SAN JOSE – In his six-plus years as an NHL head coach before taking over the Sharks gig, coach Pete DeBoer had been in the Stanley Cup playoffs only once.
It was quite a run.
In 2011-12, his first year behind the New Jersey bench, he took a veteran club all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, losing in six games to the Los Angeles Kings. It was DeBoer’s first taste of NHL playoff hockey after three seasons of missing out in Florida.
He’s drawing on that experience now, as the Sharks await their second round opponent.
“I just think until you experience it, you don’t realize how long the road is,” DeBoer said. “Just minimize the highs and lows, and not celebrate too much when things are going really well, and don’t overreact when they’re not."
“It really is an almost two-month marathon. I think that’s the approach we’re taking. Until you’ve lived through it into June, it’s hard to explain.”
In the first round against the Kings, DeBoer’s best move was, well, doing nothing.
Coaches typically make adjustments to their lines and/or lineup after losses, and despite the Sharks leading the Kings series two-games-to-one, their sharpness had dipped slightly with each passing game. The Kings kept getting better, and had the momentum going into a critical Game 4 at SAP Center.
DeBoer didn’t blink, though, keeping everything status quo. As a result, one of the Sharks that struggled mightily in games two and three, fourth liner Nick Spaling, ended up being one of their best players in Game 4. He was on the ice as the Sharks closed out a 3-2 win.
Spaling played for DeBoer before in OHL Kitchener as a junior. In 2008, they won a league championship together and were the runners-up for the Memorial Cup.
“He’s good at just looking ahead and keeping the guys focused on the next game and the task at hand, and handling the adversity,” Spaling said. “Obviously, playoffs are full of that."
The 2012 Devils run to the final wasn’t a smooth one. In fact, they trailed in each of the first three rounds before coming back to win a fourth game. They got past the Panthers in seven, Flyers in five and Rangers in six before the Kings were too much for them to handle.
Along the way, DeBoer made small adjustments that seemed to pay off.
After losing star forward Ilya Kovalchuk in Game 2 of the second round series against the Flyers, DeBoer played Adam Larsson for the first time in the playoffs and he scored a key third period goal. A heavy forecheck allowed New Jersey to get past Philadelphia fairly easily after that, as did the Devils’ ability to absorb a number of clean and borderline dirty hits by the Flyers.
Midway through the Rangers series, he swapped Jacob Josefsen in for Petr Sykora to help with New York’s speed. The Devils won three straight games after the switch.
Dainius Zubrus played in all 24 postseason games that year for DeBoer. He credited the coach for having a keen ability to game plan for a specific opponent.
“I think he’s very good at seeing what makes [the other team] good, what’s really important for us, and where we can exploit a weakness, I guess you could say,” Zubrus said. “That 2012 [year], in every series we were behind. There was never panic in terms of ‘oh my god, what are we going to do now?’ Just play our game, do this and do that, make it better and stay the course.”
Spaling said: "I think he’s good at just worrying about the details and making sure we’re prepared for a lot of the little things than can come about in a series.”
There are some real similarities between that 2012 Devils team and the current Sharks group, too. New Jersey was the second oldest team in the NHL that season, while the Sharks are currently listed as the third oldest by NHLNumbers.com. DeBoer has said in the past that it took the 2011-12 Devils until Christmas to really learn his system, while the Sharks, too, didn’t find any real consistency until early January.
DeBoer handling of the Sharks’ veteran leaders, and the rest they require to thrive on the ice, seems to be paying off much like it did in New Jersey.
“I think there’s quite a bit of similarity right now,” Zubrus said.
For the 2012 Devils, the end result was playing hockey until June. DeBoer is doing all he can to replicate that with the Sharks.
This time around, he has an even better idea of what it takes.
“I was just winging it last time. I really was. That’s the truth,” he said. “I feel much more prepared this time around, and hopefully we have to deal with those issues.”