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May 7, 2004

Ken Hitchcock

TAMPA, FLORIDA: Practice Day

Q. Even though you guys have made some changes and it's the playoffs instead of the regular season, what was it about Tampa that gave you guys so much trouble this year?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, I don't think that, everybody talks about their speed, and that, and their speed is fine. But I thought it was our unawareness on the ice. I thought that we were guilty of resting with the puck and they stripped us a lot and created a lot of odd-man rushes, even breakaways. Just our awareness with the puck was not sharp.
Everybody talks about their speed and their skill. That's not -- that's not what makes them a great team. It's their checking. Their tenacity is up there with the best in this league, and that combination with tenacity and then the ability to turn it over unnerves teams, and if you're not ready for it -- if you don't have a quick head in this series, you're going to be making some bigger errors.
We came down in here with the wrong attitude, especially at the start of games, and we were on our heels because of it.
Q. Do you think that the additions that you've made since the last time you played are going to be able to counteract that checking ability and the skill?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, I don't know that it's the additions that we've made. It's that we are a better team. We have one injury, Dejardin, we are healthy. We're just a better team. Our awareness on the ice is better. Our team play is better.
I don't think our team gets enough credit for how much it improved during the season. We had a complete makeover when we went through that rash of injuries. We had a complete makeover. We were a plodding team that became a quicker team. Our puck movement is a lot better, our transition game is a lot better, our speed is a lot better and we were forced into a lot of changes, but they ended up working out great for us.
Just our overall offensive and defensive awareness is much better, really, since mid-March than at any time during the season. We won a lot of games early in the year with structure and grunt work. We won a lot of games just overwhelming teams with our work. But we come at you with more speed than people give us credit for.
Q. This team seems to spend more time behind the opposition's net than any other team; how do you could combat that?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Their attitude is they play keep-away. They don't force the puck. They don't play -- they don't have a shot mentality that some people do, which is hammer away and try to get second and third opportunity. They play keep-away. They hang on to it. They wait for you to track and then they take advantage of it. And sometimes they will spend 30 seconds in your end with the puck, being very patient, and you start panicking; as soon as they catch you panicking then when they jump on you. They are very good at it. They are very patient with it. I think both teams are patient. Our team is excellent at it.
Everybody is talking about our braun. Our braun; we don't knock people through the boards. We have some people that play physically, but so do they. The strength of our team is our patience with the puck, especially in the offensive zone, and that's the same as Tampa has.
It will be very interesting. I really feel like the team that at the end of the day when you are evaluating this series, I really feel like it's which team can control the offensive zone more is going to win this series.
Q. You said yesterday that you felt like people view you as the underdog; do you like that?
KEN HITCHCOCK: After a while, you don't even care. I think the underdog is based on our record against Tampa, but this is a different series for us. The sense of urgency to win games early in the series is very much upon us. It's on our shoulders. We have to win road games to win this series. We probably have to win more than one road game to win this series, and that's the challenge that we are faced with right now.
Q. When you talked about Toronto, you said how much more fun it was going to be to play against a real hockey city than when you had faced the Devils and never really knew where they were; what do you think about this one now? How does this one compare?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, I think, you know, we were talking about this on the flight up. This city reminds me of the way it used to be when it first started out, when there were the buildings in Detroit and Milwaukee and Chicago, Cincinnati. They were filled. You couldn't get a seat. And it was a crowd that came to have fun. It wasn't a crowd that came to critique everything. This isn't a crowd that analyzes the game to death. They come here to have fun and it's a very, almost festive party atmosphere, and it's fun to see that in our game again. It's fun to watch people come to the rink and enjoy the game of hockey.
I'm looking today and reading the paper and some guy has got written, there's still some $8 tickets left. God, for what, a beer? (Laughter) You don't find that. To me, that reminds me of the old IHL, when you used to go play Viper games and there used to be 17,000, 18,000, trying to get a seat in Cincinnati and there was the Garden there, there was 12,000 and they came to have a good time, win or lose they came to have a good time and that's what's happening here.
Q. Can you talk about Sydor and what you see and how he came up -- (inaudible)?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, he's got a bad memory. First thing that happened was he came to us as a 15-year-old and we sent him home and he wouldn't go home. He wouldn't leave the bus station. We had to finally go and get him and explain to him that there was a league rule that was in place, and you have to go home.
He came back to us as a 16-year-old, and he was a touch overweight, about 40 pounds. (Laughter.). The decision was made by scouts, NHL scouts, that he was a center iceman, left winger and the decision was made he could be a mid-round pick as a forward or a first-round pick as a defenseman. We made the decision, play him -- he played as a 16-year-old, he played at forward. And as a 17-year-old he played as a defenseman with Niedermayer as his partner and those two guys had the green light to do whatever they wanted. Sometimes both were behind the opposition net, but we just let them go, and it was really made because people told us that he had a better chance to go higher in the NHL Draft as a defenseman than he did as a forward.
There was discussion whether he was going to score enough goals as a forward, so we made the decision. And I screwed him up again by playing him out as a forward when we killed Dallas in the playoff runs.
Q. The Eastern Conference itself, going into the playoffs, I think eight wins separated top to bottom is very, very close. To look and see what the Lightning have done so far, they have not lost on the road, they are 8-1, only played nine games so far, is that a surprise to you, that they have been able to be so effective on the road and only play nine games?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, what's a surprise to me was how they beat the Islanders so easily. I was surprised by that. They ran into a situation where Montreal was very competitive but they could not beat the goaltender. Montreal really was a lot more competitive, then they lost four straight.
