Playoff mind games were in full swing with Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock after practice on Tuesday.
In what area has the team grown the most, in your opinion, from the start of the year until now?
Babcock: I think just understanding the league. Understanding what it takes to get the puck back. They’re used to having the puck all the time. In this league, they never give you the puck. You’ve got to play in the right spots to get it. There is a whole other level of league coming now though. How we adjust and how we handle that – we can talk about it all we want, but you’ve got to feel it a little bit for yourself. We don’t have a tonne of playoff experience in here but the guys that have been here were good today when we talked about it, so that was great.
Any update on Zaitsev or Polak?
Babcock: They didn’t practice today, so we’ll see if they practice tomorrow. Obviously, both guys are progressing. We’re optimistic both guys will be ready, but I can’t guarantee anything.
You’ve talked about there being no space in playoff hockey. What does your team have to do well to have success in that style?
Babcock: We’re just going to have to create our own space. When someone takes your space away, you’ve got to take their space away. You’ve just go to be patient. You’ve got to be patient when you don’t have the puck and real heavy when you do have the puck. There is no sense in giving it back to them. Obviously, playoff experience is on their side for sure. I like the youthful enthusiasm we have. I like how quick we can play, but we’re going to have to play quick and do the right things. Our intent is to get prepared over the next couple of days, enjoy the process, and go into Washington and be prepared to win.
Does player preparation change for playoffs?
Babcock: I think you do what we do. I think you get to know the other team a lot better because you’re playing them more and you have the opportunity to prepare for them and you’re not playing four games this week. You’re playing one team. That part makes it more detailed. Obviously, you’re going to err on the side of caution as far as getting your rest and eating right and doing all of the things you have to do to be ready to go. I think that’s our first practice in almost a month it seemed like. It looked like we hadn’t practiced in a while. Guys didn’t skate as good as they normally do. When you don’t skate, it’s hard to skate good. Today and tomorrow are good days for us. We’ll be ready to go.
Do you feel like underdogs?
Babcock: I think we are underdogs. Someone texted me this last night: ESPN, on their panel of experts, everyone had us missing the playoffs. We’re in the playoffs, so who cares? I’ve been the underdog lots and won. I’ve been the President’s Trophy winner and lost in the first round – fifth best record of all time with 58 wins, and lost in the first round to Edmonton. When I coached in Anaheim, we beat the Detroit Red Wings. We swept them in the first round. I think that was in ’03, and they had just won the Cup. So go there and play, and play right, and we’ll see what happens.
Do you see any areas of Washington’s game that you think you maybe have a slight edge in?
Babcock: I think Washington is a real good team. They’ve got a good coach, they’ve got experienced players. I think they’re a good team.
Nylander hasn’t played on Kadri’s wing in a while, but at this stage of where his game is at, what would you like about that line there?
Babcock: I don’t know if I’m going with that line. I just wanted you to ask me that question today in the press. You know, obviously, we’ve gone a bunch of different ways this year. I just think it’s going to be tighter. We might need to be different. Today we practiced like that. We’ll see how we practice tomorrow.
Between there being no space and it being tight, is Auston’s game well suited because of how he can create in small spaces?
Babcock: For sure. A lot of guys are well-suited. You look at a guy like Mitch, who is not a big guy. He’s been a dominant playoff performer everywhere he’s been. Let’s be here. If you stand back and think, “I’ve never been here before,” it could be overwhelming. If you just get in and play, I think you’ll be fine. We have a lot of players who create space in small areas. Our young guys are real good at that. They’re going to have to do it, and we’re going to have to do it together.
At least four games in the next eight days, Mike. How important might these four lines be in terms of being very effective given the space and time?
Babcock: Well, I think their fourth line is a real good fourth line. A heavy group. They can play against the best players, start in the d-zone and in the o-zone lots. It’s going to be a challenge for our guys playing against them. They obviously get last change at home. They start their top-two groups in the o-zone a lot more and Beagle in the d-zone. Someone is going to have a matchup that they didn’t necessarily prefer or I wouldn’t have suggested, but the great thing about it is you just look at the guy across from you and beat them one-on-one.
How important is it that your goaltender has been to a Conference Final at least?
Babcock: I think it’s good that he’s played. It’s good to see him out there stopping the puck. That would’ve probably been a workload for a guy that hasn’t been in the net in a while. In saying that, he should be ready to go.
How much did his play this year allow the rookies to grow at a comfortable pace?
Babcock: I think two things: His goaltending helped and them getting five a night helped, too. You know what I mean? It’s always nice to play goal or pitch for a team that generates runs or scores goals. I think it goes hand-in-hand.
How has coaching in the playoffs evolved for you since your first time in the playoffs until now?
Babcock: I’d like to be as good as I was my first time this time. You don’t know what you’re doing, but you just do it and do it to the best of your ability. I’ve been around lots of winning and lots of being disappointed, too, and understand what it takes to be successful. Each group is different. You try to prepare a plan that allows your group to be successful and you’re ready to adjust as you go.
How do you deal with a guy like Wilson? You know he’s going to be in the crease and in the goalie’s face and doing what he does.
Babcock: Nothing against Wilson, because he works hard and all that, but he’s not as big of a concern as lots of people on their team. He’s a forechecker and he works hard. I think their fourth line has been real good for them. In saying that, they have a lot of players that we’ll concern ourselves with more. We have some big guys, too, if it just wants to get physical or fisticuffs. We can look after that no problem. I think the big thing that Washington has going for them is that they’ve got good depth right through.
You’ve said you’re on both sides of slaying the giant and also being the giant that’s been slain. How important is it early in the series–
Babcock: That’s the whole key, as you know. If you let them get going, they’re going and they’re loose and driving, but that pucker factor is an unbelievable thing. Until you’ve been the best seed, and until you have your whole city expecting, you don’t know what that is like and how good of a defence that is for the underdog. It’s unbelievable. My first year in Detroit, I’d never experienced anything like it. I couldn’t believe how we couldn’t skate or pass. Pressure is a wonderful thing.
Your fan base is obviously satisfied with what the team has already accomplished–
Babcock: That’s not what they’re yelling at me when we’re walking around Yorkville, so maybe you’re meeting different people than me.
What are they saying?
Babcock: Let’s get going! You’re here. You have an opportunity. I told the young guys today, when you’re a young guy, you think, “oh next year, next year.” Next year never comes in sport. You make good on the opportunities you get. You put everything into it, and if it doesn’t go your way, you regroup. But put everything into it here. We’ve got an opportunity just like they do. We’re going to put our skates on just like they do. We’re going to Washington, and we plan on winning.