SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 20: Head Coach Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench area in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 20, 2011 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
In Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, Vancouver's Alain Vigneault won the coaching battle by nullifying San Jose's special teams. How will San Jose's Todd McLellan respond in Game 5?
Sometimes we forget that hockey is a game of inches.
Think about it this way. A few weeks ago, Jonathan Toews scored to take the first-round series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks to an overtime in Game 7. Had one of the Hawks' shots slipped past Roberto Luongo in that extra stanza, the hockey world would be counting down the days until Alain Vigneault would be given his marching papers.
Instead, Vigneault has taken his team to within one win of the Stanley Cup Final against a very talented San Jose Sharks team. And a big part of that was a pair of adjustments made to survive Game 4's non-stop parade to the penalty box -- first by the Canucks, then by the Sharks.
In Game 3, the Sharks power play did a number on Vancouver's penalty killers by dumping pucks in past the Canuck blueliners before establishing a cycle. For Game 4, Vigneault instituted an adjustment that disrupted San Jose's neutral zone play just enough to force bad dumps, making it easy to go back and intercept. And in the second period, Vancouver's 5-on-3 -- which was ineffective against the Sharks in Game 3 -- switched things up by avoiding passes through the middle and instead opting for one-timers from the point.
During the regular season, coaching is about creating a system, implementing it, and learning how to augment it to meet certain situations against different opponents. In the playoffs, it's more of punch-counterpunch system. In Game 3, San Jose made the adjustments and focused on their game. Game 4 started the same way, with Vancouver taking undisciplined penalty after undisciplined penalty, but Vigneault's adjustment to the penalty kill helped weather the storm. And while three 5-on-3s come with some gift wrapping from the Sharks bench, it's not a given to score on all of them.
Does that make Vigneault a genius? Not really, just like a Game 7 loss against Chicago wouldn't have made him a moron. Instead, it shows the fine line that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are, along with the case of "What have you done for me lately?" that comes with every media microscope. If Todd McLellan counter-punches well enough to force a Game 7, the familiar catcalls will come down when the reality is this: these are two well-coached, talented teams that have alternated between imperfect and strong hockey, along with weathering injuries (both public and hidden).
So, what's next? Both San Jose and Vancouver know what it's like to blow a big series lead. For Vancouver, it's simple -- don't give them an inch. For San Jose, it's time to make more adjustments and take it one game at a time -- just like Chicago did against Vancouver, just like Detroit did against themselves.
For more on the NHL's Western Conference Final, check in with our Sharks vs. Canucks series hub, as well as our blogs: Fear The Fin covering the Sharks and Nucks Misconduct covering the Canucks. You can find more local coverage at SB Nation Bay Area and Battle of California.