TORONTO – The Mikhail Grabovski who has emerged early in the Maple Leafs first round series with Boston does not resemble the one who meekly concluded a lost regular season.
"Much different hockey player," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle stated with emphasis a day before Game 3 against the Bruins on Monday night. "Much more noticeable. Much more on the puck. Much more determined. Much more physical. Lot of muches."
Returning to the feisty, aggressive template which had defined his career before 2013, Grabovski totaled nearly 17 minutes in Saturday's series-evening Game 2 victory – the most he's played in well over a month – the 29-year-old dangling a fine feed to James van Riemsdyk for the fourth and final Toronto goal.
Eagerly awaiting the first postseason of his NHL career, Grabovski has admittedly been lifted by the aura and intensity of the second season, invigorated by all that is on the line. "I don't look at it like it's a different season," he explained to TSN.ca on Sunday afternoon, "I just look at like it's time to play hockey or time to go home.
"This is what I needed," he continued of the postseason, the remnants of his worst NHL season now in the past. "I'm in playoff already, flush out everything and start a new game."
Grabovski played in 367 career regular season games before his first NHL playoff this spring. The early experience, he says, is reminiscent of a run to the Calder Cup with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007, an accomplishment "you remember for all your life".
"Playoff teams are the best teams," he said of the competition and need for top performance. "It's not teams behind us, it's only the best teams. Every game, every shift is like history in my life."
Determination in that manner has showed itself in the opening two games with Boston.
Unlike a whole string of his teammates in recent years, Grabovski has actually thrived in his career against the Bruins, posting 14 goals in 31 career games. Something about the matchup with the 2011 Stanley Cup champions inspires the Belarusian pivot. "I just enjoy playing against the best players in the world," he stated. "They won the Stanley Cup before and I know the level how you can play to beat them or play hard against this team."
What's been most striking about his performance against the Bruins, in recent years and in the first two games of this series, is a willingness at 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds to attack, most specifically against Boston's 6-foot-9 "monster of a player" as Carlyle described him, Zdeno Chara.
"I really enjoy playing against him," Grabovski said of Chara, motivated by the challenge of facing the former Norris Trophy winner. "For me, I need to use my quickness because he's big and [it's] pretty hard to play slow hockey with him. I need to be quicker, but it's really hard."
That speed and quickness has allowed Grabovski to be a "noticeable" presence in each of the first two games – one of the few such Leafs in a one-sided series opening loss – aggressive on pucks while wreaking havoc for the Bruins defence on the forecheck.
The encounters with Chara over the years appear to have brought not only physical anguish – including the infamous concussion hit and comeback game-winner in 2011 – but a few lessons as well. "He teach me a lot of things," Grabovski indicated of the Bruins captain. "He teach me to be faster, he teach me to be stronger and he always hit people so I need to be careful."
Rejuvenated by the atmosphere of playoff hockey and the Bruins matchup, Grabovski has also benefited from a visit with an old coach this past week.
From the age of 14-18, Vladislav Astapenko was Grabovski's junior hockey coach and he just happened to be in Boston earlier this week coaching a Belarusian team at a local tournament. "He's always supported me," Grabovski said of Astapenko, a shooting coach with whom Grabovski has worked during past summers in Belarus, likely to do so again in the upcoming offseason. "He's excited to watch the next games because we come back to Boston for sure."
Of the advice that his former coach passed along, Grabovski said most of it related to shooting the puck. "'Shoot quicker'," the student recalled of the wisdom. "He's a shooting coach. He knows how to shoot properly and stick-handle so he tells me 'use the wrist!'"
The mystery still lingers as to what exactly happened to the Leafs highest-paid forward this season. In what stands as unquestionably the worst year of his career, Grabovski totaled a quaint nine goals and 16 points, a seemingly lost factor on many and most nights.
A different player has shown up in the early going, however, of the Leafs first playoff run in nine years, the fiery, tenacious player of old. "I'm excited about sunshine outside, excited about playing hockey in the summertime," he concluded. "And I love playing against Boston."