Mike Babcock addressed the media after Tuesday’s practice, discussing his team’s depth, the play of Zach Hyman, William Nylander and Auston Matthews, the evolution of Jake Gardiner, and more.
In terms of effort and physicality and talent on lines one through four, is there a little more consistency right now that we’ve seen in this series?
Babcock: I think we’ve got a good contribution from every line each night. Obviously, Boyle’s line had a huge factor in Game 2 on the scoresheet. I think, a lot of times when you’re playing real well, you don’t necessarily score. We need everyone to go. They have a very capable four groups of forwards on their team and three sets of D and they’re all good. You’re never going to get yourself in a mismatch as far as you outdoing them that way. You’ve just got to stay determined, stay patient, stick with it, and eventually you get a break.
Is there any part of you surprised that the series is where it is right now?
Babcock: I don’t deal in that. I just deal in fact here and we are. You try to put your best foot forward each and every day, obviously. I thought we started real good in Game 1 and they out-skated us in the second half. I thought we were better in Game 2 than we were in Game 3. I don’t know if it’s nerves, or trying to do too much, but we weren’t as good defensively as we should’ve been last night. Gave too many free opportunities. So we’ve got to do a better job there. Obviously, we won the game on special teams. The power play got us a big goal and the penalty kill, in particular on the 5 on 3, was outstanding. That, in the end, probably won us the game.
What did Nazem’s shift mean to the team right before Auston’s goal? It really seemed like a momentum changer at that point.
Babcock: Probably had enough of watching us so he went out and got physical a little bit. We got a little momentum. I don’t know if that’s what happened. That goal that Matty scored on went off of someone’s foot and someone’s face and onto his stick. You’ve got to line up the moon and the stars for that stuff to happen. To say it all goes together, I’m not 100% sure. But, obviously, if you do good things, good things happen.
Is Nazem at his best when he plays that type of hockey?
Babcock: I think he’s at his best when he’s dialled in and focused. Whatever that means for him to get to that… I think Leo is like that, too. They enjoy the matchup. They’re playing against real high-end players that are competitive guys, so it’s a lot of fun for them.
There times earlier in the year when people wondered about Nylander’s competitiveness, but how have you seen that progress this year?
Babcock: I think he’s gotten better and better, but I think it’s all part of coming into the league. You’ve been competitive enough everywhere you’ve been because you had the puck all the time. In this league, they don’t let you have the puck. Our guys are finding that more and more in the playoffs. You never get to touch it. If you’re a guy who likes to touch it and feel it and you never get to touch it, it can suck the life out of you. I think Willy has done a good job. Their line has been real good.
How much does three overtime periods accelerate the growth of this team, especially the young guys?
Babcock: I just think being in these games… you know, they’re fun. They’re fun for our guys. Our guys were enjoying the game last night. No so much in the first, but once we got playing, we were enjoying playing in the game and having the opportunity in overtime. We’ve got a bunch of kids, so we’ve got energy to burn. Play as long as you want. We just like to win.
With someone like Leo, how impressive is it that he’s always in someone’s face but he seems to stay out of the box and toe that line really well?
Babcock: I think Leo is a real good player. I think guys like him are even more valuable on good teams than they are on bad teams. They play an important role. He’s a good man. He does it right every day. He practices hard and plays hard. He’s hard to play against. You know he’s never going to go away, and you never know what language he is talking to you in, either. So that can be confusing.
Is Nylander’s goal a good example of what those three players have to offer?
Babcock: Obviously, Matty is an elite skill guy. He can play with and without the puck against anybody. Hyman comes every day. He’s just dependable as there ever is with more energy than anybody, I think, in the league. Great forechecker, makes great passes from under the goal line. Willy can pass it, he can skate, he can shoot it. He can do a lot of things. They’ve been a good line for us. Obviously, they’re a better line for us because we’ve got Naz and we’ve got Bozie. That’s what is good about having three centers like that. They can pick each other up. Obviously now that we have Boyle, we’re a much deeper team.
What’s it like with Hyman where you don’t have to sit him down and here is what happens when you work hard, as a coach?
Babcock: I just think dependable people is what you want each and every day. When you have real dependable people, it doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in. Your boss knows whether you’re dependable or not and whether you’re going to get the job done. Those people that you don’t have to get started every day are important. They’re contagious. I think him and Brown are outstanding examples of that.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in Jake Gardiner from when you got here to now?
Babcock: I don’t know. Jake has spent some time in the league. You see it a lot of the time with defencemen. It takes some time. It’s a hard league. Jake’s got elite hockey sense. He can skate and pass and think the game real well. He does some things sometimes where you don’t know what he’s doing, but it has a way of working out for Jake. He’s been a real effective player for us. He can play a tonne of minutes and he makes good plays and he’s plus all the time.
How did you think Zaitsev did in his first playoff game?
Babcock: I think he probably found the first period a little fast. On his first shift, he got scored on there, but I thought he settled out and really competed. He’s feeling good here today. Get one under your belt, and he’ll just get better.
Do you have a message for your team preparing for Game 4?
What is the challenge for Game 4 with the Caps most likely being more desperate than they were?
Babcock: I just think in each series you’ve got to elevate your play and you’ve got to get better on each off day if you’re going to have success. What won you last game won’t be good enough, so you’ve got to find a way to step it up. We had some individual meetings and that today, but we haven’t had our team meeting. We’ll have that tonight and get ready to play.