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Coaches toss aside all else

Only winning matters when teams reach a postseason Game 7; injuries and playing time concerns go away.

Published May 23, 2004

TAMPA - Playing a Game 7 means never having to say you're sorry.

Throughout the course of the long, 82-game regular season, coaches often coddle players. They reward them with extra playing time in appreciation of hard work. They rest stars in particularly physical games or when the schedule gets cramped to save them for later in the season.

In Game 7, though, all that is out the window. In Game 7, there literally might be no next game. "I'm not too concerned about hurt feelings at this point," Lightning coach John Tortorella said.

Tortorella's mandate, and the motto of all coaches in a Game 7, is simple.

"I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team win," Tortorella said.

At this point in the NHL season, the team is greater than the individuals, the whole is greater than the individual parts.

For example, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said Saturday morning he would be willing to play top star Keith Primeau more than 30 minutes, about 10 minutes more than normal, if he had to.

"Right now, at this point, I'm not worried about minutes," Hitchcock said.

Neither is Tortorella.

"You're not worried about what is going to happen a month from now because there is no month from now," Tortorella said. "You do what you can to win right now."

Meantime, the players take on the same no-tomorrow attitude. They ignore painful bumps, aching bruises and, many times, injuries more serious than your run-of-the-mill sore back.

"Brett Hull," Hitchcock said when recalling a player who went above and beyond just to play. "He had a three-degree (sprain) of the MCL (in the 1999 playoffs). He played."

He played when he hardly could walk. His knee should have been in a cast. He should have been in a hospital recovering from surgery. Instead, his knee was wrapped in a tangled web of braces, tape and bandages and he was on the ice.

With that mangled knee, Hull scored the Cup-winning goal.

"I've had players go from the playoffs to rehab to training camp," Hitchcock said. "They had no break. They played, had surgery, rehabbed and then reported straight to camp. That's how serious the injuries were."

At this time of the season, coaches aren't interested in how injured a player is. When they ask a player how his back or knee or shoulder is, they don't want to hear "sore" or "better" or "tender."

They want to one of two answers:

"I can play," or "I can't play."

That's the only answers a coach wants.

"If you have to prod a guy into playing, I'm not sure I would want him in there anyway," Tortorella said. "But what we are asking as coaches is a lot. But you'll find the players are asking the same from themselves."

That's the playoff mentality. That's the Game 7 mentality.

That's hockey.

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