Babcock says Maple Leafs need to ‘start on time’
For parts of two seasons, Connor Carrick was a teammate of Alex Ovechkin and had the opportunity to admire the Russian superstar from across the dressing room.
The respect for Ovechkin from Carrick’s view on the Maple Leafs blue-line continues as the Leafs and Washington Capitals head into Game 5 of their first-round series on Friday night in Washington, deadlocked 2-2 in the best-of-seven.
Every player skating in the postseason knows the glare of the spotlight and the weight of expectations. That the Leafs are tied with the Caps, the Presidents’ Trophy winner during the regular season, and about to begin a best-of-three series is proof of their resiliency and desire.
Few gave the Leafs a chance to win the series, let alone at least two games. While Carrick and his Leafs teammates have zero interest in their season ending in the next several days, the 23-year-old defenceman isn’t envious of Ovechkin, who is 31 and has never hoisted the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin’s everyday hockey nemesis, Sidney Crosby, twice has won the Cup and has been instrumental on the Olympic stage where Ovechkin has not.
“I’ll never know the pressure he’s under, given the pick he was (first overall in 2004), the Crosby/ Ovechkin thing and all the storylines he has been a part of,” Carrick said.
“The clock is always ticking in this sport; you are always one game closer to your next one.
“(Ovechkin) is a guy who has tons of expectations and ability, he has been a part of good teams but for whatever reason they haven’t put it together in the time he has been there. So that’s something we’re playing against, we’re playing against a desperate team.”
Ovechkin might not have the same flash he once did, but his passion to win never has subsided. His ice time in the series has been an issue in some corners — he is sixth among Caps forwards on average, after he led in that category in the regular season. Still, with an average of 19 minutes, one second in four games, he’s on the ice more than he was in the regular season, when he averaged 18 minutes 21 seconds. And he is having a clear impact. Ovechkin and the surprising Tom Wilson have three goals each to lead Washington, and the Leafs haven’t been able to nudge Ovechkin out of his faceoff-circle office while the Caps are on the power play.
Ovechkin has 18 shots on goal, the most of any player in the series, and he still would rather go through you than around you. The Capitals captain’s 19 hits are the most among Washington forwards.
“I just know as a player who has played against him a bunch of times, that he competes really, really hard,” Leafs veteran centre Brian Boyle said. “His skill level speaks for itself. I don’t love talking about individual guys on the other team in the playoffs, but he is a world-class player and he is their leader and I think he showed it pretty good (in the Caps’ win in Game 4).”
Two games remain in the series, and possibly three. The Leafs know Ovechkin is going to be a factor to some degree. The key is ensuring that it’s not to the point that Ovechkin puts the Caps on his back and leads his team to the second round.
How much more wary now do the Leafs have to be of Ovechkin, given what’s at stake?
“You’ve got to answer the bell,” Carrick said. “You always expect the other team’s best and it’s our job to counter or hit first, so to speak. It’s our job to play at our pace, with our execution, in our system, things that have made us successful all season long and against Washington. Be aware of our pitfalls and let’s stay away from them and manage the game.”
Mike Babcock could pin-point the exact moment things began unraveling for his Leafs in Game 4.
“It went down hill after the national anthem,” said the coach, starting Thursday’s press conference with some levity. “Martina (Luis-Ortiz) did a heck of a job, I thought it was spectacular, best I ever heard. Then (the game) wasn’t pretty.”
Turning serious, Babcock hammered on a familiar theme about his team not starting on time. Even though the calendar is getting close to May 1, the Leafs began both games in the home portion of the series by falling behind 2-0.
“We have to start on time, execute, compete at a high level,” said Babcock.
Winger Matt Martin says the Leafs must once more project themselves into the role of win-or-go-home in Game 5.
“I think people have been trying to find that recipe forever,” Martin said. “Being the team kind of with their back against the wall, like Washington was, they always seem to find a little more desperation than the team that’s coming off a big win. But for whatever reason, we just didn’t execute early in the game. We expected them to push, they’re the best team in hockey for a reason. We expected them to come out strong. But the goals they scored were us breaking down mentally.”
Babcock had forewarned the Caps would come as hard at his group as the San Jose Sharks did a couple of nights ago against Edmonton, another young team that was getting a glut of positive press for its play early in the series.
“I think it’s an experience we had to go through,” Martin said. “I think maybe just the hype around the (Leafs) the last few days was a lot. These things are best-of-sevens for a reason. Just because you’re up 2-1, nobody is going to remember that if (Washington) go on to win the Cup. We need to learn not to be satisfied with having two wins under our belt.”
Herning, Denmark, home of Frederik Andersen, has already produced one champion player this year to whom the Leaf goalie wanted to give a shout-out.
Centre/winger Mads Christensen was part of Munich’s run to the top of the German League, which was the 10th title he has won.
“That’s his fifth in the German League and he won five at home (mostly with Herning Blue Fox),” Andersen said. “That’s pretty impressive — and he’s only 30 years old.”
Christensen and Frans Nielsen of the Red Wings are in a tight group of Andersen supporters from Herning, though Leaf success in future will likely expand that base in Denmark.
“My family, they’re following along with the NHL playoffs and my best friends from home always check up on me,” Andersen said.
This series marks the second straight spring Connor Carrick has faced the Capitals in playoffs, if you count their Hershey farm team last spring when Carrick was a Marlie. The defenceman has a constant reminder of those days in Hershey, his beloved three-year-old French bulldog, Hoagie, named after the famous sandwich in that region of Pennsylvania.
“People say I got the dog too early, but it’s the best mistake I ever made,” Carrick said. “It’s a great city dog.”
Carrick took Hoagie for a late night walk after Toronto’s Game 3 win.
“People were running down the street yelling ‘go Leafs go.’ It had been two hours after the game. It’s a good buzz in the city.”
Alex Ovechkin is tied for team lead with three goals through Washington’s first four playoff games.