TORONTO â€” James van Riemsdyk has stepped onto the ice at the Olympics and Stanley Cup final. Brian Boyle has racked up 100 playoff games in the NHL, including a pair of visits to the final himself. Roman Polak played for the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks last spring.
But most of the current Maple Leafs head into a make-or-break end to the regular season with little to no big-game NHL experience under their belts. The Leafs can clinch their first playoff berth since 2013 â€” and first in a full season in 13 years â€” if they can somehow beat the defending Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday evening.
Head coach Mike Babcock advised his group to embrace the nerves and enjoy the moment.
“It’s no different than being on the tee at the Masters,” said Babcock following a team meeting on Friday morning. “You step up there, you’ve got to clear your mind and hit the ball. If there’s momentary doubt, you push through it and you hit it down the middle and then get ready for the next shot.
“Same thing here in hockey,” he said. “Play your shift, come back, take a deep breath, get a drink of water and play your next one.”
Babcock wondered if tightness seeped into his group Thursday night when they were whipped 4-1 by the Tampa Bay Lightning. A victory would have secured that post-season ticket. Now they need two points over the final two games â€” they play Columbus on Sunday â€” to get in.
The club discussed the need to play with more “confidence and poise” against the Penguins, elements that were mostly missing against the Lightning. The group looked slow and tentative at times and struggled to muster many high-end scoring chances, managing just 27 shots on Tampa netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“They probably wanted it more than us,” said Auston Matthews, who needs one goal to become only the fourth rookie in NHL history to score 40 before age 20, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. “They were on top of us and we didn’t an answer for it. We just have to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Matthews is among the many Leafs going through this kind of thing for the first time in the NHL.
The 19-year-old has had big games before, including the world championships last spring and the World Cup of Hockey in the fall, but nothing like this, what with the microscope of Toronto focusing tight on the Leafs playoff push â€” or potential failure.
Mitch Marner shined at the Memorial Cup last year and world junior championships before that. William Nylander, another one of the Leafs high-flying rookies, has played for Sweden numerous times internationally as well as the Marlies in the American Hockey League playoffs last season.
None compare to the NHL stage though, especially at this point in the year when the intensity dials up and every little play seems to matter.
It’s not just the first-year Leafs who lack much experience in these kind of outings. Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, and Jake Gardiner have all logged exactly one playoff series in the NHL â€” that infamous seven-game affair against Boston in 2013.
Boyle, who went to the Cup final with the Rangers in 2014 and the Lightning in 2015, advised doing “what gets you there”.
“It’s not going off the page,” the 32-year-old said. “I think for the most part the battles and the opportunities to rise to the occasion will present themselves; you can’t go out looking for it and get yourself all out of whack and make yourself too wound up.”
Babcock wanted his team to play faster against the Penguins, who might just rest Sidney Crosby while potentially remaining without injured centre Evgeni Malkin. The Leafs coach also thought it best that his players think about anything other than hockey until just before game-time, avoiding the ever-increasing playoff buzz of the city.
The Hunting Channel was a big favourite of his for just that reason.
“What I like about this opportunity is we have to earn our way in,” Babcock said. “You’ve got to earn your way in and that’s what it’s all about. It’s having these opportunities to grow your game in moments that matter. And they’ve all had these opportunities at different levels, just not at this level so let’s look after business.”
“I think you embrace it,” added Matthews. “It’s just hockey.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press