The Islanders series was surprising because we thought the Islanders would give them a big battle with the way the regular season worked out. So that series was very surprising.
I think the big thing is that in beating -- you can outplay Tampa, but you've got to beat the goaltender, and when you're sitting here after two series and there's a goalie in this league with a safe percentage that high and a goals against average under 1, that's almost unrealistic, for this time of year.
So I think there's a misnomer. I thought Montreal played very well the last three games, but they couldn't beat the goaltender.
Q. Would you say the effective seasons of Khabibulin has to do with knocking down a lot of checks?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, they play the five-goalie system. There's five goalies, they are blocking shots, everybody. They don't bang you through the boards. They just block shots. You get nothing. Unless you're patient and smart, it's going to be very frustrating. I thought the Islanders were very frustrated. They forced pucks and Lightning got odd-man scoring opportunities because they forced way too many offensive chances.
Q. You were talking about how much your team has improved since March, how much has your team improved since the playoff starts started?
KEN HITCHCOCK: I think the biggest thing for us is we are a hardened team. Our resolve, you can't diminish our resolve. This group has a lot of resolve. I know we are going to get pushed right to the limit here but you ought to not downcast what we've done to get here. We've beat two really good teams. We beat two teams who really thought they were Stanley Cup champions, who really thought they had a chance to win the Cup and we beat them both in five and six.
I'm not sure if the Islanders or Montreal thought like that. But we beat two awfully good hockey clubs to get here. We know how to play when it's on the line and that's a huge factor for us. I don't care what Tampa has done that way, but that's pretty important for us.
Q. How do your bench strategies change between the two coaches, you and Burns knew each other from way back in your strategies, you and Quinn coached together and you could tell the chess match was there, but and you Tortorella, you don't have any history, per se, how different is this in terms of bench coaching?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, it's a little bit different in the fact that he doesn't play three lines or four lines in an ongoing basis. He inserts players into those lines but he plays his top players. John plays his top players more minutes because of the way we play, we could not play our top players those minutes. We've played them once in the last 15 games, those minutes, which was the last game, and I thought we were lacking in energy because of the way we played.
We can't play our players the way he plays them. We don't have that type of athlete. So that strategy, we have to balance it out more. You know he has guys like Richards and Lecavalier who are in the 22, 23, 24 minutes; we can't do that. That's a big challenge for us, because he's got scoring players out all the time. He double-shifts Lecavalier, he double-shifts Richards. Those are big challenges for us in this series, big challenges.
We have to play four lines for our game to work. We can't play three. Our game doesn't work with three lines. If we are going to play physical and we are going to play aggressive, we have to play four and we've got to have our fourth line against good players.
Q. You mentioned that you had played two tough series against tough teams, and that the Lightning have gone through in nine games, relatively, I guess had an easier time. Do you place any stock in the fact you may be banged up or physically not in the same realm perhaps as Tampa is at this stage, especially with Tampa having eight-days rest?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, my experience there is that I don't find that to be a factor early. I find that to be a factor later.
People always wonder why the Toronto Maple Leafs played the way they did in Game 5. I thought Game 5 was a direct reflection of what happened in the series against Ottawa. Their energy, they had body language in some of their players, some of their best players, they didn't look healthy, they didn't look good physically and I thought it really showed in Game 5.
I think it's later in series that you see the wear and tear take place; not early. I think there's so much energy early in series, I don't think it's a big factor. But it is later.
Q. Does Khabibulin strike you as a bit of a streaky goalie?
KEN HITCHCOCK: You know what, he's a lot like Roy for me, and that is that if you don't get to him early in a hockey game and you don't put a little bit of doubt in his mind, I don't think you score on him. We have players who are on our team that have known him for a long, long time, and their feeling is that if you don't score early, it's really difficult to beat him, because his confidence grows, but he's also the product of the way they play in front of him, because they get in lanes and he doesn't see the bang-bang plays that other goalies do, like, say, Belfour, where you're getting second and third cracks at Belfour. You get none of those here. You don't get any second, third cracks here because they are in lane so well.
Q. What of the fact you've got the three and four line differential going here between you and them, will your matchups be more individual than units or lines?
Q. How are you going to do that?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, I think we've learned to play with everybody. This team has learned that we don't necessarily change lines. We have, for instance, Primeau might play with Gagne and Kapanen, but he also might play with LeClair and Recchi. Zhamnov might play with LeClair and Recchi. We don't find it advantageous to change three, per se. We enjoy the individual tough on the road.
At home, it's a different story. But if we define a match up, it's usually one-on-one and we don't worry about who the wings are on that line. We don't really care.
Q. Have you been happy with the play of John LeClair?
KEN HITCHCOCK: At the start of every series, the two series we've played, John's been guilty of trying to score before he's tried to create space out. So basically, he's been so focused on trying to help the team scoring that he's not taking people's space away.
As the series goes on, the same thing happened, he was terrific in Games 4 and 5 against Jersey, he was very good in Game 5 in our building and equally good at the tail end of game 6. When he fights for space, everything gets taken care of. He's a scoring player. But when you're looking to score, you're trying to find space rather than take it away, I don't think he was effective early in the series.
For us to be a good team in this series, he's got to go take other people's space early in games, not wait to find it and that's going to be very important for us.

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