Lombardi, on success and disappointments
Kicking off the Q&A sessions with Dean Lombardi and Terry Murray, here was the first general question about the season. The questions get more specific from here, and the answers also get shorter (and yes, this was one answer…)
Question: When you look back at the season, where did you see progress and where did you expect to see progress that maybe you didn’t get?
LOMBARDI: “In a backhanded way — and I said this during the season — I don’t like the fact that we put ourselves in situations where we had to face adversity, but I liked the way we dealt with it. The way they responded after putting themselves in that position in late January, we went through a stretch there for a month and a half where we only lost four games, and every one of those games was critical. The way they found a way to win, that, i think, is progress. That’s part of building mental toughness and not caving to the pressure of having expectations or whatever. But on the other hand, and I’ve had a couple players already talk about it, we almost have to be better — well, I don’t want to say almost, because you’re always trying to gauge the mental look of your team — it was almost like we had trouble dealing with success. I put success in quotes. We had the 12-3 (start), and there’s such a thing of feeling good about yourself in the wrong way. Then we had another stretch where we were really good, and it looked like we had learned from the first one, then we fell off and put ourselves to where we had to fight our way back and play at an incredibly high winning percentage to get in (to the playoffs).
“Then you almost look at the playoffs too, a 4-0 lead (in Game 3). It’s almost like you’ve got a microcosm of some of the things you faced during the year. Again, I put this in quotes, but it’s a version of `success,’ and dealing with it. That’s where, on the one hand, I liked the fact that we responded to putting ourselves in a predicament, and not giving up, and on the other hand, we have to learn from this and not get in that situation in the first place. So you lose a 4-0 lead, and then you find a way to go back up there and win Game 5 and take them to overtime. Even in Game 6 there, the first 30 minutes, they’re all over us, and the last 30 minutes are ours. So they’ve shown they can respond to it, but the point is that to be a really good team is to learn to be professional. If you look at the good teams, you have to define the problem and then recognize the signs that this is not going to seep in again. That’s the responsibility of your captains and your young people going, that when you get off to 12-3 and you start seeing that slide, knock it off. Detroit, when they’re in a slide, they’ve be .500, but you don’t go 0-8 or 0-9 or whatever. Those are the two things that I take out of it, in terms of progress. I do like the fact that they dealt with that. That wasn’t easy. From the high-stick game (against Phoenix), I looked at it and we had lost only four games up until the last week there. That’s a lot of pressure, and that is responding. Then, obviously, they found a way after losing their top player, to get in in the first place.
“The irony is, you look at this playoff series and everybody talked about our scoring. I think that’s the thing we’ve got to figure out here now. It’s identifying your areas of strength and weakness first, and really identifying it. I think if we had gone into the series and lost games 2-1 or 3-2, everybody would have said, `OK, that makes sense.’ And that’s kind of the way we looked at it. We thought it would be tough to get in a shootout with them. The number of goals we scored in six games, I think we only did that once this year, if you look at six-game blocks. We scored 16 goals in (the first) four games, and I know we only did that three times during the year, over a block of four consecutive games. I haven’t looked at it yet, but I think there’s one block now, over six games, where we scored that many goals. So that’s the one thing that’s troubling. So that’s what we have to look at. And our goaltending was great. So we scored goals, and we’ve proven we can stop them. We beat them 5-0 up there during the season (and) we beat them 1-0, so we proved we can deal with probably the best nine forwards in the league, collectively. Then, all of a sudden, the playoffs start and we were very uncharacteristic in what is supposed to be a staple of our game. I told you this three years ago, that we’re going to build this from the back out. Defensively, it’s the first step. We were fourth in the league in goals against, and we accomplished that. Then we got in the playoffs and we scored goals and all of a sudden we’re giving them up. So that’s something we’ve got to look at closely.
“Now you’ve got to give San Jose credit. Obviously those three lines, like I said, I think collectively are as good as anybody. I do think what showed up is the emergence of one of your top players, Kopitar. I think, over his first couple years in the league, we talked about it. He was free-wheeling and it looks great on offense, but he was not a great defensive player. I think, this year, he became one of the best defensive players in the league. You’ve got a guy here now that has has already done the Yzerman, Sakic transformation. It usually took those guys until 25, 26 (years old) before they figure out how to be a complete player. This kid has done it at an early age. I think that’s huge, particularly when you’re dealing with big bodies like San Jose down low. But that’s the irony of it. We all looked at it and thought missing his offense (would be big), but we end up missing his defense. But give San Jose credit. And also, when you’re talking about our key young guys on the back end, and the way we’re set up with the 3-3 split, with three puck-movers, those three are just starting to get playoff experience. You saw it there when they ratchet it up, and you see it in all these games. It’s an enormous level of intensity, it’s an enormous level of pressure, and generally, when you’ve got those scrambles going on and Doughty is on his game, it’s, `Settle it down, we’re going to make a play here and we’re going the other way.’ You saw, at times, it go like this [up and down]. When I look at the experience of those guys, the three puck-movers who have to show poise, you’re dealing with (limited) playoff experience. I think that was part of the issue, but that part, those kids will figure out.
“So this goes through the whole series. It’s not just the end. That’s why the pro scouts are constantly watching, because these are key evaluation periods. But those are the things that kind of strike us. The staple of our game, where was that? What was going on there? Those are the things that strike me. The poise level, the key defensive guys, and then I think you’ve got to give San Jose credit, because that’s as good a group as you’re going to face. It’s one thing to shut down one line, but you’re dealing with three lines there. The other thing that would show up is the skill level, at times, to get in their end. Because when we were at our best, we were playing in their end and exposing their back end, and we didn’t do that enough. You saw pockets of it, like certainly in Game 2, and even in Game 6 you saw it when we finally got our feet under us. That’s our game. It’s one thing to be a staple, but part of being good defensively is playing in their end. So those are the things that strike me. Ask me in two weeks and I’ll give you a longer-winded answer.”