TAMPA, Fla. – In the world of hockey, some things are universal.
Playoff beards (for proof check out Leo Komarov from the 2012 KHL final). Bumps and bruises. The need to elevate your play the moment the regular season ends.
“Everyone steps up – it doesn’t matter where the playoffs are,” said Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, who last participated in a post-season game in his native Sweden.
One of the myths about this Leafs’ team is that it has a lack of playoff experience. Sure, the roster isn’t brimming with numerous Stanley Cup champions, but virtually every player has appeared in the post-season as a professional.
James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul have each played a team-high 39 NHL playoff games. Several of their teammates were involved in the Toronto Marlies run to the Calder Cup final last year.
And others, like Komarov, have gone through a post-season run overseas.
He played important minutes during Moscow Dynamo’s Gagarin Cup victory last year and managed to grow a playoff beard for the ages in the process.
"I had a couple months to grow it," said Komarov. "I’m going to start another one soon."
The current gap in the Leafs' schedule came at just the right time. By officially clinching a post-season berth prior to heading south, it’s given the team a chance to relax and recharge while also looking ahead.
Coach Randy Carlyle is the first to acknowledge that the Leafs haven’t played their best of hockey of late and he put the team through a tough practice early Tuesday morning that surely caught their attention after a couple days of golf and sitting by the pool.
Games against Tampa Bay on Wednesday and Florida on Thursday offer a chance to show some improvement while Saturday’s regular season finale at home to Montreal looms as a potential first-round preview.
"We’re far from done here," said defenceman Ryan O’Byrne. "We made the playoffs, but we want to make a long run in the playoffs. That’s our next goal now.
"These next few games are a leadup towards that."
It’s a refreshing change for the guys who have been members of this team the last couple years. They’ve had some awfully long off-seasons.
Gunnarsson is in his fourth season with the Maple Leafs and usually answers the call from the Swedish national team at this time of year by playing in the world championship. This year’s tournament is in his home Stockholm but he has no qualms about missing it.
"It’s always nice to play in the world championship, but I would take this over that any day," said Gunnarsson.
The Leafs could still finish anywhere from fourth to eighth in the Eastern Conference but seem to feel that they have a good playoff run in them.
Looking at the big picture, everything seems wide open.
"It’s different than most sports," said van Riemsdyk. "In basketball, it feels like the top four seeds keep moving on in each conference. But in hockey anything can happen.
"It’s basically a new season."
His welcome to the playoffs moment came as a rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. That team needed a shootout victory on the last day of the regular season just to qualify for the post-season and ended up going all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.
It was a first-round series against New Jersey where van Riemsdyk saw just how much sacrifice was needed for success in the spring.
"Pretty much the biggest difference is the desperation," he said. "You can feel it on every shift. My first playoff run we had Ian Laperriere taking slapshots off the face and I think you kind of get a wakeup call: ‘Wow, this is a little bit more serious than the regular season."’
As you might expect, this is a time of great enthusiasm for Leafs players no matter where they come from. Even though the team clinched its post-season berth in Ottawa and flew directly to Florida afterwards, the players seem to have a pretty good idea about the excitement at home.
There was a hint of giddiness as they discussed a playoff series that will open next week.
"It’s going to be awesome for us," said defenceman Ryan O’Byrne. "It’s been nine years and the fans have been waiting for this for a long time. As a player, that’s all you can ask for – that excitement and that passion."
Added Gunnarsson: "I can only imagine (what it will be like). Hopefully it’s going to be crazy."
The 26-year-old was raised about 200 kilometres from Stockholm in Orebro, Sweden and grew up hoping to win a Stanley Cup.
"As a kid you’re always dreaming about it, but I guess you don’t see the possibility of it happening until you get over here," said Gunnarsson. "Basically after you get in a couple games and you’re a starter on the team, that’s when I realized this could happen.
"Maybe (it’s even) moreso now that we’re in the playoffs."