There is a long, inglorious history of postseason suicide that stretches from Boston coach Don Cherry, whose team was assessed a penalty for having too many men on the ice in the dying moments of Game 7 of the '79 semifinals in Montreal, to Oilers defenseman Steve Smith, who shot the puck off the leg of goaltender Grant Fuhr and into his own net in Game 7 of the '86 quarterfinals; from defenseman Marty McSorley, who was penalized for an illegal stick when the Kings were 1:45 from taking a 2-0 lead back to Los Angeles in the '93 finals, to Philadelphia coach Terry Murray, who labeled his team's performance in the finals last spring a "choking situation."
As important as avoiding odd acts of self-destruction, teams must not give up soft goals. Consider: Jacques Lemaire's shot from center ice that beat Chicago's Tony Esposito and turned Game 7 of the '71 finals in Montreal's favor; Ron Francis's 65-foot bouncer in '92 that eluded Mike Richter with the Rangers poised to take a 3-1 series lead back to Madison Square Garden in the second round against Pittsburgh; and Flyers goalies Garth Snow and Ron Hextall fanning on 55-footers in last year's finals.
"Those bad goals can just zap the life out of a team," Robinson says. "It's not so much what you keep out but what you let in."
7. Stick with one goalie
In the last 25 years no team has won a Stanley Cup without a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender. In '96 Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman vacillated between Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon and lost in the semifinals, but then avoided making the same mistake last year by starting Vernon in every game. On the other hand, in the finals against Detroit, Philadelphia shot itself in the head playing netminder roulette with Hextall and Snow. On Monday, new Flyers coach Roger Neilson named Sean Burke, who was acquired for Snow in March, the starter for the postseason, distancing himself from Murray's blunder in '97.
Montreal coach Alain Vigneault, who divided the team's work almost evenly between veteran Andy Moog and youngster Jocelyn Thibault, seems prepared to ride out the playoffs with the 38-year-old Moog. Ottawa's Jacques Martin, meanwhile, is going with Damian Rhodes over Ron Tugnutt, although neither is going to scare anyone. Those are the goalies and those teams better stick to them.
So who will take home the coveted trophy? There will be a long, bumpy ride in the Western Conference, where the three established powerhouses—Dallas, Detroit and Colorado—have been joined by a fourth, St. Louis. However the Red Wings can win either by banging or with finesse, and they should advance to the finals, assuming Osgood's goaltending holds up.
The class of the Eastern Conference is the Devils. New Jersey will scuffle for goals and won't play the most eye-catching hockey, but it is more committed to its system than the 15 other playoff teams are to theirs. "The bottom line," says Robinson, a New Jersey assistant when the Devils beat Detroit in the 1995 finals, "is winning the Cup."
That's what the Devils will do.