Niyo: Playoff intensity has Red Wings' attention

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Johan Franzen, left, and Gustav Nyquist go after the puck during the morning skate on Thursday ahead of Game 1.

Tampa, Fla. – They watched the opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs with more than a passing interest.

As fans, of course, but also as scouts, looking for hints or clues as to what might awaited them Thursday night in their own playoff opener.

First impressions? Don't forget to wear your mouth guard.

"I mean, you saw guys hitting last night that I haven't seen hit in two years," laughed Jon Cooper, the Tampa Bay Lightning coach, as he braced for something similar Thursday night in Game 1 of his team's first-round series with the Red Wings. "Everybody's banging into each other and it's because it's the playoffs."

And because it's the playoffs, everything is magnified -- the physical play, the mistakes, the matchups, and even the celebrations.

"I don't know about you guys, but I'm excited to be here," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, trying his best to describe the intoxicating mix of anticipation and anxiety that spills over at playoff time. "There's a whole bunch of guys sitting at home, and the 14 teams sitting at home think their team is better than it is. And the 16 teams that are in don't think their team is good enough. That's the playoffs every year. And it's fun, it's exhilarating. You want to be here.

"It reminded me of the world junior tournament last night, guys were jumpin' all over each other after each goal. But, you know, it's about the next shift. Play the next shift. Play the next shift."

That ability to maintain one's focus comes with experience, and maybe no other way, everyone seems to agree.

"It's tough to explain what it is and how it is," said Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, a veteran of 125 playoff games prior to Thursday night. "You just have to experience it."

Even then, though, it's a constant battle, trying to walk the fine line between competitiveness and composure.

"The intensity, the physical play, the emotion – keeping that in check," said Darren Helm, whose speed makes him both an offensive catalyst – especially when skating on a top line with Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg – and a key penalty killer. "It's a grind. The highs and lows, you've got to find a way to keep that balanced. You've got to find ways to sell out and play as hard as you can. It's tough hockey."

Tough hockey and smart hockey don't always go hand in hand, though. And like a lot of his teammates, Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was keeping tabs on Wednesday's games, flipping channels at the team hotel after dinner.

"You can really see the intensity of the games and how fun it is," he said Thursday morning after an optional pregame skate at Amalie Arena. "Everyone is just dying to get out there and play."

First, though, there were some final reminders from the coaching staff, as well as some discussions among the players. And some of it was based on what had taken place the night before.

"There seemed to be a lot of stick calls," Ericsson said. "So we talked about not playing with our sticks and with our bodies (instead)."

There were at least a dozen stick infractions whistled in Wednesday night's four games, including a few in the Montreal-Ottawa opener, which quickly boiled over when P.K. Subban received a five-minute major and game misconduct for a nasty slash on the Senators' Mark Stone.

The back-and-forth shouting continued Thursday in Montreal, with Ottawa still crying foul – Senators GM Bryan Murray said Subban made threats before the two-hander – and Stone's status unclear with an injured wrist.

Subban, for his part, shrugged off the controversy, telling reporters, "It's a playoff game. There's tons of emotions involved."

But that's the point, really. Too much emotion, channeled the wrong way, can carry a heavy price this time of year. And keep in mind, both Detroit (fourth) and Tampa Bay (eighth) were among the league's worst offenders in taking minor penalties during the regular season.

"Special teams is going to be big here in the playoffs," Ericsson said. "So we've got to stay out of the box, simple as that."