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Baby Maple Leafs learn playoff hockey also includes bigger scrums

The Leafs’ prize rookie, Auston Matthews, has developed an almost somnambulant style in scrums.

Frank Gunn/AP

Over the past couple of days, there was much conversation about how the youthful Toronto Maple Leafs would quickly learn that playoff hockey in the NHL is a much different animal from the regular season.

On Tuesday, at their first official postseason practice of the new era, any of the baby Leafs who paid attention noticed the different atmosphere was not just on the ice, where there is a lot less time and room to make plays because even the worst floaters in the league are fired up enough to check hard. Instead, it was everywhere they turned.

When the Leafs make the playoffs is when every news director at every television station or radio station and every news editor at every newspaper or website discovers them. Reporters who usually cover the latest crisis at city hall are dispatched to Leaf Land to find out how they are going to somehow knock off the Washington Capitals.

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Any veteran sportswriter knows it will be a bad day when the first thing he sees at the arena parking lot are two satellite television news trucks.

In the dressing room of the Leafs practice facility is a crush of people carrying television cameras, microphones, digital recorders, smartphones and even the odd notebook. A rough count before the club's public-relations staff opened the room showed there were 30 media types storming the players' boudoir.

Ten years ago, 30 would have been the number of those covering a rather important regular-season game. But the great recession of 2008 combined with the decline of the media business created waves of layoffs and buyouts that decimated the troops. Nevertheless, this is at least double the regular-season media contingent.

Most of the new faces know as much about hockey as Kim Kardashian. They are there to stick their microphones in the face of any stray player whose lips are moving, turning every scrum into a sardine convention. Very few of them actually ask a question, which makes them expensive microphone stands.

The overcrowded scrums lend themselves to the odd pushing match between camera operators and foul-tempered scribes who object to being hit on the back of the head by a camera lens for the 13th time. When Pat Quinn was head coach of the Leafs, he once stopped near the end of a scrum to watch with obvious amusement a pushing match, accompanied by an F-bomb contest, between a Philadelphia talking head and, ahem, your usually mild-mannered agent.

However, some of the newcomers do provide amusement. One of them, who obviously spends much time in front of a mirror thinking, "I'm a steely-eyed newsman," is hilariously famous for striding into the Leafs room a couple of times a year determined to get to the bottom of their latest malfeasance. He will bark questions such as, "What do you have to say to the fans?" at bemused players and coaches, who reply with a cliché or two.

However, Tuesday proved to be a decent day for nuggets despite the crush. On one side of the room, the Leafs' prize rookie, Auston Matthews, was giving his usual non-committal answers to a crowd. He has developed an almost somnambulant style in scrums, tossing out a few platitudes while all marvel at how a 19-year-old handles the media.

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But then someone mentioned he was talking to Matthews's father, who lamented the discovery of a large pile of takeout-food boxes in his son's apartment. Matthews's eyes widened in interest.

"You get tired in season, and the takeout containers start filling up," he said. "I think I'm pretty responsible with that kind of stuff. I know if my parents are coming, I will clean up as much as I can."

It was the followup that struck gold. In a clear bid to find out who the real leaders are on the team, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun asked Matthews who picks the restaurant when the Leafs' youngsters are going for dinner.

"It's usually Morgan [Rielly]," Matthews said. "This is his fourth year here; he's got a pretty good [knowledge] of the restaurants."

So if you are looking to bet on someone other than Matthews as the next Leaf captain, Rielly might be worth a buck or two.

Head coach Mike Babcock's scrum paid off, too, after a slow start when Lance Brown of CTV Toronto wondered if he noticed an increase in tempo at the practice because of the playoffs. This was a curious thing to ask the fellow who designs and runs the practice, but Brown recovered nicely as the scrum ended.

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After Babcock said he expects Frederik Andersen, who left last Saturday's game after a bump on the head, to play in Thursday's series opener against the Capitals, and he hopes injured defencemen Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak will, as well, Brown tried again.

"Your fan base is obviously satisfied already with what this team has accomplished," Brown said. "Are you …" And then Babcock interjected with, "That's not what they're yelling at me when I'm walking around Yorkville, so you're meeting different people than me."

"What are they saying?"

"Let's get going!"

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