WINNIPEG – A wonderful paradox lies within the Stanley Cup playoffs, the greatest tournament in sports. (Sorry, March Madness. Apologies, World Cup.)
Everything changes and, yet, the players are better served by treating the games as if nothing has.
If you believe the giant hype machines like Sportsnet oversell the switch that will be flipped at 6 p.m. CT Wednesday night when a puck gets dropped in the middle of MTS Place, you’re wrong.
We recall Brad Marchand’s BS-detector flaming up last year when a reporter casually referred to a thrilling regular-season game as having a “playoff-like” feel.
Nothing, Marchand clarified, is like the playoffs. It’s a different animal altogether. The teeth aren’t just sharper, there’s a second row of the suckers you didn’t even see coming.
“There’s a big difference in the emotion, the drive, and the attention to detail by the players,” agreed Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice Wednesday morning, ahead of Game 1 versus the Minnesota Wild.
“The game actually gets quite a bit simpler. It goes back to the basics – every puck gets out, there’s an attempted block on every shot. The intensity on every movement increases on the ice. The game itself is probably played in a more simple fashion. Get it out, get it in, get it to the net.”
Thinking back to his first playoff game, 10 years ago in Colorado, Jets surprise rental Paul Stastny wonders if he was mentally weaker then. He thought the post-season would come easier than it did. It took time, Stastny says, to not get frustrated if he sank into a three-game point drought, to have his eyes opened to the premium placed on special teams and wicking off discouragement.
“Also, you realize it gets more defensive,” Stastny says. “Watching those guys like [Joe] Sakic and [Andrew] Brunette and [Milan] Hejduk – it’s just, you know, they kept plugging away. When it wasn’t going, they just kept playing the same way, kept playing the same way, and eventually it kind of turned for them.”
Which brings us to Patrik Laine, the most dangerous young Winnipeg weapon of the many who are just minutes away from making their playoff debuts and learning what all the hoopla is really about.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for two years now,” says Laine, whose head start on the playoff beard stands as a scraggly testament. “Just excited. Hoping that the puck would drop pretty quickly.”
Laine is coming off a ridiculous sophomore campaign in which he scored 44 goals and 70 points while cutting down on his defensive gaffes and committed fewer penalties. Remember, the guy is still a teenager for another week. But Wednesday, as he frequently has this season, he half-grumbled about his own recent performance.
The Jets are roaring into the post-season on an 11-1 run, but Laine, who had once been neck-and-neck with his idol, Alex Ovechkin, in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, has lit the lamp just once in his past 10 outings.
“Could be better. I’ve had a couple games without points before the playoffs,” Laine shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what you did in the regular season. We start from zero. Everybody has a second chance. You try to be the best you can.”
The man tasked with stopping the most lethal shot in the West, Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, didn’t get his playoff start until three years ago, after bouncing from Edmonton to Nashville to Hamilton to Arizona to Minnesota in a span of months.
“It was strange. I hadn’t thought about making the playoffs or anything. It was such a whirlwind year. I was playing so many games in a row, and then suddenly you have a few days off to think about what’s really going on, and you just do your best to not change what you’re doing, not change your approach,” Dubnyk says.
“You don’t want to be thinking you have to crank up your intensity by 20 per cent or do anything different. The more you keep things the same, the better off you’ll be.”
Like you, Dubnyk sees the parallel in the game plan of Ovechkin and Laine.
“They’re both looking to shoot everything. Everyone’s looking to get them the puck,” Dubnyk explains.
“Their area to hit one-timers is two to three sizes more than most guys’, which is why they score as many goals as they do.”
Laine has an uncanny knack for turning an imperfect pass into a scoring chance. He can reach back and clap a feed behind him or adjust his hands and snap a bullet off a pass that would handcuff the average winger.
“He’s just one of those guys where you have to be quicker getting over to,” Dubnyk says. “Anybody like that is only good when he’s complemented by other players, and they’ve got a lot of weapons. It’s not like you can just go stand beside 29 and have everything go away.”
The Wild are preaching dump-and-chase, smash-mouth forecheck and stressing discipline, so as to limit the Jets’ power plays. Laine led all NHLers with 20 goals with the man-advantage, meaning 45 per cent of his snipes came with that extra space.
Mark Scheifele, one of the Jets leaders, is 0-4 life time in the post-season. He chuckles at the thought of giving Laine any advice.
“He’s a guy that loves hockey, loves these big stages,” Scheifele says. “You have to enjoy it. Get your legs under you early and enjoy.”
Laine has already wowed under the spotlight of the world juniors (scoring seven goals in seven games en route to gold in 2016) and the world championships (12 points in Finland’s 10-game sprint to silver later that year), but he’s about to meet a whole new beast.
“I know I’ve played in big games before – that’s not new to me,” he says. “[But] it’s not going to help me.”
Soon, nothing will be normal, but Laine and the rest of them will be trying like hell to make it feel that way.
“Even though it’s playoffs, it’s still just hockey,” downplays Laine, unconvincingly.
Then he says something truer.
“It’s pretty much the best time of the year to be a hockey player.”