Hockey, like any other sport, is a psychological game as much as a physical one. Those who doubt this have only to look in the direction of Washington to see what an infusion of confidence and "get-out-of-our-way-or-suffer-the-consequences" mentality can do for a team - that and a top goal scorer.
So it was with glee that I read the articles posted on the Internet and in the newspapers regarding the Penguins-Senators series that starts tomorrow. Coach Bryan Murray is leagues ahead in winning the psychological battle. Murray, accurately or not, said that the Pens intentionally lost their last regular season game against Philadelphia because they didn't want to face the Broad Street Bullies in their first matchup. His proof: Penguins coach Michel Therrien didn't put Captain Sidney Crosby on the ice against the Flyers.
True or not, Murray's spin on the issue is right on. By those few comments (along with Leafs coach Paul Maurice's suggestion that the Sens are "purse swingers"
, Murray has neatly set the Sens as underdogs. Not only that, but he has successfully made his players angry, and given them something to prove other than the "greatest regular season disappointment in a long time". Nobody, but nobody wants to be seen as a weaker team, as playoff fodder, as "purse swingers". You can just hear the players fuming from here. "Oh, so we're not as physical as Philly, eh?", "So you'd rather face us than the 8th place team?", "So we're a walk in the park?" Nothing like a little anger to light a fire under some keisters.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has missed the boat psychologically. The comments we hear from the Pens dressing room is that "we need to be completely healthy", and "it should be fun, especially if we can beat them
". The attitude this reflects is not a win-at-all-costs mentality, but rather, a "let's keep our players healthy for the REALLY important teams" which plays right into Murray's psychological strategy. There also the dreadful "if we can beat them
" which shows a lack of confidence on the Pens' part. One has to remember that in the 2006-07 playoffs, the Pittsburgh-Ottawa match-up was seen as a foregone conclusion; the Pens would take that one for sure. It was a rude awakening for the Pens, one I'm not sure they've gotten over.
What we can expect therefore is a VERY physical game on the part of the Sens. I wouldn't be surprised to see McGrattan suit up to allow the Ottawa crew to fire on all cylinders. McGrattan, along with Neil, Lapointe, Volchenkov, Schubert, Commodore and company, should be given a hunting license with no bag limit. I'm not too worried on the scoring side. Spezza and Heatley are always good for a few but, more and more, I'm looking in Vermette's direction to set the pace. This is a player who was always on the cusp of greatness with his speed, stick-handling and positioning, and only required one more ounce of control to bring it all together. I think he's found that ounce of control, and is cashing in on it. Vermette was a legend with the Victoriaville Tigers with 119 points in 71 games, and he's had a career season this year with 53 points. Look to him to kick-start secondary scoring.
So kudos to Murray who remembers his history lessons; in the last 10 years, an underdog has made it to the Stanley Cup finals no less than five times. Murray is just wily enough to understand that being called an under dog and feeling like one are two different things. A few comments on his part ensured that everyone feels the Sens are now the underdogs in this match-up.
Therrien, meanwhile, is obviously not a history buff. I remember another star player with a sore ankle, one Valeri Kharmalov of the famous 1972 Summit Series, and Jacques Lemaire, the Canadian coach who reportedly suggested to Bobby Clarke that maybe Kharmalov's ankle needed "a little tap". Far from suggesting this would occur in today's league, I wish to underscore that playing to protect a handicap usually results in that handicap being your downfall. After all, history does tend to repeat itself, especially for those who are unable or unwilling to learn from its lessons.