Every coach loves to seize the role of the underdog.
It’s tremendously motivating to walk into a locker room and tell your team that no one believes in them. No one thinks they can win and it’s them against the world.
No suprise then that Chilliwack Bruins head coach Marc Habscheid was eager to point out the many virtues of his team’s first-round playoff opponent this week.
At the same time, Habscheid was quick to dismiss his team’s 3-1 record against the Tri-City Americans this season.
“We are the underdog,” Habscheid said. “They finished 26 points ahead of us, which is 13 wins, which is a lot of space. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from people who expect them to sweep us. But all I know is that we’ll be there Friday night.”
The most intriguing question is what Tri-City squad shows up at the Toyota Centre tonight.
Will it be the team that looked absolutely beastly early in the season and looked to be running away with the Western conference title?
Or will it be the team that stumbled down the stretch (5-5 in their last 10) and needed Spokane to beat Everett on the last day of the regular season to hang on to the U-S division title?
“They won the banner and their record says they were the best team in the Western conference. We have tons of respect for them,” Habscheid said, building up the underdog case. “On paper, it looks like a mismatch, but that’s why you play the games. We’re not going in there to just put in time. We’re a team and we play as one. That’s our focus.”
It’s hard to overlook the regular season success Chilliwack experienced versus the Ams. They beat Tri-City 5-2 and 6-3 on home ice and recorded a 6-3 win on the road.
Their only loss, a 5-0 setback Jan. 10, came at the tail end of a tough three-games-in-three nights road trip when they appeared to simply run out of gas.
“A lot of times, when you’re a favoured team, maybe you don’t quite have your A game every night,” Habscheid said, “We think we’re a pretty good team that’s young and growing, and this is a pretty big challenge for us.”
Logic says the Bruins will try to out-work and out-hit the Americans. Tri-City’s skill players are a small group. Brendan Shinnimin (five-foot-10), Justin Feser (five-foot-nine), Kruise Reddick (five-foot-eight) and Johnny Lazo (five-foot-seven) could theoretically be ground down over the course of a best-of-seven series.
That was the recipe for Chilliwack’s regular season success. The Bruins proved adept at physically punishing the Americans, and for the most part they did it while staying disciplined.
That’s another key. It’s one thing to want to hit the Americans, but the Bruins will need to do it without taking penalties.
If not, Tri-City’s second ranked power play, operating at 28 per cent efficiency, will make them pay.
“We want an assertive game, but not an out-of-control game,” Habscheid observed. “You want to make life miserable for them, but if you over-play then you cause problems for yourself. It’s a fine line to walk.”
One of Habscheid’s main challenges will be to keep his young squad from getting too keyed up.
Cummulatively, the Bruins only have 84 games of playoff experience, and the bulk of that comes from one player, Colton Grant.
“This is a learning experience for them and they’ll need to learn how to play with controlled emotion,” Habscheid explained. “Playing with excitement and adrenaline is good, but you have to make sure everything you do has a purpose.”
The outcome of this series is anybody’s guess. But win or lose, the Bruins will gain valuable experience. And for a team that figures to be consistently in the playoff mix over the next few years, that will be invaluable.
“The only way these players can have experience is by getting experience,” Habscheid said. “Our guys are going to be thrown into the fire, but we think they’re mentally tough enough to cope with it.”