Mike Babcock: “If you told our guys at the start of the series that it would be 2-2, they’d all do a cartwheel”

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Mike Babcock
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 7: Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs heads to the bench for warm-up before the Leafs take on the Detroit Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre on March 7, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mike Babcock met with the media after Thursday’s practice, discussing his team’s Game 4 loss, the challenge ahead in a best-of-three, what Mitch Marner needs to do to adjust, and more.


The seven-game series is now best of three. Do you look at it as a sprint, and obviously the start is important tomorrow night?

Babcock: It’s a best of three for sure. We’ve got a game tomorrow night. We weren’t very good. It went downhill after the national anthem. Martina did a heck of a job with that. I thought it was spectacular. Best I’ve ever heard. And then [the game] wasn’t pretty.

What has to change tomorrow night?

Babcock: We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to start on time. You’ve got execute and you’ve got to compete at a high level. I thought they competed better and got after us. I didn’t think we responded in a competitive nature. I thought it was our least competitive game of the four from the faceoff circle to the battles on the wall, to the races to the puck, to getting to the net to being boxed out. Anything competitive, I thought they had the edge. What happens is they look fast and you look slow. They wear you out in your zone. Their neutral zone forecheck works. You don’t have a forecheck. You’re always changing lines. You just yell to the goalie, “here they come again!”

When you review the film with the players after a game like that, what is their mood after seeing it?

Babcock: Basically, what we do is we just show them. We are pretty straight forward and honest around here. We show them when it’s good and we show them when it’s bad. We just get on with it. We can’t do much about last night now. We should’ve done something about last night last night. That’s over with. Let’s get it regrouped. Today is the day to get better. I always say during the series, “someone is getting better, and it may as well be us today.”

Have you played better in their building, do you think, when you break down the four games?

Babcock: I don’t know about that. I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about that. I just worry about getting ready for the next game. We’ve had success there and played well there. We think, if we play right, we have an opportunity to be successful. That’s what we’ve got to do.

Does the series change from Game 1 to Game 5?

Babcock: That’s a good question. For us, obviously confidence… we’re in a much better situation than we were when we went to Washington the first time. The second thing I’d say to you is I think the competition level in every game in a series gets higher and higher. There is a lot more at stake and a lot less recovery space, if that makes any sense. Suddenly you’re in a two out of three, and it’s a short series. You want to win Game 1. Game 1 is the next game we play. It’s good we got a nice meal today, a nice stretch. Get ready to play.

Is the series a little bit more wide open than you expected in terms of the number of chances being given up?

Babcock: I don’t know. I don’t know what I expected. Too many goals are going in. How’s that?

Holtby last a top-five goalie over the last four years. Is getting that many goals on him surprising?

Babcock: I just think each series is totally different. You grind away and you try to find a way to win. Whatever you can take advantage of… You’d have to ask Trotzy about his team. I’m just worried about my own group and what we’re doing with it.

In terms of confidence, is there some comfort heading back to a building you guys have already won in and they know what to expect in some ways?

Babcock: I think so. But the other thing is they’ve seen all four games. We weren’t very good last night, and still, in the end, it was a one-goal game, wasn’t it?

You called them a very heavy team. How do you think you’ve done physically over the first four games?

Babcock: That hasn’t been an issue at all.

When it comes to adjustments, will you think about switching lines, or anything like that?

Babcock: I’ll think about it.

Not going to act it?

Babcock: I don’t know. I switched them last night and we scored a goal there the next shift. And then we turned it over the shift after and they scored. Same group.

Mitch Marner was saying it’s been an adjustment — the lack of time and space — for him. What have you seen from his game moving forward in the series? What can he do?

Babcock: Okay, so the adjustment period is over. Let’s go. Get after it. Everybody. Tomorrow is a big game, and you’ve got to dial in. If you’re competitive, you’ve got to dig in and get yourself going. That, to me, is what it’s all about. Find the game that you have within the game that is available. Have the puck.

How do you manufacture the same level of desperation as a team that you know is going to come out swinging over the course of time? How do you trick yourself…

Babcock: I don’t think you have to trick yourself. If you’ve been around at all, and you know how much fun winning is, there is no tricking yourself. It’s just the greatest thing. You get to play hockey right now. These are bonus games. You have to earn the right to keep playing. I told the players that this morning. The greatest thing about this league and this time of year is that you have to earn the right to keep playing. Everyone else goes home. Why wouldn’t you want to play? There is nothing greater than doing this. These games are the most fun you can have. Dig in.

Do you think some guys are driven by the fear that there is no guarantee this happens again?

Babcock: Are they moving, or what?

Not necessarily.

Babcock: To me, next year’s opportunity never comes. You’ve got the opportunity right now. Dig in and get on with it. Our plan is to be doing this every year. That doesn’t guarantee it’s going to happen, but I think we’re going in the right direction to make that happen. Here is your opportunity right here right now. I don’t care if you’re a first-year player or a last-year player, or a middle-of-your-career player. Some guys have been in this room for a long time and they’re at seven and eight playoff games. Dig in. Let’s play some more.

What leads to a decline in someone like Connor Carrick’s minutes compared to maybe the regular season? Is it shortening the bench? Earning the opportunity?

Babcock: It’s just the coach that running the backend. He says, “this guy is going and this guy is not.” An earned basis.

You’re sitting here at 14 goals each. Shots are close to identical. How do you, as a coach, judge where you are and where you are after four games?

Babcock: I think if you told our guys at the start of the series that it’s 2-2 and we’re going into a best-of-three, they’d all do a cartwheel if they knew how. I couldn’t do it — I’d hurt my back — but we’re in a great situation. Let’s enjoy today. Let’s enjoy the atmosphere. Let’s enjoy the playoffs. But let’s compete.

We can talk about lessons and how they’re going to absorb this going forward, and you’ve been talking about that, but at some point, it’s got to be about the lessons they’ve already learned, right?

Babcock: I guess so. I don’t know. I got out of bed today and I guess I thought I probably learned something new today. I think life-long learning is something you embrace. You try to get better each and every day. That’s what they’re going to do and they’re going to do it in their career. In saying that, I think I’ve said it already – this is our opportunity. We’ve earned this opportunity. Let’s make good on this opportunity. I’m not trying to tell you, “Hey, they’re young. We shouldn’t win.” I never said that.

You came close to going to Buffalo. I’m sure you’re aware of what happened there today. Thoughts on that?

Babcock: I don’t know how close I did anything. I’m the coach of Toronto. Any time a coach gets a new opportunity or is given a new opportunity to go somewhere else, in some ways, it’s a good opportunity for the coach and the other thing is you’ve got to move your family. So that’s tough. As far as evaluating what happened — I’m just surviving here.


Thursday Practice: Boyle, Kadri, Marner, Martin, Carrick