Phil Sheridan: Peter Laviolette's hard decisions

Coach Peter Laviolette , reacting to the injury to Danny Briere's face in Game 5, has been a steady force behind the bench for the the Flyers.
Coach Peter Laviolette , reacting to the injury to Danny Briere's face in Game 5, has been a steady force behind the bench for the the Flyers.
Posted: June 08, 2010

Peter Laviolette gave his bruised and weary-legged players a much-needed rest Monday, courtesy of the only two-day break in the Stanley Cup Finals schedule.

The coach did not have the same luxury. Unless his brain comes with an off switch, there's no way Laviolette could escape mulling over decisions that could extend or end the Flyers' wild postseason ride.

It is now, with everything on the line and a team nursing wounds from a frightful beating in Game 5, that Laviolette will be most severely tested.

His counterpart, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, looks like a genius after the offensive explosion that resulted from shaking up his lineup Sunday. It is Laviolette's move on this frozen chess board.

Does he make big changes, as Quenneville did, in hopes that his players respond with new energy?

Does he make subtle tweaks, which has been his approach throughout this two-month odyssey through five cities and two nations?

Or does Laviolette simply keep a steady hand on the wheel, conveying calm and confidence and trusting his team to respond as it has before?

It is a fascinating crossroads, partly because it could really be two distinct crossroads. Laviolette could choose to stay the course for Wednesday night's Game 6 because the Flyers have performed well against the Blackhawks in the Wachovia Center. If they can win that game, then maybe the coach switches things up for Game 7. It would be played at the scene of Sunday night's crime, which left the Flyers bloody and traumatized.

Make the wrong choice, of course, and there is no Game 7. The pressure goes way up for a possible elimination game. This is why coaches get paid good money and burn out every few years.

Laviolette is somewhat limited, of course. He doesn't have Bernie Parent waiting to come in and seal off the opening to the Flyers' net. There aren't a whole lot of options among the healthy scratches that could make an impact (a positive one, at least) this late in the series.

For Laviolette, the decision-making starts in goal. He played coy again in a conference call with reporters Monday, saying he knows who will start but will not reveal it publicly until he talks with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Leighton has been yanked twice in the Finals - both times in Chicago - and Boucher has been merely OK in relief.

Leighton has to be the guy, with two qualifiers.

First, he did take a puck off his knee during warm-ups Sunday. If that injury is affecting his play, then Boucher may get the call.

Second, and more intriguing, if Laviolette deep-down believes Boucher is better suited mentally and talent-wise for this must-win game, then he could pull the switch.

The price for being wrong would be very high.

It is harder to see how Laviolette can duplicate Quenneville's successful line shuffling. Quenneville had a clear No. 1 line, centered by Jonathan Toews, that he broke up and spread over three lines. The Flyers' top line, centered by Mike Richards, has been equally ineffective, but it's not clear that moving players around would work as well. It is the flip side of the Flyers' depth being such a major asset.

Laviolette almost can't mess with the Redemption Line: Danny Briere, Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell have been the Flyers' best by a wide margin. He could slide Simon Gagne or Jeff Carter down to Claude Giroux's line, or perhaps play Giroux on a wing with Carter back at center.

Again, though, there's a risk in overthinking this, especially for Game 6.

Giroux has been much better at home, when Laviolette has the last line change and can dictate matchups a bit better. And Richards' line showed signs of coming around here in Game 4. Changing it now could undo whatever progress was being made.

The most obvious move would be to reinsert Daniel Carcillo into the lineup, and that must be tempting after the Flyers lost the physical battle Sunday. The Blackhawks felt free to take certain liberties - Duncan Keith's amateur surgery on Briere's face, for instance - that have to be curtailed. Some coaches would have Riley Cote and his snarl in the lineup. Carcillo may be as far as Laviolette wants to go.

On the plus side, the Flyers know Chris Pronger is going to be himself after an off-off-off-night. And they still seem to have a decent handle on special teams. The Blackhawks got two power-play goals, it's true, but a referee assisted on the first and Pronger was in the box on the second.

Finally, the Flyers know they can beat this team and especially this goaltender. Antti Niemi hasn't exactly been Martin Brodeur back there.

It will be up to the players once the puck drops Wednesday night. Until then, Laviolette has the wheel.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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