Mike Babcock spoke to the media after an optional skate on Friday, discussing Morgan Rielly’s play in game one and growth potential, the challenge ahead in Game 2, and more.
After the game, you said Morgan Rielly had his best game of the year. What do you think he did well?
Babcock: I thought he was up tight. I thought he broke the puck out. I thought he boxed out good. I thought he was good.
What is your message to the team today?
Babcock: I got a chance to go through it. Last night, I thought we were pretty good. When I watched the game, I didn’t think we were near as good as we’re capable of being, not near as quick. I didn’t think we skated as good as we could’ve in the second half of the game. I think a number of our guys can elevate their game for sure. We’re going to see that tomorrow. We’re going to be way better tomorrow.
On the importance of getting traffic in front of Holtby:
Babcock: You’ve got to get to him, obviously. In the playoffs, all you’ve got to do is watch the games night in and night out, even if you’re not a hockey fan. If you don’t get to the net, you’re not going to score. They’re too dialled in. They’re too big. They’re too good. You’ve got to get to the net. In order to score on a rebound, you’ve got to get a first shot. You’ve got to get the puck to the paint. I really thought we passed up a tonne of opportunities to shoot the puck last night trying to make a better play. At playoff time, there is no better play. You just get it to the net and get people to the net without it, and shoot the pill.
How much more defensively responsible is Nazem Kadri compared to day one when you started working with him and believing in what he can do?
Babcock: It’s just a different person. I don’t know. I played against Toronto lots, obviously. Nothing against Naz, but we didn’t concern ourselves too much with Naz. Naz now is a guy who can play real well without it and he’s nasty, and so that helps him be as good of a player as he is. He scored some goals this year as well. We need him to be real good here tomorrow.
Naz obviously did a good job on Ovechkin and his line. What is the challenge for him over the whole series?
Babcock: It’s hard. He doesn’t want that to happen, right? His coach doesn’t want that. That’s the first part. The second part is you’ve got to play good enough to get that matchup. At home, it won’t be as hard for him, but it’s a battle. Ovie only needs one shot. Backstrom is a big man. As much as you pressure Backstrom, he puts his big ass into you and he holds you off and he makes those plays on his backhand that are elite. He’s a real, real hockey player, that guy. And then Oshie is playing real well for them. He’s a good catalyst for them. He’s got good skill. He’s got good grit. He shoots the puck well. He’s on the puck and tenacious on it. It’s a good line.
A lot of your team now has one game of NHL playoff experience. Do you think it was the game they were expecting it to be in terms of the intensity? How will they be better in game 2?
Babcock: I would expect them to be better, and I’d expect us to be better. That’s what happens in each series and each round. You get better and better. There is a lot on the line. The great thing about the playoffs is you win so you can play again. If you don’t win, you go home. It’s really short if you don’t win. For us, it’s a huge game tomorrow. It’s a good opportunity for us. They’re going to raise their game. We’re going to raise our game. We get a chance to see how good we can be. We can be way better than we were. I think that was our number-one message to our team: We can be better, so let’s be better.
Are you thinking about any changes on the blue line for tomorrow?
To follow-up on Rielly, he’s like an “older young guy.” Where does he still have room to grow?
Babcock: He’s got a lot of room to grow. If you arrived in the league and you play next to a really good veteran who tells you where to stand… if you arrive and you play with Chara and he says you to stand there and you pass to this guy and this is what you do, and you’re sitting next to him in your stall, that’s a different growth opportunity. It can be way quicker for you. When you don’t, you learn more on your own. Just his ability to face the puck, just his ability with his stick, just his ability to read and to sort it out…. He’s kind of like, in some ways, Matthews and Marner and Nylander and those guys. When you’re so good early like they are, you don’t have to play without the puck. They have the puck all the time. No one ever knows where they stand without the puck because they didn’t have to. They just went and got it and they had it all the time. I think he’s a kid that has a lot of growth potential. What he’s great at is he’s a good, good, good man. He wants to be a real good player. Those guys are easy to coach.
JVR was joking that Bozak may have doubled his hits total from the regular season in game one. How did you see the team up their game physically?
Babcock: I thought we were fine in that area. I didn’t think we skated as good in the third and in the overtime as we could’ve. I thought we watched. I think that leads you to be more physical because you skate better. You’re arriving and you’re not in between all the time. I thought Bozie has played better and better for us in the second half of the year; more competitive. That really helps. He’s got good hockey sense, as you know. The better he is, the better that line is.
No changes on the blue line, so no Zaitsev? You don’t expect him back.
Babcock: I don’t expect him back in. He didn’t go on the ice today. I was lobbying the best I could today, but they don’t much care what I say.
In reviewing the tape, did you perhaps gain a greater appreciation for Andersen’s play last night?
Babcock: I thought Andie was good. I thought he made some key saves. He’s got to be real good for us to have success.
That play where JVR flipped it up in the air – do you applaud that creativity?
Babcock: To me, it’s just a spot into space. Marian Hossa was in the best in the league a few years ago at it. He just did it with the one hand. It’s hard for the D because it’s an interference penalty or you’re skating by him, so it’s a real good play. A guy like Kapanen, a guy like Nylander, a guy like Marner – they should be real effect at that. They’ve got to put it in their arsenal.