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Hockey The kids are all right: Youth making its mark early in Stanley Cup playoffs

Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Mitch Marner celebrates after scoring a penalty on Bruins goaltender Tuuka Rask during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series in Boston on April 11.

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

For all the value of postseason experience, youth is off to a nice start in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Teenage defenceman Miro Heiskanen built on his stellar rookie season in his playoff debut with Dallas, 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov tried to carry Carolina back from a big deficit, early twentysomethings Mitch Marner and William Nylander continue to be among Toronto’s best players and young Matthew Tkachuk did his part to finally win a playoff game with the Calgary Flames.

The NHL is getting younger and more skilled, and youth is being served in a big way early in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They may not get the attention Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine or Toronto’s Auston Matthews receive, but Heiskanen and Svechnikov turned in two of the more impressive playoff performances in recent history for players before their 20th birthdays.

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“Some people, it’s hard and some people, it’s pretty easy, and those are the people it looks like it’s pretty easy,” Hurricanes forward Teuvo Teravainen said of Svechnikov and fellow Finn Heiskanen. “They don’t stress too much. They just go out and play and have some fun.”

Svechnikov became the youngest player in 22 years to score twice in a playoff game and the fourth teen to put up two goals in NHL postseason history after Pierre Turgeon in 1988, Eddie Olczyk in 1985 and Don Gallinger in 1943. The 2018 second overall pick will try to help Carolina even its first-round series against Washington in Game 2 on Saturday.

“There’s not pressure on him,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. “Just go do it. Go enjoy it. Go have fun. That’s what this time of year is about, and we’re going to need even more from him if we’re going to advance.”

The Stars won in Nashville thanks in large part to Heiskanen’s goal and assist in Game 1. At 19 years 266 days old, he became the youngest defenceman in franchise history to score in the playoffs, and the fifth teenage rookie defenceman with two points in his postseason debut.

“My 19-year-old year, when it was April, I was drinking beers in my frat basement,” Dallas defenceman Ben Lovejoy said. “What he is doing is just incredible. It’s so special. He is so good, it is just such a pleasure to watch him play and to be on his team. He’s such an asset. He’s going to do this for 20 years and I can’t wait to watch him.”

Coach Jim Montgomery would love to see Heiskanen and 22-year-old rookie Roope Hintz play at this level for several more weeks. Game 2 in Nashville is also on Saturday.

In Boston, the Bruins have to be better in Game 2 on Saturday after losing the series opener on home ice. Marner was a big part of that with his two-goal game, including being just the fifth player to score a short-handed goal on a penalty shot in the playoffs.

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“He’s an elite player in the league at a young age,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Years ago, I remember [people saying about Wayne] Gretzky, ‘Why doesn’t anybody hit that guy?’ Well, it’s not that easy.”

It’s not easy to hit or stop Nylander, either. The 22-year-old Swede scored for the second consecutive game and appears to have solved his late-season dry spell.

“It’s good for me,” Nylander said. “I’ve been thinking just to hit the net and get it on it.”

In Calgary, Tkachuk’s two goals in the series-opening victory against the Colorado Avalanche snapped his six-game goal drought, although the 21-year-old’s agitating ways stuck as much as his scoring. Teammate Andrew Mangiapane, 23, also scored in his playoff debut and the West’s top seed is off and running with Game 2 in Calgary on Saturday.

“Now all of those guys have got their first game out of the way, they should get some confidence,” coach Bill Peters said. “We’ll get better as the series goes along.”

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