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Leafs Defense Corps Ready to Step Up

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

Injuries are a fact of life in the NHL, both in the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs. So, while it was unfortunate to hear Wednesday that the Maple Leafs won't have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev in the lineup for Game 1 of their first-round post-season series against the Washington Capitals, Toronto's players and coaching staff can't and won't allow that to be an excuse for not competing to the best of their abilities.

"Injuries are a part of sport and good teams find a way to suck it up and get 'er done anyways," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock told media Wednesday, one day before his team's first game against the Caps in D.C.. "Here's an opportunity for somebody else."

"The good part about this team is we're all willing to do whatever it is we have to do to win," added D-man Morgan Rielly, who has spent a large part of the regular season playing alongside Zaitsev. "There's going to be guys that have to take different roles and whether that's changing sides or playing with different people, we're all happy to do it and we're all willing to do it. That's because we have to if we want to go out there and win some games."

Blueliner Martin Marincin will replace Zaitsev in Thursday's showdown, but Babcock said he hadn't decided on defensive pairings for the game. The 25-year-old Marincin appeared in 25 games with the Leafs this season, but played 65 games with the team in 2015-16. He'll give Toronto a different skill set than Zaitsev, but his penalty-killing talents will be much appreciated in a series where special teams may well play a major role.

"Marty is a real good player," Babcock said. "Marty's confidence gets in his way sometimes. To be honest with you, I thought he was going to be a regular for us every single day all year and he let it slip away and someone else got it. That's just the way it goes. There's nothing against turning it all around right here, right now and being important."

Babcock will have the services of veteran Roman Polak for Game 1, which will be a positive for Toronto's physical game and its penalty-killing duties. The 30-year-old veteran missed part of the Leafs' final regular-season contest Sunday against Columbus, but returned before the end of the game. As one of the team's more senior members - and as someone with 49 games of playoff experience, including 24 games last season with the San Jose Sharks - Polak will be looked to as a steadying influence on a young Buds group.

"He's obviously a very tough guy," Rielly said of Polak. "He's dealt with some things - like you said, got hit in the face with a puck - so no surprises that's he's out here after taking a bump in the last game. He's a competitor and we're lucky to have a guy like that."

"Roman is one of those guys who isn't affected by pain very much," added Babcock. "He's a good player, a good man. Coaches and his teammates love him more than maybe the fans and media do, but so what?"

Toronto's defence corps will look a bit different to start the series, but their challenge was always going to be the same: contain and limit a dynamic Capitals offence that has depth and talent to spare. The Leafs can do so by maximizing their possession time as consistently as possible, and they also need to not be happy just making the playoffs and believe they can beat the NHL's best regular-season squad four games out of seven. Centre Nazem Kadri says they do.

"I don't think we're a team to be satisfied," Kadri said. "You can't really already be thinking about next year or the year after that. You've got to live in the moment and try to get four wins…This is a very good Washington team, but we're not going to be intimidated. We're going to go into Washington and try to prove people wrong."

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