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Savran: Hlinka steps up and takes charge

Saturday, March 31, 2001

Systems in hockey are like opinions. Everybody has one or more. It really doesn't matter how many you have or which one you use if your players don't, or in some cases, won't, play it with diligence and dispatch.

That the Penguins' implementation of the left-wing lock has resulted in three victories and only five goals against -- remarkably, only one at even strength -- is less important than the fact Coach Ivan Hlinka hitched up his belt, stepped forward and implemented something! Not the least of which was re-establishing, or perhaps establishing for the first time, he is, indeed, the head coach and things are going to be done his way.

There is the notion around town that he has merely been a sheepherder, calling out line changes but giving little direction. True or not, that is the perception.

It should be remembered Hlinka had a form of the left-wing lock in place at the start of the season, but that didn't go down very well with certain players. That prompted a players-only meeting in early November, a meeting that had the feel and smell of an insurrection waiting to happen.

Perhaps still feeling his way, trying to promote harmony and team unity, and with the team owner still only that at the time, Hlinka acquiesced to the players' suggestions/demands. Fans were sentenced to another four months of defense being another back-burner concept.

But it's like a credit card spending spree: Eventually, you're going to have to pay for all you've charged.

In hockey, payment is due when best-of-seven playoff series begin. The penalty for late payment or no payment at all? An early exit from the annual pursuit of Lord Stanley's favorite piece of hardware.

Playoff eve is not the time to begin thinking about defense, let alone practicing it.After watching his players skate gingerly through the defensive zone like it was pockmarked with land mines for 70 games, Hlinka pulled a Popeye: "That's all I can stand, I can't stand no more!" He called a meeting and laid down a tablet of hockey law.

It's not terribly important what the system was. It could have been the right-wing lock, the lock, stock and barrel, the 1-4 delay, the 4-3, the 3-4 or the prevent. What was important is that Hlinka made clear to the inmates that he and his assistants -- not the captain, not the owner -- would be calling the shots.

A coach would be foolish not to solicit input from veteran players who sport playoff battle scars and a couple championship rings.

But at the end of the day, he's got to be the one to sift through the information gathered and devise the system. He's got to be the cartographer, drawing the playoff road map.

Coaching during the regular season is not a barometer of how one will do in the playoffs. Take this past week for example. Tuesday night, the Penguins faced Buffalo, a team they hadn't seen since the day after Christmas. Last Sunday, they played the Devils for the first time in five weeks. Given the travel and the quirkiness of the schedule, it's difficult to make a game plan for an isolated regular season match. But in the playoffs, you see the same faces every other night for a week and a half.

A coaching staff had better be able to spot an opponent's vulnerabilities, and then figure out how to exploit them.

And if they've found a soft spot in your underbelly, you'd better make the necessary adjustments, and make them quickly, because there usually are only 45 hours between games. In that period you've got to recognize a problem and devise a strategy to correct it, with limited time to practice it before the national anthems are played again. If you haven't made the adjustments, you can bet your opponent will.

Further, you have to recognize the different looks you might get once the puck is dropped. There are a lot of reasons Scotty Bowman has a championship ring adorning every finger, but game-to-game, period-to-period, and shift-to-shift adjustments are chief among them.

Many have made up their minds about Ivan Hlinka. But a coach should be evaluated on his performance in the playoffs. And I think that's exactly what will happen here. The Penguins' fate in the playoffs and that of their coach are intertwined.

Opinions on the length of their playoff road this spring run the gamut, from one round to four. But as they say, the longest step of any journey is the first one, and Hlinka took it by calling his my way or the highway meeting in the swamplands of New Jersey. The head coach can't just be along for the ride. He's got to drive the bus.

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat, weeknights at 6:30 on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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