3. Be ready to play 60 minutes—and more
In an era of constipated offense, the number of sudden-death overtime games has zoomed. In 1980, when first-round series were best of five, a then record 13 overtime games were played in the Stanley Cup tournament. In the past nine years there have been an average of 174 overtime matches per postseason, including 28 in '93, when Montreal won the Cup with wins in its last 10 OT games. Last season Detroit won three games in sudden death against Anaheim in the second round.
While overtime success is rooted in goal-tending, depth becomes a factor when ESPN Hockey Night turns into Good Morning America. Conventional playoff wisdom suggests teams shorten their benches in the postseason, but the four 70-second TV timeouts per period that coaches use to rest their top lines in regulation vanish in overtime. "You hope you have a decent fourth line that can eat up [overtime minutes equal to] what would have been the TV timeout," Burns says. "It depends on how you approach overtime. I tell my guys [to play cautiously], but some teams go out and shoot their bolt. Teams like us will be looking to play long overtimes."
4. Win the first round
Have we mastered the obvious or what? In the past four years top seeds have twice lost to the No. 8 team (Detroit fell to San Jose in '94, and Quebec lost to the Rangers in '95), and No. 2 seeds have been eliminated four times. Last year Edmonton used speed and superior goaltending to knock off second-seeded Dallas, even though the Stars had won all four regular-season meetings with the Oilers by a cumulative score of 18-6.
There are surprises in the first round because the series format and the sudden rise of intensity can be a shock to the players' systems after they have meandered through the seemingly endless regular season. "It might be the most difficult round to get out of because everything is fairly even," says Maple Leafs coach Mike Murphy, whose team didn't qualify for the '98 postseason but who has 11 years of playoff experience as a right wing for three teams from 1971 to '83. "The adrenaline is pumping. Mental strength and endurance are very important."
5. You need special play from special teams
The $1.75 million question is, How will referees call the games, especially obstruction? If the annual spring rodeo returns—when some of the striped shirts figure, no autopsy, no foul—then power plays and penalty killing will be as important as ever. But if the league continues its war on obstruction and there is a constant flow of players to the penalty box, something that has yet to happen in the postseason, then the Blues' potent power play with sniper Brett Hull and dangerous point men Al MacInnis and Steve Duchesne, could practically win a Cup by itself.
"Most playoff teams match up pretty evenly skating five-on-five," Robinson says. "The team that gets knocked off is the team that takes the most penalties and doesn't kill them. You don't want to give five or six power-play opportunities a game because that's asking for trouble." That theory would seem to favor a tough, disciplined team such as New Jersey, which allowed the third fewest power plays—and the second fewest power-play goals—during the regular season.
6. Do not self-destruct