PETER LAVIOLETTE, a grown-up person with a Stanley Cup on his permanent record, knows the deal. You coach in the Cup final, you lose a game, you get second-guessed. It is what happens. It is what always will happen.
The moment for the Flyers' coach came in the second period of Monday night's Game 2 against the Blackhawks. It was a game the Flyers lost, 2-1. It was a game in which the Blackhawks scored both of their goals within a 28-second span. All of this is about the first goal, and the fact the Flyers got caught with Lukas Krajicek and Oskars Bartulis, their third defense pair, on the ice at the time.
It was a fascinating, inside-the-game kind of moment - one that clearly demonstrated the enormous advantage held by the home team in these games, the advantage of the last line change. But it also resulted in a first-time admission by Laviolette, as we find ourselves about to begin the eighth week of this Flyers playoff run.
"Playing Chris Pronger 33 minutes every night, we're going to wear him out," said Laviolette, for the first time. "We've got to utilize our other defensemen and try and find the spots where we can put them in."
Laviolette was funny sometimes as he sat on a podium yesterday at the Wachovia Center, earnest at other times, determined at still other times. His team trails in the Stanley Cup finals by two games to none, with Game 3 tonight.
But that was a revealing moment, the bit about Pronger, his cornerstone defenseman. Throughout this tournament, Pronger has led the NHL in time on ice, and Laviolette has leaned on Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn to play big minutes throughout, leaving only snippets of time for Krajicek, Ryan Parent or Bartulis. Laviolette has always said that the big guys, led by Pronger, can handle it.
But then came Game 1, a 6-5 shootout loss in which Pronger played more than 32 minutes at the top end and Parent played only 41 seconds on the bottom end. And while it is very obvious both teams were chastened into tightening up their defense for Game 2, Laviolette also tinkered with the ice time.
Pronger was down to a little less than 28 minutes, still a ton. But everyone else also had time shaved off of their postseason averages, while Krajicek (11:09) and Bartulis (10:45 in place of Parent) were way up. That was the first acknowledgement that maybe the string had been stretched too tight, and then Laviolette said what he said yesterday.
In between came the second-guessing - which, again, is a cherished part of the territory for people who live this game. The cat-and-mouse sequence between Laviolette and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was fascinating, if you like this kind of thing.
At 16:29 of the second period, there was a faceoff in the neutral zone. Laviolette threw his top line on the ice - Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter - along with Bartulis and Krajicek. As he has done all series so far, Quenneville countered with his checking line - Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky. So far, so good for the Flyers.
Thirteen seconds later, there was a faceoff in the Flyers' defensive zone. Now it was decision time for Laviolette, because this was a more dangerous area. He stuck with the five guys he had on the ice, figuring Chicago would do the same - because the Blackhawks have been so consistent in throwing Bolland at Richards.
But Quenneville changed, putting his potent second line on the ice: Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer. Dangerous just became more dangerous. And even though Richards won the faceoff, the Flyers couldn't clear the puck - and Hossa ended up scoring on a rebound that just eluded Krajicek's stick. The second-guessing commenced pretty much immediately thereafter.
"Mike Richards has drawn the checking line from them 98 percent of the time," Laviolette said yesterday. "We didn't get it on that matchup. We're on the road. Like I said last night, we have confidence in our players to get the job done. We didn't have that matchup. We didn't have the luxury last night.
"Coverage was there. We tried to sweep the puck away. Our goaltender pushed it. Our defenseman tried to clear it - didn't happen. And a good goal-scorer ended up putting it in the net.
"They made that change after we'd already had our players on the ice," he said.
Laviolette guessed and lost. Quenneville used the last line change to his advantage. And underlying all of it was the notion that Pronger, and really all of the top guys, couldn't be pushed this hard for too much longer.
We can only guess about what will happen from here, now that Laviolette will have the last line change in Games 3 and 4. Three surmises: 1) that Laviolette will work to get Richards away from Bolland, and that the Flyers' top line will benefit; 2) that Krajicek and Bartulis will not be on the ice together for any more defensive-zone faceoffs; 3) that Pronger, despite everything, given the desperation of the Flyers' situation, could very well see his ice time in the 30s again. *
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