At one point between drills at practice Tuesday, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan spent a longer time than usual diagramming plays on a dry-erase board with his players gathered around.
Sorry, the acoustics are not good enough at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for the reporters in attendance to discern Sullivan’s game plan for the New York Islanders, the Penguins’ first-round opponent in the playoffs.
But the extra focus on the Islanders – and the fact that all that planning could change many times during the series before it culminates in a handshake line – is what helps define the glorious, grinding, gut-wrenching spectacle of gamesmanship that is an NHL best-of-seven playoff series.
It’s the same team, over and over, with all the things that go into it, until someone wins four times.
Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz offered one succinct definition for the way to approach any playoff series: “You just can’t be stupid.”
There is really nothing else in hockey like a first-to-four NHL playoff series. There are occasionally home-and-home series during the regular season – the Penguins had one with Detroit recently – but even those are dwindling. There are some shorter series in college hockey. There are tournaments such as the Olympics and world championships with round-robin play and brackets.
But the task – or opportunity – to lineup against one team, usually every 48 hours, knowing someone’s season will end with the series, magnifies the significance, emotion and execution of every aspect of play.
“There’s a lot of ups and downs,” Schultz said. “You’ve got to make a lot of adjustments in-game. You get to know the other team pretty well. It’s always a lot of emotion. It’s a lot of fun.”
Sullivan, who has coached the Penguins to two Cups and nine wins in 10 series, doesn’t get to avenge any hits or take another shot at a goalie who made a big save. But he understands the chapter each series represents.
“It seems that all series that you’re involved with, they all take on their own stories,” Sullivan said, adding that each team has a say in that story. “Controlling your emotions has a lot to do with it. Focusing on the task at hand, paying attention to details, controlling what you can … all those things.”
That’s not always that easy for players. The same guys are blocking your shots, finishing their checks, adjusting to try to beat you in the faceoff circle, and you’re returning the favor.
“First of all, you have to have a short memory,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. “Whatever happens out there (on the ice), you have to put it aside. You have to go shift by shift, period by period.”
And do it with a tenacity that tops what is normally seen during the regular season.
There is also the off-ice code. Teams guard information about injuries and lineups, and avoid providing bulletin-board material when speaking publicly about the opposing team.
The Penguins have talked about having an advantage from being in a sort of playoff mode down the stretch run because they were desperate to lock up a playoff berth and finish with the best possible seeding.
But the nature of a seven-game series makes the postseason different still.
“Everyone wants to win,” Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson said. “So you try and do whatever it takes to win. Everyone understands that. We’re expecting their very best.”
Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Other times, it’s just not good enough.
“There’s going to be emotional highs and lows,” Johnson said. “It’s physical. Physically demanding. Mentally demanding. Adjustments. All those things. There’s so many things that come into play.”
“As the playoffs go on, it’s a war of attrition, too. You need a little bit of luck involved with injuries and all those things. The teams that keep even-keel the most are the ones that usually have the most success. You can’t get too high, and you can’t get too low.”
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who in winning three Stanley Cups has a ton of experience in the best-of-seven format, put it a slightly different way.
“It’s game to game. You’ve got to turn the page and adjust,” Crosby said. “It’s really who can get to their own game the most often and execute in big situations. There are going to be tight games, so whether it’s a big defensive play, a big save, special teams, every play is magnified in the playoffs and all those little things aren’t so little.
“That’s probably the best way I can describe it over the course of a seven-game series, is just all those little details add up to you winning or losing.”
And then, the players from both sides take a deep breath.
“The handshake line at the end, it’s a tradition in sports. When the series is over, it’s over,” Johnson said. “You really just generate more of a mutual respect for each other because very rarely does somebody back down.”