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WASHINGTON – Mike Babcock watched the first night of the Stanley Cup playoffs and was glad his players tuned in.
"It's important for your players to be able to watch on TV just how hard everyone plays and how little room there is and how the game works," the Toronto Maple Leafs coach said.
What Babcock, his players and the rest of the NHL and fans saw on opening night was prototypical playoff hockey — not many goals, just 16 plus an empty-netter in five games. The lesson for a young Toronto team that had nine players making their playoff debuts Thursday night against the Washington Capitals came through loud and clear. It also got many of them excited for what's to come.
"You just see the atmosphere in the buildings, how intense it is and just the physicality and everything," rookie of the year front-runner Auston Matthews said. "You just see how tight checking they are. Not a lot of space out there, not a lot of going being scored. It's playoff hockey for you."
Playoff hockey on opening night this season featured offense from unlikely sources — overtime winners from St. Louis Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson and San Jose Sharks forward Melker Karlsson, and the second goal in the 61-game postseason career of New York Rangers grinder Tanner Glass.
Goals will undoubtedly continue to come from stars like the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and Bruins' Brad Marchand with the Chicago Blackhawks' duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin itching to put up big numbers. But as Toronto forward Brian Boyle watched his former Rangers teammates shut out the Montreal Canadiens, he praised the play of Glass, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast because at this time of year it's occasionally the fourth line that wins a game.
"You're going to get your matchup in the playoffs, and you try to beat the line you're up against," Boyle said. "It shows you everyone has an opportunity to contribute."
Acquired by the Maple Leafs in part for his 100 games of playoff experience and ability to pitch in offensively when it matters most, Boyle didn't need to re-watch playoff hockey to know what it's like. But defenseman Connor Carrick flipped around from game to game to get a feel for what he and his fellow playoff newcomers are in for.
"It's all tight," Carrick said. "You never know what play is going to win you a game and eventually the series, so you got to be dialed in and all the details matter this time of year."
Mitch Marner knows how special playoff hockey is from watching his whole life, appreciating right away that "it's going to be a battle every shift." Matthews found that out a year ago playing in the Swiss league playoffs.
"It's faster," Matthews said. "You could just tell the physicality and the speed. It's kind of upped a notch."
The NHL, of course, is another level, and Matthews acknowledged watching games differently than before as a fan and aspiring professional because it's now a reality for him, Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and the rest of the Maple Leafs. That's what Babcock wanted to get across, even though he didn't tell players in advance to tune their TVs to hockey.
"I asked them if they watched," Babcock said. "Sometimes during the year if you ask them, you'd know no one watched. But lots of guys watched."
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