Mike Babcock addressed the media after practice on Saturday, discussing Auston Matthews’ growth as a player, the chance to close out the series versus Boston tomorrow in Game 6, and Ron Hainsey’s continued plus-play in the playoffs.
What has been the key to your club’s ability to find consistency defensively as we’ve seen here every second night in the series?
Babcock: I think the adversity we went through where we couldn’t keep the puck out of our net there for a long time got us to buy in a little bit. It is pretty obvious that they’re a real good hockey club and if we want to beat them, we can’t let them spend their whole night in our own zone. I think our guys have done a good job of that. Obviously, we’re still growing as a group. Neither team has been able to win back-to-back games in the series, though, so that makes tomorrow’s game a big one for us
Is learning how to close out a good team the next step in the maturation process?
Babcock: For sure. It is always the hardest. There hasn’t been a whole lot of momentum carried in this series. There has actually been none. I think it is important that we understand how we have to play and get prepared to do that and then play. I think it is important to enjoy the crowd and the atmosphere and all of that, but we’ve got to get down to business and take care of the puck.
Auston Matthews saying that his line and the whole team is better at communicating with the defense coming back. How long of a process is that you for a coach? You’ve preached that every day and it’s just sinking in now.
Babcock: I don’t think it’s just sinking in now. He is a young player in the NHL. You’re playing center and it is hard. It takes time. There are a couple of problems: One, it takes a ton of work. You’ve got to get up and down the rink and up and down the rink 82 nights a year and then in the playoffs, you’ve got to do it playing 20 minutes. What you find is it’s hard to do it right every time. It is way easier not to do it right. That is the first thing.
The second thing is your wingers have to understand how it works as well. That usually takes time in the league, too. That is why it takes a lot of guys a long time to learn how to win — because you’ve got to learn how to play right. It is a process. I think John Tavares being here has probably helped him, but just his overall commitment and understanding, too. As you get to be a better skater, you get stronger and you get more comfortable in the league, you’ve got a chance to get better at it.
The way you handle these guys both as players and as young men, has that changed much since your first year here? Does the coach evolve in that way also?
Babcock: I think it has changed a lot over my time just because I think you grow each and every year. IIf you want to be good at your craft, you are always trying to get better at it, obviously. There are lots of situations you’d like to think you handled well and there are lots of situations you didn’t handle very well. But I think also there is a trust process and you build a relationship over time based on trust. You’re the coach and they’re the player, but there is still an important carrying process there that goes. Your job is to help them help themselves get to be the best they can possibly be.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the first Leafs team to potentially win a round in a long, long time?
Babcock: I just saw that the other day and I never really thought about that much. It means a lot to be a part of a great franchise. I think we are going in the right direction. I think we have been doing that now here for three years. My first year here was obviously a different project. I think we have a chance to build a real good program here. We’ve got to continue to build that program. This is all part of that process right here.
Tomorrow is a game that we would like to win. We want to get prepared. I really believe that if you prepare and you go through the process right, it gives you every chance, and that is all you can ask for.
Is there something you tell guys in terms of how to approach a game like this where you can close out? They’ve never been in this situation.
Babcock: Some guys have in our room. We are fortunate to have them. It is one thing to have a coach talk about it. It is another thing to have the players talk about it. When you’ve got Hainsey and Muzzin and even John and Marleau, those are guys who have done this before. I don’t know if we have anyone else that has, to be honest. I think that is part of the process.
The other thing is just going through and being as steady as you possibly can and understanding what is going on. We know the formula for us to win tomorrow. We know that. Now we’ve got to do it. It is great to know the answers, but now you’ve got to do it every day. That is the hardest part. Sometimes at home, you get a little carried away. Let’s just play.
Ron Hainsey is plus five through five games. Has he tapped into that fountain of youth you talked about a week or so ago?
Babcock: I think he was +30 or something here during the year. Some people think he got lucky. Other people know he knows where to stand. He just knows how to play. Chara is no different. They know how to play. They know where to stand. They know how to defend. They know how to not end up minus. In the end, you can’t give up goals. Yesterday, the penalty kill was a huge part of the game. They had three power plays and they had every chance to be in the lead. We bent and we didn’t break in that area. To me, that is defending. That is those guys like Ron Hainsey who know what they are doing there.