MONTREAL – For Lars Eller, NHL playoff hockey is “a notch faster than usual and there’s probably three times as much hitting.”
Like many players around the league, Eller is getting his first taste of post-season action after a promising rookie campaign. In his case, it is with the Montreal Canadiens as they face their old rival the Boston Bruins in the opening round.
The 21-year-old from Denmark has held his own at centre on the team’s main checking line amid all the hoopla and distractions in two Original Six cities that take their hockey very seriously.
The Canadiens dressing room was crammed with media after their morning skate before Game 4 of the best-of-seven series on Thursday and rookie winger Ryan White soaked it all in with a smile.
“It’s a lot of high intensity out there,” said the 23-year-old from Brandon, Man. “People are doing whatever they can to win.
“The big players bring their best games and it sure makes it a lot of fun. At this level, everyone can elevate their game a little higher and it makes for an exciting time.”
And it suits White, who likes to play a physical game.
“The refs seem to let a little more go—it’s really the way hockey should be played,” he said. “There’s a lot of compete level. Guys are going 100 per cent to win that puck, so you’re going to see some good battles.”
On the Bruins’ side, getting to skate in the NHL playoffs is even more meaningful for a pair of young forwards—Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell.
Both were traded to Boston last June from the Florida, where neither got into single post-season game in their first six NHL seasons as the Panthers missed the playoffs year after year.
Horton looked nervous his first two games as Montreal won in Boston, but he broke the ice with a goal as the Bruins rebounded to win Game 3 in Montreal.
Campbell centres Boston’s physical fourth line.
“Coming to Boston, that was the most exciting part for me,” said Campbell. “I think I can speak for Nathan as well that we finally got the opportunity to play in games that actually matter.
“It’s a privilege to be in the NHL, but when you’re playing the last two months of the season and the games don’t mean anything, it’s not very fun. So it’s something we’ve embraced coming here. The expectations in this organization are not just to make the playoffs, but to win, so that’s something special as well.”
The 27-year-old Campbell and 25-year-old Horton were traded for defenceman Dennis Wideman and a pair of draft picks, including a first rounder, as part of new general manager Dale Tallon’s rebuilding plan for the Panthers.
It took them from near the Eastern Conference basement to a club that won its division and will be considered a Stanley Cup contender if it can get by its arch rival from Montreal.
There is also the pressure of expectations from their fans and the front office, who are likely to make big changes, starting with coach Claude Julien, if the Bruins don’t win at least a couple of rounds.
“It’s definitely something I’m new to,” said Campbell. “The situation here is a little different than in Florida.
“The microscope’s a little finer here with the attention this team gets, being an Original Six team with a lot of history, and a team that has personnel that is capable of winning. I’ve definitely felt the pressure, but you have to embrace it. As a athlete, if you shy away from it or feel it’s too much it will affect your game.”
Campbell, a native of London, Ont., and the son of NHL vice-president Colin Campbell, won a Memorial Cup with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in 2003 and now wants to see what it’s like to win at hockey’s highest level.
“Winning at any level is special, but this is something that seems harder to attain and probably will feel better if it happens,” he said.