Red Wings' Bryan Murray sets out to beat his 'bad playoff coach' reputation

April 04, 1991|By Keith Gave | Keith Gave,Knight-Ridder

DETROIT -- Bryan Murray can't win for losing, especially this time of year.

At least that's the reputation he brings to the Stanley Cup playoffs in his first season as Detroit Red Wings coach and general manager.

Though his career winning percentage ranks among the best in NHL history, Murray's teams are known for falling short of playoff expectations. In seven springs with the Washington Capitals, Murray's teams never finished lower than third, never totaled fewer than 85 points and never got out of their division in the playoffs. Four times they suffered first-round knockouts.

Murray will try to improve his playoff record tonight when his underdog Red Wings face the Blues in St. Louis.

Murray, 48, is sensitive to accusations that he can't win in the playoffs.

"It bothers me that people think I can't win a playoff series," he said. "In turn, I understand."

He knows a coach is judged by his record, and Murray is not ashamed of his.

"I don't have any qualms about anything I have done in the playoffs or otherwise," he said.

What kind of playoff coach is Bryan Murray? Well-prepared, intense to the extreme, edgy, and woefully unlucky, according to those who played for and against him.

"All those years we played against Washington in the playoffs," former New York Islanders forward Bob Bourne once recalled, "all I remember about Bryan Murray is him standing on the bench yelling at somebody. If he doesn't show any poise, why should his players?"

Guilty, Murray pleaded, but by design.

"I remember them so well," Murray said of the three series against New York when the Islanders were in their heyday. "It was like now; nobody picked us to win. Their game plan was to get to [top defenseman] Scott Stevens, to punch him in the face, whatever, but to try and get him out of the game. And it usually worked.

"I screamed at the refs. I was very, very aware of what they were doing. If anybody was in the game, the coach was. Verbally, I tried to put some pressure on the other team and the referees.

"The last couple of years, I've tried really, really hard to not say much to the referees. I know the refs will laugh when they hear that."

Stevens, however, now a defenseman for the Blues, said he believes Murray's yapping was "more intensity than strategy. . . He's so relaxed off the ice, but that's just like a player. Once we hit the ice, we're all animals, no matter how nice we were before."

A former Capitals player, who asked not to be identified, said Murray "seemed to change a little bit during the playoffs. He seemed to be a little more nervous or something, and I think it rubbed off on the players."

The only change Murray concedes is tactical, relying more on the team's best players in the playoffs.

"I don't think I changed very much at all," he said. "Sometimes I think I should be more nervous, more demanding of my players.

"There's no question when you get to the playoffs you want your top players to play more. I tended to tighten up the bench a little bit. And that worked to a degree, until Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier started to score goals on us."

But why couldn't Murray's playoff teams win in Washington? The explanations he and others offer vary from competition to a lack of legitimate goaltending.

When Murray coached in Washington, the Patrick Division was the best in hockey. The Islanders were in the midst of their dynasty when he started, and Philadelphia was building a team that twice would reach the Stanley Cup finals under coach Mike Keenan.

"They beat us one year, though," said Red Wings defenseman Brad Marsh, who was in Philadelphia then. But when a team fails to live up to expectations in the postseason, the players, not the coach, are to blame, Marsh said.

"I think when you get to the playoffs a lot it has to do with the players," he said. "It's up to them to do it. That's what I believe.

"There were different times when Washington thought they would be the team. But you have to look at the players on those teams a lot sooner than looking at the coaching staff."

Added Brad McCrimmon, another Red Wings defenseman who was in Philadelphia when Murray was in Washington: "They never had the goaltending and they never had a pure goal scorer."

Murray agrees. "Our goaltending was always of a caliber that didn't give you a chance to win the low-scoring games," he said. "Also, we never had, and they still don't in Washington, the single goal scorer who can really go out and do it. . .

"Winning in the playoffs is a group activity. I've always looked at ,, it that way."

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