DETROIT -- It happened late Tuesday night. As the Detroit Red Wings scrambled to match the San Jose Sharks' late-game intensity in another come-from-behind victory, I was surprised to hear my inner voice asking my inner ear the question:
Is Todd McLellan out-coaching his old boss?
As has been noted frequently during this playoff series, McLellan spent three seasons working here for the Red Wings and their undisputed savvy coach, Mike Babcock. The Sharks then hired away McLellan before the 2008-09 season. A postseason meeting between the two was inevitable.
The inevitable became evitable this month. And in watching the Sharks take a 3-0 series lead, in three very close games, I have been struck by how Babcock seems to be responding to McLellan's strategic moves, rather than vice-versa.
I have also been struck by how the Sharks have stayed calm in the face of scoreboard deficits and/or frustrating stretches when nothing much seems to be happening for them offensively. Evgeni Nabokov, their goalie, has noticed the same thing.
"That's the biggest difference between now and previous years," Nabokov said. "You don't get too down on yourselves. "We play the same way no matter what's happening."
Well, who gets credit for that? The players themselves, for sure. But a portion of that attitude is a trickle-down from McLellan, who is intense but never out of control. He has also done a good job of not letting the aura of Joe Louis Arena affect his team's mojo.
My conclusion: It would be a stretch to say that McLellan is outmaneuvering Babcock, who owns a 2008 Stanley Cup ring and did a superior job coaching Team Canada to an Olympic gold medal three months ago. But at the very least, McLellan is not being out-coached by Babcock. And that is a huge edge for the Sharks, given their overall talent depth and better goaltending.
To be sure, some of McLellan's moves in the series have simply been a matter of well-executed common sense. One example: In hockey the home coach always gets to make the last line change at clock stoppages. But about six minutes into Tuesday's third period after an icing call against Detroit, McLellan had the rare chance to match up the Sharks players he wanted against the tired Red Wings players. (The NHL requires the same five players who commit an icing violation to stay on the rink for the ensuing faceoff.)
With the Sharks trailing by two goals at the time, McLellan pounced. He sent out his "Big Three" line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley against Detroit's weary group. Thornton won the faceoff and eventually wound up with the puck behind the net. As the Red Wings scrambled to keep up, Thornton then circled around to the front and fired a shot past goaltender Jimmy Howard.
Suddenly, the Sharks were behind by just one goal. A few minutes later, rookie forward Logan Couture tied the score from a bad angle by throwing the puck at Howard's feet--something that Couture later said the coaching staff had instructed him to do.
Two coaching-influenced moves, two goals. See a theme here? After the Sharks' practice Wednesday, forward Ryane Clowe recalled the first meeting McLellan held with the players two summers ago.
"He had a way he wanted us to play," Clowe said. "It was all laid out for us, no guessing around. We knew what we had in the dressing room. We just needed the right direction. When we went through that losing streak toward the end of the season, he just kept reminding us, 'You guys are a great team, make sure your confidence is high.' "
But it's not just the motivational stuff that's working for McLellan. Tactically Tuesday night, it really seemed as if Babcock and the Red Wings were forced to blink when he reassigned Detroit's top line headed by Pavel Datsyuk to match up against the Sharks' Joe Pavelski line.
Here's why: In the first two games, the Datsyuk group was paired against the Joe Thornton line. On Tuesday, the Thornton line was matched up against Detroit's line headed by Henrik Zetterberg--which had previously been assigned to the Pavelski line but was flipped to the Thornton line.
And what was the final tally from Tuesday's switchup? The Pavelski line scored one goal for the Sharks. The Datsyuk line scored none for Detroit. Meanwhile, Zetterberg was indeed on the ice for all three Red Wings goals--but Thornton eventually set up the game winner by seizing a lucky puck ricochet and turning it into a fast-break pass to Patrick Marleau. One way to look at it: Detroit's best player (Datsyuk) was neutralized and the Sharks capitalized.
Suddenly, that whole business about the Sharks being unable to win here at "The Joe" is out the back door and into the Detroit River. McLellan has not specifically addressed the topic to his players. But the fact that he exudes such palpable confidence has to make a difference. He hasn't even mentioned the noticeable odor of fresh paint in the visitors' locker room (a clever old Red Wings trick believed to be originated by former coach Scotty Bowman).
"Whatever happens, happens," McLellan said the other day when asked about the odor. "You've just got to play."
McLellan always gives major credit to Babcock for his tutoring--but also cites the lessons he picked up here from other Detroit hockey brains such as Bowman, general manager Kenny Holland and former team captain Steve Yzerman.
"It's the human hall of fame here," McLellan said. "If those guys are talking and you're not in there opening up your ears, something's wrong."
Possibly, he learned too well. And nothing much is wrong with the Sharks right now. Especially behind the bench.