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Posted: Thursday April 22, 2010 5:09PM; Updated: Thursday April 22, 2010 5:47PM
Jim Kelley
Jim Kelley>INSIDE THE NHL

Rattled Sharks need a red herring, Sabres fallout, and more notes

Story Highlights

Savvy coaches know creating a false distraction can take pressure off a team

Lindy Ruff is blaming the refs, but a series loss could be his end in Buffalo

Here's a question to ask if you think the NHL actively favors big market teams

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With so much talk about their and Joe Thornton's latest playoff struggle, the Sharks need to find a way to change the subject.
Michael Martin/Getty Images

I'm not San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan, so I'm going to do what all good sports writers do when they have to give advice: I'm going to pretend I'm him. And the first thing I'm going to do with my team facing what now amounts to a best-of-three series and a serious challenge from a team that may well add its name to the long list of clubs the have beaten the Sharks when it matters most, is rent a movie.

I think it will be Bull Durham so I can view that classic scene when the character played by Kevin Costner, a long-standing veteran of the baseball scene at most every level, tells his manager to act up, to go "a little crazy" on his team not just to get their attention, but shake them out of their status quo and give them, and for that matter the people who watch and cover them, something to talk about.

If you don't like that idea, Todd, I'd suggest you give former Montreal, Toronto, New Jersey and Boston coach Pat Burns a call. He'll tell you there's something more to playoff coaching than getting the right match-ups and talking some sense into an overly nervous goaltender. He'll tell you that emotion matters and that creating some, even when you don't have a proper cause, can go a long way in taking pressure off a team that lives with a history of past playoff failures after outstanding regular season successes.

I mention this because I saw it first-hand when Burns was pretty much getting his NHL career started with the Canadiens. They were playing the Buffalo Sabres in 1990 and Burns, who had a pretty good team, was getting a first-round test. After a couple of games in Montreal, I wrote a piece for the Buffalo News bemoaning the fact that this wasn't the old Canadiens who played fire wagon hockey with speed and grace and waves of talent and never resorted to the kind of physical tactics this edition of the franchise was using to seemingly beat the Sabres into submission.

I don't know if Burns read the piece or just seized on what someone told him, but he had a field day with it. He convened a press conference and railed about someone telling him how his team should play. He defended -- I would argue with a vengeance -- his team's right to play physical against an opponent with a reputation for not handing it well -- and that his Canadiens were no more the Canadiens of old than the Sabres were the swashbuckling team that had such early success with the likes of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert, the famed French Connection line that put Buffalo on the NHL map.

Years later, in a most informal session, I questioned Burns about that incident and he laughed. We both knew what he was doing: he took something that amounted to next to nothing and blew it into a major event. In so doing, he changed the discussion of the series. He took the onus off his players and led the media off in another direction. The players had to be grateful for the day of relief and it showed in their performance. They won the series four games to two.

I'm not saying that was the difference, Todd. I'm saying sometimes it's not just the players who have to go to another level, but the coach as well. Okay, if not another level, at least in a different direction.

No one is talking about how San Jose has the advantage of having two of the three games at home. They're talking about "here we go again" and about how the Sharks "shouldn't be in the position what with their being the No.1 seed and the Avs. No. 8." The players can, to a man, say it doesn't matter and that this team is different and all the usual clichés that apply, but the truth is that they would welcome the distraction and it's up to you to provide it.

I wouldn't advise going all Jimmy Playfair on the bench, but it might be worth a fine or two complaining about the referees or making some noise about the opposing goalie and the size of his pads or something.

It doesn't hurt to try the old saw about the NHL wanting certain teams to advance over others. It's not true, of course, but it sure seemed to inspire the Vancouver Canucks to a win on Wednesday night over the Kings of the big Los Angeles market that the NHL would love to have in its ratings books for awhile longer. Heck, you can even trot out the old saw that the Avs are playing on the idea that your team isn't mentally tough enough to win, when the truth is that the Avs have lost more Stanley Cups than they've won and it happened because, when the pressure was on, they didn't always respond.

That's sure to get a "discussion" going. Me, I'd settle on the hoary complaint that the refs are "letting the Avs get away with a lot of things that seem to be penalties in the regular season but, hey, they have a tough job out there and we'll just have to fight through it."

There isn't an old media dog in either city who won't chase that bone, and by the time you get to the rink, even the refs might be intimidated by the way the crowd is acting. Hey, is it the same as drawing up the perfect power play? No, not even close, but you're team is at a disadvantage right now what with all the baggage it collected, some of which was there even before you arrived.

That's not going to change the fact that Dany Heatley won't sacrifice his body in front of the crease or Joe Thornton will struggle with his scoring touch or that people aren't going to question Patrick Marleau's leadership ability. Your job is to change the conversation, even if you have to bend the truth a bit.

Ask Burns or just settle in for a good movie. Either way, it's a good bet you won't lose for trying.

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