Mike Babcock met with the media after a thrilling 5-4 overtime win by the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Detroit Red Wings in the Centennial Classic, touching on Auston Matthews (20 goals in 36 games), the team’s hot streak, the lost leads, and the growth of the kids.
Does anything Auston Matthews do surprise you at this point?
Mike Babcock: Well, he’s a good player. I mean, he played head-to-head with [Henrik Zetterberg]. Z had three points, Mantha had three points. They were good, too. Let’s not get carried away there. Auston and his linemates were also on the ice at the end. They put a board up on the blueline. We couldn’t quite get it across. So, you know, there are lots of things to learn. What was great about tonight’s game for us was that I thought we started good. They stalled us and did a good job for a bit. Our guys, I thought, were a little tense. A little frustrated. I thought we really came out and played in the third. At playoff time in the NHL, you’re up one or down one. It’s the same every night. You’ve got to love the duress. You’ve got to love the grind. You’ve got to love digging in and knowing you’re going to get it done. So, that was a good opportunity for our team because we haven’t had those kind of opportunities. I thought that was good. I thought we played real well. And then, once again, it’s 4-1. Just get it out of your zone. It’s so easy. You’ve seen us do it. It’s just like déjà vu. We got a lesson here tonight and still won the game for our fans. Let’s be honest. The NHL likes that it was 5-4. It’s way better than it would’ve been if it was 1-0. So it’s exciting.
Do you see some common elements in the blown leads and the not being able to finish out games the way you want sometimes?
Babcock: I’d say today is way different than any other game. We’ve been building this up for three days. We’ve got a bunch of kids on our team. The other thing – if you’re Naz and you’re Leo, and you’re sitting on the bench, and the coach is playing those other guys instead of you, you’re saying, “what’s he doing?” Because I’m giving them the opportunity. They got two goals in the third. I’m giving them a chance to shut out the game. But they’re right, too. What don’t I just put the veteran guys out? Because they’ve got to learn. We had an opportunity here in a big game and we gave them that opportunity. Today’s game is way different than any other game. So I don’t know if I can go there.
This might have been better asked without your adventures in the last five minutes of the third period, but considering the winning streak, could you consider your program accelerated a little bit in that you can set your sights a little higher now in the second half of the season than you may have earlier?
Babcock: No. What we’re going to do is what we always do. Today was the first game of the segment and we got two points. We’re three points behind where we need to be, so we’ve got to find a way to get more than six points in every five-game segment. We’re just going to try to get better every day. What happens is your team gets better and better. The competitive people get better and better. The non-competitive people have got to find someplace else to play. That’s just what happens in the good programs. So, we’re finding players every day as we watch them grow. We have aspirations to be a very good team in the NHL, one that in the summer you know can make the playoffs. That’s not where we’re at right now, but we’re a work in progress. We like the direction we’re going. But every one of these games we win, it’s not like we go in there and beat anyone badly or are better than anyone else. We’re just hanging in there.
When you’ve been in this winning streak but you’ve squandered some leads, do you see more of the squandering leads or just the resiliency of the team to be able to come back and win?
Babcock: I loved tonight. The way it happened – I really liked it. It’s so easy to feel bad for yourself and be disappointed. Forget all that. Just play the next shift. I thought we did that. [Coreau] made unbelievable saves in overtime. I thought that was good. I really liked our game in Tampa. I didn’t like our game in Florida as much, but I really liked our game in Tampa. They’re all different. I just know that we’re winning. We’re finding ways to win, and we’re getting way better. Tonight, I thought it was a great thing for our organization, for our kids, for our city.
In terms of the spectacle of today – the outdoor game and Toronto and all of that — you’ve been in a few of these now. How does it rate for you, and it was it fun or a distraction for the players?
Babcock: I thought it was awesome. I hear all the time, “there’s too many outdoor games.” Well, ask the players. They want to be in them. They love them. I’ve been in three. They’re one of the greatest gifts you can give your family. I hear there was a heck of a party they threw here in town. Bryan Adams and all that. My girls, my wife never got home until three in the morning. I was tucked away in a hotel room. They had a hell of a time. People in this town must’ve loved this whole event. I loved the family skate. I like the practice outside. The whole event for our team, I thought, was spectacular. Now we have our dad’s trip. For me, it’s a great family time for the Leafs. Maybe the highlight – besides winning the game – was the alumni yesterday in our room. Some of them were there for a meeting before we practiced. We practiced, we came off, and the guys were with them. To see those guys and how much they love Toronto and being a Leaf and all that was great for our kids. I thought we did a nice job that way with the alumni. They helped us get better by being around us. I thought that was important.
Morgan Rielly was saying that this is as close of a group as he’s been a part of. Do you get a sense of that as a coach? Do you think that contributes to their confidence here down the stretch?
Babcock: Part of that is just that they’re all such little kids. On the way out onto the ice tonight, I’m not sure if you guys saw those little guys playing in the Tim Horton’s game. Some of them thought they were supposed to be in that. It’s a young group. They’re all going to grow up here together. I think the other thing you’d say, if you’re a guy like Riels, you arrive here and everybody is leaving all the time. These guys aren’t leaving. They’re staying. They’re going to stay for a long time and be a real good team. Now, it’s going to take us some time. Obviously, we’re not deep enough. We’re not good enough. But we’re going to get better.
With so much that you have to focus on, did you get a chance to watch the ceremony before the game? Just maybe give us your take on these legends being introduced today.
Babcock: I did a little reading in advance. It’s spectacular. 100 years. Red Kelly was here today. Four cups as a defenceman, four cups as a centerman. Two different organizations. I think he was a member of Parliament, too, or something like that. Stuff like that is spectacular, just absolutely spectacular. You know, the other night we were playing in Florida and Bobby Orr was there. Our Leafs guys around this weekend and getting to talk to them… we always talk about the history of the game. I think it’s special when you’re in a game and it has the history that ours does. You embrace it. I think it’s special.