Leafs hope playoff inexperience won’t spell doom against favoured Capitals

Leafs hope inexperience won't spell doom

Self-destruction.

That’s how then-Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle described his team’s effort in Game 1 when Toronto last appered in the playoffs in 2013.

Coming off a nine-year post-season hiatus, the Leafs were throttled 4-1 by a playoff-tested Bruins team that had won the Stanley Cup two seasons earlier. Boston scored four unanswered goals while owning the shot-clock 40-20.

Mike Babcock is hoping his team won’t be frazzled like that when they begin a first round series against Washington on Thursday night. The current Leafs coach has wondered aloud about his team’s preparedness for the grind of the post-season, with nine players expected to make their debuts.

Another handful have played only a single playoff series — that seven-game loss to the Bruins four years ago.

James van Riemsdyk was among the few players with considerable playoff experience at that point and he looked like it in the one-sided Game 1 against the Bruins. The 27-year-old  believes that experience does play a part in how a team performs.

“I would say to some degree for sure,” said van Riemsdyk. “The level of play is just way different and (it’s about) just being able to weather the highs and lows of the game and the series.”

Van Riemsdyk recalled wisdom he gleaned from perennial playoff performer and former Flyers teammate Chris Pronger. He advised that experience in the playoffs helped a player manage those “highs and lows.”

If the road team dropped the first two games of the series, for instance, “It’s like ‘So what? They’re (home team) supposed to win their first two games anyway.'”

In stark contrast to Toronto, Washington is loaded with post-season experience.

Only 16 players have suited up for more playoff games since 2001 than Justin Williams.  The Cobourg, Ont., native has appeared in 127 while winning three Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy as playoffs MVP.

Brooks Orpik has logged 112 games, Alex Ovechkin 84, Nicklas Backstrom 83, Matt Niskanen 81 and several players are over 40.

For the Leafs, Brian Boyle has suited up for 100, including a pair of Stanley Cup finals. Roman Polak hass appeares in 49, including last year’s final with San Jose, and van Riemsdyk in 46.

It gets thin beyond that. Even 31-year-old Matt Hunwick has suited up for only 20.

Will it matter in the early-going for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, or Morgan Rielly, all of them yet to taste the NHL post-season? Will the intensity of the moment overwhelm them at Verizon Center where fans are sure to be rocking red as the President’s trophy-winning Capitals bid for a first Stanley Cup?

Or will the simple depth of Washington’s talent be the difference?

Babcock planned to advise his squad about the challenges of playoff hockey beforehand and they’re “not going to believe me and then it’s going to happen.”

In other words, they’ll understand once they experience it themselves. What changes, according to the 2008 Stanley Cup-winning coach?

“No space. Zero,” Babcock said after the regular season finale. 

Every inch of ice, he added, will be scratched and clawed for, especially by a “battle-tested” team like Washington which has experienced a number of disappointing playoff losses over the years. 

He hoped his inexperienced group just dove in with excitement and if there is one potential advantage for the Leafs, beyond their sensational depth of young skill, it’s how little they have to lose against the Caps. Unlike Washington, a defeat for Toronto won’t be all that disappointing, judged in the bigger picture of their long-term plan for Cup contention.

Babcock recalled the experience of his first season with Detroit when his hall of fame-laden team won 58 games and then was dropped by Edmonton in the first round.

“If you let ’em get going, then they’re going and they’re loose and driving,” Babcock said Tuesday. “But that pucker factor is an unbelievable thing and until you’ve been the best seed, until you have the whole city expecting you (to win) you don’t know what that’s like and how good a defence that is for the underdog. It’s unbelievable.”

Frederik Andersen struggled as a rookie in his playoff debut. He posted an .899 save percentage in seven first round games and was replaced by Jonas Hiller for the conference semifinal against Los Angeles. The 27-year-old was admittedly better prepared the following spring when he helped Anaheim to the Western Conference final — the club downed in seven games by the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.

“Everyone’s a little bit more amped up,” Andersen, he of 28 playoff starts, said of the post-season atmosphere. “There’s no letdown games. You know you’re facing a team up to seven times … It’s going to be a grown ups game, a grown man’s game.”

The Leafs of 2013 eventually found their way against the Bruins after the nervous opener before ultimately unravelling in Game 7 — a 4-1 third period lead melting away in a 5-4 overtime defeat. Even sour experiences like that help though, van Riemsdyk says.

“The more times you go through it I think the more perspective you have on it,” he said. “The more you see stuff like that happen the more you realize you’ve just got to take it one shift at a time and one day at a time.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press