NHL playoff legends include Gretzky, Mario … and Briere?! What makes a postseason hero?
Ken Linseman had a prolific 13-plus season career with Philadelphia, Edmonton and Boston. In 860 games (his final two with Toronto), he posted 256 goals and 807 points.
But Linseman readily admits he had trouble preparing for regular season games.
"I used to make myself throw up sometimes during the regular season, almost trying to get myself jacked up," said Linseman, who played the super-pest role to perfection from 1978-92. "I knew I had to go perform, but it’s hard on you when you play 100 games a year, physically and mentally — especially playing the way I played, so I’ll admit it: There were times when we’d get up a couple goals and I’d think, ‘OK, I’m done.’ "
That attitude never seeped into the playoffs. In 113 career games, Linseman posted 120 points and 11 game-winning goals. He is one of just 34 players in the history of the game to average a point-a-game or better in the playoffs.
The vast majority of the names on that list read like a who’s who of hockey legends. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Bobby Orr and Mike Bossy are near the top. Current stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Martin St. Louis, Claude Giroux and Alex Ovechkin also make the list.
But as difficult as it is for stars to continue that torrid pace in the tight-checking grind of the postseason, it’s stunning when a guy like Daniel Briere flirts with that mark. The Canadiens’ diminutive veteran is doing just that with 111 points in 112 career games as Montreal prepares for a second-round series with longtime rival Boston.
"These players are streaky players that just get hot at the right time," said Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who was Druce’s teammate the following two seasons in Washington. "The puck is finding a way to go in."
But Tippett experienced the pain, first-hand, that a consistent playoff legend inflicted on many teams. In 1985-86, Tippett’s Hartford Whalers posted their first winning season in seven years of existence, then stunned the Adams Division champion Quebec Nordiques in the first round of the playoffs to advance to the division final against Montreal.
The teams played into overtime in Game 7 at the Forum before Canadiens forward Claude Lemieux skated in front of the net and lifted a backhand past Hartford goalie Mike Liut for one of his 19 career playoff game-winners (third all-time). The Canadiens won the Cup that season.
"There is a group of players (like Lemieux) that loves the pressure," Tippett said. "It pushes them to another level."
Briere has been a productive player in the regular season with 684 points in 916 career games. But in the postseason, the guy whom Phoenix once gave up on in a trade to Buffalo for Chris Gratton has 13 game-winning goals.
"I wish I had a clear explanation for it, or a formula that I could sell to make a lot of money off of," Briere said, laughing. "I just seem to be at the right place at the right time."
Linseman and Briere both noted how the intensity ratchets up a notch in the postseason, making it easy to prepare when the games mean so much.
"People have it in their minds that a playoff performer has to be a big guy that can fight for space, but there’s more to it than that," Briere said. "I get excited about the fact there is no tomorrow and you have to be at your best; focused all the time. For some reason, some guys perform better when the pressure is on. I don’t know why that is, but I can tell you I feel more comfortable at this time of year."
"I never could hit a ball off a tee at a driving range because it didn’t mean anything, but I think when I retired, I might have been 10th all-time in playoff scoring," he said. "(Bruins teammate) Terry O’Reilly always used to say ‘Kenny might not be one of the best during the season, but I guarantee he’ll be one of the best in the postseason.’
"There are things I could have done better. I could have had more points; I could have taken less dumb penalties. But averaging more than a point a game in the playoffs is something I am absolutely proud of. To be able to perform when it matters most, that’s something worth being proud of."
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