WASHINGTON -- As the Toronto Maple Leafs slowly circled the ice at Verizon Center on Thursday morning, coach Mike Babcock sidled up to forward Mitchell Marner. He knew the 19-year-old rookie was about to make his Stanley Cup Playoff debut. His message was simple:
"Just making sure that I'm relaxed and ready to go out and play," Marner said.
Babcock did much the same with the team as a whole.
When the Maple Leafs play the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; USA, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC), they are expected to dress nine players making their NHL playoff debuts. They are expected to dress five others who have played seven NHL playoff games or fewer.
Nerves are normal. They can be a disadvantage if the Maple Leafs play tight against the Capitals, winners of the Presidents' Trophy as the League's top regular-season team for the second straight year and popular favorites to win the Cup, in the Verizon Center, one of the League's most raucous rinks.
"They come out hard," said Maple Leafs forward Brian Boyle, who has played 100 NHL playoff games, far more than any of his teammates, and has faced the Capitals in three series as a member of the New York Rangers. "The building is, I think, the loudest building I can remember playing in. There's going to be momentum swings. There's going to be ups and downs. You've just got to take it in stride."
But nerves can be an advantage if the Maple Leafs take a lead or grab momentum. The Capitals, for all their star power and regular-season success, have not advanced past the second round since 1998. They have the weight of expectations, not the Maple Leafs, the second wild card from the East. They have fans fearing another disappointment.
"There's nothing like a bunch of fans that have got long faces and are sitting on their hands and are nervous like you can't believe," Babcock said. "So that obviously is the goal for us."
Babcock likes playing his first game on the second night of the playoffs, so his players can watch opening night -- how hard everyone plays, how little room there is. Before the morning skate Thursday, he asked his players what they saw.
Here's one thing he saw: Out of five games, the road teams won four.
"The game's the same," Babcock said. "But the energy in the building is different, and the energy in each shift is different. And so you've got to find a way to bring your game within that game."
Each player handles things differently.
Auston Matthews? The 19-year-old rookie didn't seem any different than he did when he was selected No. 1 at the 2016 NHL Draft, or when he scored four goals in his NHL debut, or when he scored his 40th in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
The Maple Leafs worked on special teams during the morning skate. On the power play, Matthews made behind-the-back passes and second and third efforts. He stopped hard and shook off Boyle along the boards.
"I mean, I was going heads up against him, and he kind of outworked me a little bit," Boyle said with a smile. "I think I have him, and he just kind of lifts my stick. The kid competes. He really does. He works. He's got a drivetrain that's through the roof. It's a huge thing for a player you don't see, especially at that age. For the city, for our team, it's going to be pretty impressive."
When Matthews spoke to the media, he did it in a calm monotone. At the end, someone asked how he would spend the hours until 7 p.m. He sort of shrugged.
"Nothing much," Matthews said. "Probably take a nap."
Marner? He seemed more anxious. It probably didn't help when he leaned against the boards at one of the benches and fell through an unlatched door.
"Obviously you watched it your whole life, hoping to be in that moment, and now it's finally here," Marner said. "So it's exciting obviously."
But it's not like Marner hasn't played in big games before. A year ago, he played in the Memorial Cup with London of the Ontario Hockey League. The Knights won, and he was the tournament's most valuable player.
"I think it's just trying to get that out of your stomach as quick as possible and just thinking of it as another hockey game," Marner said.
Think the kids are ready?
"Oh, of course," Boyle said. "We're going to have fun."
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