Oilers playoff run a learning experience on ice and at home for young players

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Oilers playoff run a learning experience on ice and at home for young players

As far as rookie seasons go for NHL defencemen, Matt Benning has nothing to complain about. 

In his inaugural season with the Oilers, the St. Albert product played 62 games and has racked up eight games worth of playoff experience so far. He says the post-season is a constant learning process, and dealing with the pressures of the game on and off the ice is different every day. 

Local boy

"It's heightened a little bit just cause I'm from here," said Benning, who added it's not abnormal to get texts from loved ones wishing him good luck before games.

"I think my friends and my family kind of know that, hey, I need to be focusing on the playoffs and that's what I'm kind of focusing on," he said. "They're a good sport about it."

And it doesn't hurt that he's learning the ropes from some of the team's league veterans. Several of them have kids and know how to manage friends and family this time of year.

"I think you just have to learn it as you go. There's going to be distractions and you can't do anything about it so you just got to get sleep when you can and just focus in on the games and put everything aside when you're at the rink," Benning said. 

"But when you leave the rink that's when you can be a family man or a father or whatever it is." 

It's a part of the job that Oilers veteran Mark Letestu has learned to juggle. 

'When it's hockey time, it's hockey time'

Having played in 17 playoff games before adding nine more to his resumé as an Oiler, Letestu said his routine doesn't change, whether at home or away.

"My family structure's pretty good — they've never been a burden to me, " said Letestu, who grew up in Elk Point, Alta., and played junior hockey in nearby Bonnyville.

"They know when it's hockey time, it's hockey time. It's really the same routine as on the road. I don't find that having family around, or my own kids for that matter, has influence on my game."

Others like defenceman Darnell Nurse welcome having family around during the playoffs. His father Richard is a former CFL player, and his uncle, Donovan McNabb, a former NFL star quarterback.

His parents have flown to Edmonton to watch three games so far.

"My family is huge in supporting me and being there," said Nurse, whose parents were in the stands for the home games against the Sharks and Game 3 against the Ducks.

Nurse said he doesn't find their presence to be a distraction. Instead, it often means instant feedback, whether he wants it or not. 

"My family's very understanding. We go for a meal after the game or something like that," he said. 

"I wouldn't say the pressure's off. If I have a bad game my dad still sends me a text. They're always watching the games, they're always supporting. It's great to have that type of support."  

'It is a different animal'

And if home life ever does get out of hand, the Oilers organization is there to step in.

"It is a different animal; the playoffs are different and we prepared long ago before they even started," said coach Todd McLellan, who spent seven years coaching the San Jose Sharks before coming to Edmonton.

The Sharks under McLellan made the playoffs every year but one. 

 "There's ticket demands, media demands are much greater, rest is important. So if you can't get your rest at home because you might have twins up late at night, we have some rooms available for players," McLellan said. 

"There's a lot of tradition that's being carried forward so there's a number of different tools that the players can use to try and alleviate any of the outside noise, I guess, if you want to call it that. But our group's done a good job of that to this point."