For three games in the NHL Eastern Conference final, he sat but two seats over – eyes leaving the play on the ice only when he would scribble short notes in small, perfectly formed letters.
A combination of politeness and near-sightedness means it cannot be reported here exactly what Terry Murray was writing down, but rest assured it had to with the strengths and weaknesses of the New Jersey Devils.
Presumably one note had to do with the Devils’ ability to concentrate, something neither the Ottawa Senators nor the Washington Capitals were always capable of doing as each fell in seven games to the dreary, defence-first-second-third-and-fourth strategy of the New York Rangers.
Up until Dec. 12, Murray was head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, and lest anyone presume he was fired for failure, it might be noted that he had a winning record at the time of dismissal.
He knows his hockey: first as a defenceman for the Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals, later as head coach of the Caps, Flyers, Florida Panthers and Kings. He’s coached more than a thousand games and has an impressive winning record (498-393, with 89 ties and 41 overtime losses). His teams missed the playoffs only twice and he reached the Stanley Cup final in 1997 with the Flyers. The Kings were wise to send him ahead to scout the Devils.
Among the various things Murray could not help but notice:
The Devils’ third defenceman: If, as they say, the Kings’ success is built on the fore-check, they will have to come to terms with the best puck-handling goaltender the game has ever known, 40-year-old Martin Brodeur. New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer even allowed that several of the Devils breakout plays are based upon that first pass being made by Brodeur. No other team does this. Dump-and-chase will fail against the Devils unless those pucks are kept away from Brodeur.
The Fourth Line: DeBoer put together an “energy” line of tiny Stephen Gionta (little, little brother of little Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta), Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter and the line’s speed drove the Rangers defence bonkers. The three also showed finish uncommon to fourth lines. They played like a second line. Another surprise was David Clarkson, who has a knack for scoring game winners (three so far) – meaning the Kings need to pay particular attention to players who are complete strangers.
Sputtering Star: You didn’t need to be an NHL scout to see that the great Patrik Elias, 36, ain’t what he used to be. As for that linemate Elias once created such magic with, Petr Sykora became a healthy scratch during the Rangers series. DeBoer has tried a variety of line changes to see if he can reboot Elias, but it hasn’t happened. Yet.
Soaring Star: It has been a rough spring for Russian hockey players. But Ilya Kovalchuk, long considered a playoff underachiever, is finally making his absurd $100-million (U.S.), 15-year contract pay interest. He’s been fully into every game, leads the playoffs in scoring with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) and his stick handling and lateral movement on the power play produced some rare holes in the Rangers’ blockade defence. The Kings will pay him particular attention.
The Sleeper: Who is Bryce Salvador? The quintessential journeyman defenceman – has suddenly blossomed, at 36, into a scoring sensation. The Brandon native’s three goals and eight assists – two points more than he had in 82 games during the regular season – make him the leading defensive threat in the final. But he’s more than that: solid, smart and determined on defence.
Inspired: DeBoer and his gifted assistants – Larry Robinson handling the defence, Adam Oates the forwards and power play – aren’t afraid to tweak. With his team struggling to find goals against the Rangers, DeBoer put together a line that actually predated his arrival: Zach Parise with Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus. They took to the ice like school kids let out for an unexpected recess.
Attrition: By Wednesday, the Devils will have been off five days after playing 18 hard playoff games. What Murray will have noted, however, is that Devils do not appear worn down in the slightest. If anything, 40-year-old Brodeur and 36-year-old Salvador are getting younger.
Final Note: With two such excellent teams about to play for what matters most in the NHL, Murray might consider advising new Kings coach Darryl Sutter to take the advice offered up by Rangers coach John Tortorella before Game 5.
And then be prepared to work their butts off.