By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON Dennis Seidenberg wasnt naming names, but the veteran defenseman has seen plenty of hockey coaches get rattled right before his eyes in his seven-plus seasons in the NHL.
The game situation speeds up, panic sets in, and the harried coach starts relying too heavily on a handful of players he trusts while burning out his team when things go awry around him.
That kind of unhinged phenomenon has an unavoidably negative effect on the players, and starts to tighten everybody up as things spin out of control. At the moment of truth in a playoff game, its a team's worst nightmare. And it can be a coaching staff killer.
When a coach is rattled, he makes decisions and overplays guys because of panic; he wants to put his best players out there, said Seidenberg. From there, extraordinary things start to happen and from there on it just kind of snowballs.
Some might have expected to see Claude Julien get rattled in the first round of the Bruins' playoff run this year. His job was presumed to on the line; it was fully expected that he (and perhaps general Peter Chiarelli) would be dismissed if the team had an early playoff ouster.
Yet he never panicked, not even after the Bruins lost the first two games of the series -- at home, no less -- and headed to Montreal facing elimination.
Thats why the Bs have lived to fight many other days since then.
Im sure people thought if we didnt make it past the first round then something was going to happen with the coaching staff, but winning the last two rounds has made everyone in the organization happy, said Seidenberg. I think getting past where youve ever been before gives you some confidence and gratification.
We knew we hadnt played anywhere close to as good as we could have. After the first two games everyone was thinking, Oh, God, the firings are going to happen, but the coaching staff never lost that calmness.
"It helped a lot. They always kept telling us they believed in us. It definitely helps to have a coach thats got calmness and composure getting through those situations.
A coaching staff that certainly knew its careers hung in the balance approached the rest of the series with a calm resolve that the situation would get turned around. Most importantly, Julien never once let anybody see him sweat.
That approach, and the innovative decision to bring his hockey club to Lake Placid in the middle of the Montreal series, helped settle things down, and theyve won eight of nine games since that start.
The series victories over the Canadiens and the Flyers have won some measure of job security for Julien and the other members of the staff, and high compliments from Bruins president Cam Neely. Even the woeful power play has begun producing with goals in each of their last two playoff games, and a swagger has returned to those both sitting on the bench . . . and standing behind it.
Julien tells a story of once asking Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman for advice about coaching, and the one thing that stuck with Julien was Bowmans words about adapting and changing with the game. The Bs coach has done just that after learning from failed assignments in Montreal and New Jersey prior to Boston.
Some of Juliens evolution as a coach owes a debt to the pressure exerted by Neely, who has pushed Julien to shorten his bench, open things up with the defensemen to promote scoring, and wield ice time with some level of authority when effort is a question mark.
That willingness to change with the team and the importance of preaching a consistent message to his players, in good times and bad, is one of Juliens biggest strengths, and its also the reason he was now able to lead the Bruins into the third round of the playoffs.
Some called for a punitive bag skate at the tail end of the regular season after a deflating loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre, and others were simply waiting for the bottom to drop out during the playoffs. But Julien never fully cracked the whip.
His players fully appreciated the steady course of action and Juliens tacit confidence in them.
I think first of all as a coach, thats what youre hired to do: to make sure that you dont overreact and youve got to stay the course, said Julien. Youve got to make sure you stay in control. And if you do that, youre allowing your players a better balance.
Youve got to believe in yourselves once you get to this stage, and you should never panic no matter what the situation is . . . I think . . . an important lesson and message to give your players is that anything is possible. And our players obviously stayed the course, and they really took some small bites into the ensuing games.
For a young player like defenseman Adam McQuaid, going through the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time, the little things -- like reading and reacting to game situations and learning to pick his spots when it comes to introducing physicality into the game -- have been invaluable lessons learned.
Thats just old-fashioned coaching development with a young player who's improved nu leaps and bounds under Julien just as Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Milan Lucic and so many other talented youngster have before him.
The coaching staff has given me an opportunity and thats the biggest thing, said McQuaid. Ive made my mistakes along the way, but theyve always been willing to work with me to correct things while putting me out there for other opportunities. There have been times when Julien has stuck with guys and theyve come through for him in big moments. The biggest thing to me is that the coaching staff didnt panic down 0-2 and then have it trickle down to us.
There were times when things were close and we could have really gotten stressed out, and we were able to reel things in and get focused for the game. That was one of the messages from the coaching staff, and you could see that they really believed it because of the body language.
Julien knows players are always paying attention to the tonality of the message from the coaching staff, and their all-important body language. Theyd now if their coach was simply blowing smoke.
But theres no smoke with Julien or the Bruins. Both the coaches and the players are in the exact right head space as they enter an all-important Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in two decades starting this weekend.