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John Gilbert: Subtle, democratic trick part of Herbie's magic Penguins playoff

Long, hard, creative days on the job, followed by tense, pressure-filled nights, and then going back to a hotel. It may be a little more glamorous than that, but it's the endless string of nights living out of a motel that is the toughest part. S...

Long, hard, creative days on the job, followed by tense, pressure-filled nights, and then going back to a hotel. It may be a little more glamorous than that, but it's the endless string of nights living out of a motel that is the toughest part. So Herb Brooks is coming home to Minnesota, although he's willing to stay on the job in Pittsburgh for another week or two, or month or two.
That's a good thing, because some miracles take longer than others. And make no mistake, what Herb Brooks is doing in Pittsburgh and around other National Hockey League cities, is nothing short of miraculous by NHL standards. There are a lot of hockey fans -- including a lot of otherwise intelligent former players who never were coached by anyone with a magic touch -- who think that tactical and strategic hockey is overrated; throw the puck out there and let the team develop a little chemistry, and you can win.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins were being called the NHL's underachievers at best, and other than Jaromir Jagr totally without talent at worst, when Brooks was summoned to take the helm. The Penguins had the third worst record in the NHL at the time, and as Brooks learned his personnel and they learned his demands, they crept upward, finally finishing even .500 as the seventh seed among eight Eastern teams in the playoffs.
They took out Washington, the No. 2 seed, in five games, and the cynics said Washington outplayed Pittsburgh in four of those games. They also said, "Yeah, but Pittsburgh has got all those Europeans," as if that was some sort of rationalization for the Penguins success, and conveniently forgetting that those same Europeans were the same players those critics had called talentless just a couple of months ago.
Brooks took the defensive-oriented shackles off the Penguins when he stepped in at midseason, and the team flourished. But they had gotten back into some tendencies that made their offense less-effective, especially when Jagr was out with an injury late in the regular season. Brooks, always the psychological master, took control by a subtle, democratic trick.
"We have a half-dozen Czech players, and we had gotten into a mode where one forward kept hanging back, like a defensive forward, which is the Czech style," Brooks said. "I'm more into taking ice away and pressure-pressure-pressure. The Europeans were comfortable being defensive instead of strategically attacking by reading and being interactive. So we talked it over at a team meeting, and took a vote. The players agreed we should open it up, so I turned 'em loose. The funny thing is, now we're playing more of a hybrid North American style with Europeans, and the media says we're playing a Czech system."
Then it was on to Philadelphia, where the Penguins not only had to face the No. 1 seed, but in a city where no Pittsburgh team had won even one game for something like five years. Pittsburgh nipped the Flyers 1-0 in Game 1 on Jagr's goal, and on a shutout by someone named Ron Tugnutt, a goaltender who had been cast aside by five other NHL teams.
Then the Penguins clipped the Flyers 4-1, as Jagr and Robert Lang scored twice apiece for the Czech contingent.
At Brooks' suggestion, general manager Craig Patrick traded veteran and one-time superstar goalie Tom Barasso to Ottawa for Tugnutt and a throw-in Finnish defenseman named Janni Laukkanen. Tugnutt, who had won a total of three games in his long and unremarkable NHL career, has won six out of seven this spring for the Penguins with a spectacular .944 save percentage that led the league. "Tugnutt is a good guy, too," said Brooks.
The Flyers tried everything. They shot from everywhere, outshooting Pittsburgh 45-25, but the Penguins have 14 European players in the lineup, and they have this warped idea that shots on goal are meaningless, unless you need to score. The frustrated Flyers finally pulled out their trump card, and returned to the Broad Street Bullies tactic late in Game 2.
General manager Bobby Clarke apparently hasn't changed his attitude. Once, as an NHL star player, Clarke accepted the urging of a Team Canada coach that "Somebody's got to stop that No. 17," and hopped over the boards to break Valery Kharlamov's ankle with a vicious two-handed chop, which led Canada to the first Canada Cup over the Soviet Union -- a victory still universally celebrated across Canada. So when things got desperate, Brooks wasn't surprised.
"They jumped us at the end," said Brooks. "They sent a hand-picked unit out with three or four minutes to go, and when they dropped the puck, they dropped their gloves. All five of them jumped our guys. It was ugly, and a lot of people in the NHL are pretty disgusted. They got ripped on TV and in their own newspapers. During the season, they beat up a lot of people."
Game 2 wasn't on national television, or even cable, but Brooks anticipated a rugged continuation of the series going into Tuesday night's Game 3 in Pittsburgh. "The Flyers have something of a simplistic style, but they execute it very well, and I take my hat off to 'em," Brooks said. "They dump everything in deep, then they forecheck to get the puck, and they cycle the puck awfully well. And their power play is very good. It's going to be a long, tough series."
Pittsburgh was 0-4-1 against Philadelphia this regular season, but even before the series, Brooks had turned that into a positive. "Three of those games were after I came here," he said. "We lost 3-1 on an empty-net goal, we lost 3-2 on a power-play goal, and we tied 'em at home. But I think we match up a little better than in the past."
That was before the Penguins spread out, attacked from all angles, and befuddled the Flyers by somehow turning the congested, skinny NHL rinks into useful, catch-me-if-you-can expanses of open ice. It is fascinating to listen to broadcast analysts say that Pittsburgh is winning simply because it has such skilled players, when these are the same players the same analysts said had no talent, just three months ago.
But Herbie wants to come home. He wants to coach, in the most intense way, but he no longer is willing to live in a motel. "I got home briefly at Easter," he said. "That makes three days in five months I've been home."
And then Brooks said something he's never said before. "I would sit down and talk to the Wild, after the season," Brooks said.
Let's see now -- the Minnesota Wild can't seem to focus in on any one person to coach their expansion start-up team next fall, and Herb Brooks wants to come home to live in Shoreview, a Twin Cities suburb, but he still wants to coach. So here's a quiz: Can anyone think of any way that Herb Brooks can live at home, in the Twin Cities, and still coach a NHL team?

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