TAMPA – The Montreal Canadiens were the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference in the spring of 2008, locked in heated first round hostilities with a Bruins squad that was just beginning its ascent back up the Eastern Conference. Ryan O'Byrne was a 23-year-old rookie defender, getting his first taste of the postseason for Game 3 at the contentious visiting confines of TD Garden.
"I was revved up ready to go," he recalled in conversation with TSN.ca of the Canadiens' 1-0 victory, with Montreal eventually edging Boston in a seven-game battle. "It's the best hockey in the world and there's nothing like it."
The now-28-year-old is one of only 10 Leafs to experience the postseason, a nine-year wait for the organization that will begin in less than a week's time. For the scores of teammates who've yet to feel the rush or the "different animal" of the playoffs as John-Michael Liles once phrased it, O'Byrne offers the following wisdom.
"Don't build it up too much," he explains. "The best advice I can give someone is that first shift, you don't want to think too much about it. You want to get out there in your first shift, get a hit, get a shot, get skating, get in that game right away, because at the end of the day hockey's hockey. You can't overanalyze the playoffs."
O'Byrne believes the mental buildup and increased pressures can be taxing on the mind if unrestrained, especially in hockey hubs like Montreal and Toronto. "It's not like football where you go out there and you've got a three-second shift and you just go nuts for three seconds," he said. "[In] hockey obviously there's times and places where you've got to be poised with the puck and you've got make patient decisions." Thus the need he says to "get in the game right away and if you get in that game right away then you'll be fine and you'll pick up your pace and you'll feel the energy and you just treat it like another hockey game."
Liles was just a rookie in his first playoff go-around, one quiet member of a stacked Colorado Avalanche squad that featured the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake, Paul Kariya, and Teemu Selanne.
"I just remember the intensity and how big of a jump it was from the regular season to the playoffs," said Liles, second to James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul in postseason experience with 36 career games. "The regular season is such a grind that you're going to have off-nights, you're going to have nights where you don't have your legs, you're going to have those mental lapses whereas when playoff time comes it's pushing all through the barriers; it's making sure each and every shift it's all out, it's finishing every check, it's making sure that you're getting the puck deep every time whereas maybe in the regular season you have those little lapses."
Colorado was taking on a veteran-laded Dallas Stars squad that year (2004), one that boasted gritty vets such as Bill Guerin, Pierre Turgeon and Sergei Zubov.
"I just remember just getting finished every time I touched the puck," Liles recalled of that first game in Denver, a 3-1 victory. "You get done with the game, you're like 'Wow this is playoff hockey'. You realize what players talk about when you go through that grind in the playoffs."
The Leafs defied expectations by simply landing in the postseason, a feat that had not been accomplished by the organization since 2004. Anticipation is high for those that will be experiencing the second season for the first time, among them James Reimer, Tyler Bozak, Carl Gunnarsson, Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Kulemin, and Nazem Kadri. How they respond to the increased intensity, emotion and penchant for details will in large part determine any additional success the club can manufacture this season.
"Obviously this is my first National League playoffs and I think for a lot of us it's the same," Kadri, the youngest player on the roster, told TSN.ca. "But we're pretty excited and I think that's what's going to carry us to the playoffs is the excitement and the readiness that we have."
Kadri was a member of the Toronto Marlies squad that advanced to the Calder Cup finals last summer – he missed the Final versus Norfolk with injury – an experience that brought with it lessons of landing "under the microscope a little more".
"Defensively throughout the whole season maybe it's a little more lackadaisical and the freedom to make some plays are definitely there a little more," he explained, surely referencing turnovers. "And I think in the playoffs, like I said, every single play you make is just under the microscope. That's why you've got to make sure to make the smart ones."
Preaching structure and a strict template to his team all year, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle stresses that those set to encounter their first round of playoff experience prepare for a wave of tougher hockey.
"I'm a believer that come the playoffs that there's about a 20 percent difference in the defensive schemes, the way teams apply defence," Carlyle opined after an early morning practice in Tampa. "It's going to be harder to score goals, it's going to be harder to fight a battle, you're going to have to play defence to about a 20 percent higher level, your compete is going to have be 20 percent higher, so you have to expect that and don't be surprised by it because that's what's coming.
"And if you've watched the playoffs in the last few years the first round is a real man's game. There's a lot of energy that's been dispensed, there's a lot of physicality that's been displayed and we're going to have to be prepared to step into that zone."