we’ve seen so far this spring.
Of course, that’s not how most players choose to transmit the heightened passions of the postseason. Those who raise their level of play most effectively don’t end up costing their team, but rather enhance their its chances of advancing. You hope your best players will do that (the old playoff maxim that your best players have to be your best players), and when your depth guys also do it, your club really benefits.
Take two guys who have played conspicuously well in the early going: Kings captain Dustin Brown and the Rangers’ Brian Boyle. Brown is certainly not depth player. He’s the guy who provides grit to the Kings’ top line while skating with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. He plays in all situations and if he’s not among the NHL’s elite, he’s not that far behind, as his selection to the U.S. Olympic team attests. “He doesn’t get credit for how well he plays defensively,” teammate Mike Richards said. “How he reads the play is something that I think is underappreciated. You just look at the goals and the shots he made, the patience he has with the puck and how well he reads the plays.”
But for some strange reason, around the trade deadline, rumors flew that the L.A. hierarchy was less than pleased with Brown’s play, and they were going to transition the Kings to a club captained by Richards. Brown was reportedly available for the right price. It’s unclear where that rumor started or if it was even true. Some speculated that it was, but upper management nixed the whole idea as soon as it hit their smartphones. Others believed it was a ruse to shake both Brown and his lethargic team.
Regardless of the rumor’s authenticity, Brown quieted all that talk with a hat trick and an assist on the Saturday before the deadline, right after the stories surfaced. That began a 10-game streak in which he racked up 15 points, and a stretch drive in which he totalled eight goals and 15 assists in the Kings’ final 21 games. Asked on Monday if the rumors factored in his improved play (video), Brown acknowledged, “It’s always in the back of your mind. When your name’s out there, you want to prove people wrong….I knew I could be better than I was in the first half of the year….You’ve always got to look at yourself in the mirror, as an athlete. Given the type of year we had, as a team and individually, I think a lot of guys started to realize that we needed to be better, both individually and as a team. We’ve had a lot of players step up at big times.”
So Brown had already boosted his play when April 11 rolled around. That night in Vancouver, he played a pretty complete game, with a team-high eight shots, four hits and the empty net goal that sealed the Kings’ Game 1 victory. Two nights later, he devastated the Canucks with a pair of shorthanded goals (becoming only the 12th player in NHL history to do that) and an assist. In Game 3, he put the big hit on Henrik Sedin in the second period and got the Canucks’ captain out of the game for a short time.
Some credited Brown with shifting that game’s momentum and he then scored the match’s only goal in the third period on this play when everyone on the Canucks forgot about him.
Asked if this is the best he’s ever played, Brown said, “Probably in big games like this, yes. I haven’t had the opportunity to play in many big games, but just personally, I felt pretty good the last quarter of the year and it carried over…Hockey is a funny game. It’s ups and downs, confidence. It’s just getting into a rhythm when you’re feeling good. I’ve been just really focusing on keeping my game probably a little more simple than I did early in the season. When you do that, good things start to happen.”
Enough good things have happened that on TSN’s “Quiz” segment Monday night (video), the panelists unanimously named Brown as the biggest impact player in the early going of this tournament.
Brian Boyle can’t be far behind. This guy is a depth player, but it should surprise no one who’s watched his career that he’s been the Rangers’ best player. He’s scored a goal in each of their three games, two of them game-winners, including Monday night’s tally in Ottawa that showed off some pretty quick hands.
Big Boyle, who’s an obvious presence on the ice at 6-foot-7 and 244 pounds, scored 21 goals last season as a third-line center and had been an effective scorer for Boston College before starting his pro career in the Kings organization. He had 31 goals for L.A.’s AHL Manchester team four years ago before he was shipped to New York for a third-round draft pick, so he’s not without something of a scoring touch. But he’s no sniper. What Boyle does very well is get the puck deep in the offensive zone and keep the cycle going, letting his frame be an asset along the boards, in front of the net and in traffic anywhere on the ice. And in the playoffs, when the checking gets close, that’s as important a quality as you can have.
Boyle spent a lot of this season not scoring, instead refining his job as a shutdown center. We all saw coach John Tortorella unsparingly criticize him for missing assignments during the HBO 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic series, but Boyle has done a very good job so far in his role during the playoffs, with only one goal against him – the Game 2 overtime winner by Chris Neil, who beat him on the face-off, then poked the puck in after a huge scramble in front of the net (video). He’s more than made up for that with his three tallies. He also got the Rangers’ physical dimension going — a big part of their game plan against Ottawa and especially the Senators’ outstanding defenseman Erik Karlsson. The NBC Sports Network intermission panel discussed that and related topics during the first intermission of Game 2. Boyle, in their estimation, came out looking pretty good.
Like Brown, Boyle has not tried to do anything extraordinary this spring. “I am trying, honestly, since the beginning of the series to be as calm as I can and to focus on the smallest of tasks,” he said. “I am trying to block everything else out. Last year (in the playoffs) I got a little excited, but this year I am just trying to look forward and stay calm.”
“He’s playing the right way,” Tortorella remarked after the game. “I think a lot of us can — and a lot of us are — they’re following his lead. And that’s what he’s doing right now is leading.”
That’s what Brown is doing, too. Boyle and Brown are both showing the most effective way to direct their emotions, the way that helps their clubs to playoff victories.
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