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.
"You're going to get your matchup in the playoffs, and you try to beat the line you're up against," said fourth-line forward Brian Boyle, acquired by the Maple Leafs at the deadline in part for his 100 games of playoff experience. "It shows you everyone has an opportunity to contribute."
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.
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."
The Montreal Canadiens found that out firsthand in their shutout loss to the Rangers, and coach Claude Julien thinks "the jitters should be gone by now" in preparation for Game 2 Friday.
"I think they realize now what's at stake and how the game elevates now as we move forward," Julien said.
Jordan Eberle said Edmonton Oilers teammates kept tabs on the early games before taking the ice late Wednesday night but didn't think an extra day to watch would've helped.
"I don't think that really matters," Eberle said. "You just want to get going."
Young Maple Leafs players didn't seem on edge in advance of their big moment.
After watching playoff hockey his whole life, Mitch Marner understands that "it's going to be a battle every shift" and scored a goal in the first period of his debut Thursday night. Matthews out all about playoff hockey against grown men a year ago playing in the Swiss league.
"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."
After living through their tough loss to the Bruins, the Ottawa Senators are glad they got going on the first night.
"I think it's a mental state of mind and we remind the players of that, but I think you've got to go through it," coach Guy Boucher said. "There's a big mental state of mind when it comes to playoffs."
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