Steven Stamkos has twice hoisted the Stanley Cup.
The Tampa Bay Lightning captain also made the final on two other occasions.
He knows what it takes to reach the top of that playoff mountain in the chase for hockey’s Holy Grail — and what it feels like to come up just short.
To get there, however, teams must take that annual first step of surviving the fast-paced, at-times chaotic opening round.
The initial salvo of the NHL post-season is peppered by a sharp uptick in hostilities as the tournament’s 16 entries seemingly flip a switch at the conclusion of the gruelling regular-season schedule.
Emotions boil over and animosities run deep.
“Guys are just so amped up and excited to play,” Stamkos said.
This spring has been no different.
The eight first-round series in 2023 have seen the usual heated battles for seemingly every piece of real estate on the 200-foot battlegrounds as players go shoulder-to-shoulder, block shots and sacrifice much more than they likely would on a Tuesday in mid-November.
“The most physical and most exciting in terms of everyone’s ready to go,” said Stamkos, who won the Cup in 2020 and 2021 before falling at the final stage last spring. “Everyone wants to go get a hit and get a shot.
“Past couple years, at least for us, those first-round matchups have been maybe the most exciting from a fan perspective because of that physicality and that unknown factor of what’s going to happen.”
Apart from the stellar offensive performances, these playoffs have seen plenty of big hits, scrums and even some fights.
Messages have been delivered and received, while players are, for the most part, still relatively fresh at the start of a two-month playoff grind.
There’s also a greater attention to detail as the league’s top-half looks to hone its systems. Mistakes are both magnified and dissected.
“Guys aren’t going to turn away from many hits in playoffs,” Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano said. “They’re not going to miss assignments — things like that make the game that much more intense. You gotta execute and do all the same things.
“But you just know there’s gonna be that level of intensity that’s not there in the regular season.”
Edmonton Oilers winger Zach Hyman said the difference between Game 82 of the schedule and the opening act of the Cup chase is unique.
“Pretty apparent when it’s playoff hockey,” he said. “It’s unlike any other sport where the game changes so much from regular season to playoffs.”
Winnipeg Jets forward Nino Niederreiter said every individual moment is magnified.
“You know how much every play matters,” he said. “It’s just a big chess match.
“The intensity and the awareness of every single little detail, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
The Jets waited until the second-last game of the regular season to clinch a post-season spot, meaning Winnipeg had a stressful final stretch compared to locked-in contenders.
“Big relief to get that done,” Niederreiter said. “As soon as the playoffs start and you know you’re in, there is just a whole new excitement level.”
Fighting is way down across the NHL compared to a decade ago as the sport has pivoted to emphasize speed and skill.
No one’s suggesting a return to the brawling eras of the past, but the playoffs still see that significant rise in tensions.
Gloves sometimes hit the ice, followed by flying fists.
Game 2 between Toronto and Tampa on Thursday included three fights and numerous post-whistle entanglements with verbal barbs hurled back and forth. Fans around the Lightning penalty box also got into shouting matches with a couple of Lighting players during a rambunctious third period.
“Probably the best sporting playoffs you can watch on TV,” bruising Tampa forward Pat Maroon said. “Everyone’s engaged. There’s big hits. Intensity rises. The scrums rise. There’s stuff that just happens that you really don’t see in the regular season.”
Oilers defenceman Brett Kulak said teams try to replicate playoff mode in the regular season, but it’s never the same.
“Every game is so important, every play is so important,” he said. “You’re going harder, you’re blocking extra shots, doing everything you can.
“You only get a couple (opportunities) to battle for the Cup … you have to make the most of it.”
Maroon said a single shift can be the difference in a game, series or playoff run.
It’s just impossible to know when that crucial moment will arrive in what each team hopes will be a long road to eventual glory.
“A hit can change the momentum,” Maroon said. “There’s so many things that can change. An exciting time that a lot of people tune into. We try to go out there and make it the best we can. The intensity rises, but that just means guys are engaged, guys are competing for one thing.
“The best time of year — right now — is this.”
-With files from Donna Spencer in Edmonton and Gregory Strong in Las Vegas.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2023.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press