Defence steps forward

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:36 PM ET


 The building is sweltering, it's Game 7 and the crowd's so loud you can't hear yourself think.

 You're behind the goal line looking for an outlet, with a forechecker swooping in like a Stuka and one or two seconds at most to make a play. But a familiar sweater suddenly appears out of the corner of your eye. And like you've done a million times with your blueline partner this season, one quick relay and the puck is going north again. No mess, no fuss.

 "Defencemen play for one another all year, but never more than at playoff time," said commentator Jacques Demers, coach of the 1993 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. "If one makes a mistake, the other is there to cover. If ones goes up ice, the other knows to stay back. They know how the other guy will react and that's so important.

 "You can't always match lines the way you want, because of home and road advantage, but you can certainly match your best defencemen."

 Like pro football linemen, defencemen bond like never before once the calendar flips to April 1. The six, seven or eight men become more important in the dressing room hierarchy.

 Rugged Joe Watson, who patrolled the back line for the two-time Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers, could always tell when coach Fred Shero went to playoff mode.

 "Out of a 40-minute practice, we'd spend 30 in our own end," Watson said. "We'd work on three or four set plays, banking it off the boards, drop passes, anything that prevented the other team from pinching in, or for us to have to fight for control on our side of centre."

 The Flyers benefited from that repetition and the fact their starting six defencemen hardly changed in the three consecutive years they appeared in the final. Ed Van Impe, Moose Dupont, Joe and brother Jimmy Watson and Tom Bladon were permanent fixtures.

 "We all cared for each other," Joe Watson said. "Hey, we were plumbers and we knew it. We didn't want to skate too far past centre or we'd be lost.

 "The system is important, too. Look at the New Jersey Devils. Can you believe they're still doing so well despite losing Scott Stevens and others?"

 That familiarity is something the Ottawa Senators likely will benefit from when Game 1 gets underway tomorrow. Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Curtis Leschyshyn and Zdeno Chara have been together for years, augmented by Greg de Vries at the deadline.

 "We know what each other is going to do and that helps a lot, especially in tough situations," Redden says.

 Phillips has played with Chara for three years.

 "You can learn a lot about a guy just playing with him for a long time," Phillips said. You know what the other guy is going to do and you understand what each guy's role is."

 That's not to say the Leafs will suffer for airlifting in Brian Leetch and Calle Johansson at the deadline. They have Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle who have spanned most of the Pat Quinn years and Ken Klee who became their best two-way defenceman upon arrival in September.

 "The guys we added are quality veterans," McCabe said. "They've been around and can teach us a lot. They're all defencemen who've been to the Cup final (Leetch with the 1994 Rangers, Klee and Johansson with the '98 Capitals) and they can teach us a lot along the road.

 "Ed Belfour is also one of the easiest goalies in the world to play with. Now Brian and Calle have seen him, too, and they know he's one of the best puck-handling goalies they've seen and he helps us a lot on the back end."

 Though defencemen, especially the stay-at-home brand, are rarely picked in playoff pools, Demers says he tried to instill a feeling of pride in workmanship. "I'd get Lyle Odelein and Mathieu Schneider or Eric Desjardins and J.J. Daigneault and tell them, 'you're covering Wayne Gretzky's line tonight or Pat LaFontaine's line'. That was a challange for them and they loved it."

 Wearing down the opposing defence is just as important. Watson recalls the playoff wars his team used to wage with the Leafs and their two premier offensive defencemen, Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull.

 "I felt so bad for Salming," Watson said. "Not bad enough to let them win, but that the guy must have so many welts after a game. That was a terrific Toronto team that had so many good shooters in Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Salming and Turnbull. But we won those (four) series, I think because we played better defensively. Our trouble came against Montreal (in 1976). They didn't call them the Flying Frenchmen for nothing. They had five guys on the ice who looked like eight."


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