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Old-time hockey returns with coaches sniping in NHL playoffs

Not long after Peter DeBoer quipped that Minnesota takes a lot of penalties, Dean Evason accused Dallas players of diving.

Sheldon Keefe suggested Tampa Bay players had manipulated referees during a fracas, prompting Jon Cooper to say he was confused by what his Toronto counterpart was getting at. Rod Brind’Amour sounded off about a missed call that left Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen with a broken hand, which surprised Lane Lambert after his Islanders got zero power plays in the game.

No one is standing on the benches and yelling at each other — yet — but the first round of the NHL playoffs is an old-school throwback to coaches of yesteryear having it out off the ice to set the tone for their teams in the midst of hard-fought series. The sniping is on full blast.

“I love it,” retired Stanley Cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday. “It’s one-upmanship. You’re doing anything you can to get an edge on the other guy. There’s no back-off from some of the coaches that are in there right now.”

Hitchcock knows all about it from his warring words with everyone from Lindy Ruff and John Tortorella to late Hall of Famer Pat Quinn.

Ruff — older and more mild-mannered now coaching the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs — in 2006 said Hitchcock’s Flyers “acted like idiots.” Tortorella — age 64 and back in the league with Philadelphia — in 2004 said Hitchcock “should shut his yap.”

“Is he back out of that gopher hole again?” Hitchcock replied during that Eastern Conference final. “I’m going to have to do that ‘whack-a-mole’ thing.”

The back and forth this spring is significantly more subtle.

After his Stars evened their series against the Wild in a Game 2 that featured seven misconduct penalties, DeBoer made it a point to say: “Minnesota takes penalties. They’re the sixth-most penalized team in the league, so we’re ready for that.” Evason the next day said he and his staff watch every interview, adding Dallas “had some bigger people probably go down pretty easy in that hockey game.”

DeBoer called it “deflection” by Evason.

“Listen, if I was coaching one of the most penalized teams in the league I’d probably do the same thing,” DeBoer added. “That’s good coaching by him.”

The same night, Brind’Amour complained about a “tomahawk chop” by New York’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau that injured Teravainen and wasn’t called a penalty. Lambert called it a play that happens 25, 30 times a game and wasn’t done with an intent to injure.

Toronto’s Keefe applauded opponents Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for fighting Auston Matthews and Ryan O’Reilly during the Lightning-Leafs game Saturday night, — “a classic example of a veteran championship team like Tampa Bay manipulating the officials and taking advantage of a situation.”

“Credit to Tampa for recognizing that situation,” Keefe said. “It’s a free pass. You do what you want, and not only do they get out of it unscathed but they take Matthews and O’Reilly with them to the box. Brilliant play by the Lightning there in manipulating that situation.”

The next day, Tampa Bay’s Cooper seemed puzzled.

“Manipulated the referees? I’m not sure what that means,” Cooper said. He went on to say everyone watching figured his team would get a power play. The Lightning did not and then lost in overtime.

Veteran coach Bruce Boudreau, who was fined $5,000 in 2018 for criticizing a missed penalty call during a playoff series, said coaches balance getting a point across without crossing the line — especially because the league office warns against it.

“You really have to know how far you can go,” Boudreau said. “In the end, it’s all just gamesmanship.”

All this pales in comparison to the old days, when coaches — Ruff did it in the regular season in 2007 — often tried to get to the other bench. Tortorella even attempted to get into an opposing locker room after an on-ice brawl.

But the on-camera banter can still be effective in earning a call or two later on.

“When the refs go home, you think they just watch ‘Chicago P.D.’ when they go home?” Boudreau said. They’re watching the highlights just like we are.”

Boudreau said he watched Evason, a longtime assistant of his and his successor in Minnesota, fume after the Wild’s loss to the Stars on Sunday when asked about a couple of penalty calls while stopping short of crossing that line.

“Everyone in the hockey world watched that game,” Evason said. “We all know what happened. I’m not going to comment on them. We have our opinions, but what’s the point?”

League fines are a deterrent. But biting your tongue is way less fun to Hitchcock.

“Any edge you can find, you use — any edge,” he said. “You’re doing anything you can.”

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