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Leafs Look Forward to Playoff Challenge

The Maple Leafs' playoff preparations ratcheted up Tuesday as the team gathered at their training facility for a full practice and focus on their first-round opponents, the Washington Capitals.

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

It was, in some ways, a day and a moment to acknowledge how far the franchise had come in a single season - going from 30th overall in the NHL in 2015-16 to a tie for 11th place in the standings this season - but it was also an opportunity to be honest with themselves: all that hard work and success is tremendous, but it won't give them any advantage in the post-season. Toronto's players and coaches understand full well they'll need a total and sustained team effort to knock off the Capitals, who were the league's top regular-season team this year. 

However, they don't lack for confidence and see the first-round showdown as a golden opportunity to continue building something special for Leafs Nation over both the short and long-term.

"(It's a) great feeling, being done the regular season and coming back here for a work day and having important meetings, just trying to get ready for a big playoff series," said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. "It's a good feeling going on in this room right now. Lots of energy, lots of excitement."

"Defending and competing is something that's really impressive coming from such a younger group," added veteran centre Brian Boyle, who was acquired from Tampa Bay at the NHL trade deadline. "The older guys in here have done a good job of leading the way, and obviously the coach demands a lot and he's implemented that. But I remember this year (we) were a tougher team to play against, and it's still trending upward and there's more room to get better and better."

The Leafs certainly have their work cut out for them against a powerful and fast Capitals group that finished the season on an 8-2-0 run and lost just seven times in regulation at home this year. That said, an element that can't be ignored is the pressure that's on the Caps - pressure to avoid the disappointment that has marked their previous playoff performances. Indeed, despite dominating their division for the grand majority of the past decade, Washington hasn't moved past the second round of the post-season in any of those years and they've lost in the first round in three Stanley Cup tournaments.

So if there's any pressure to win this series, it's on the Capitals, and don't think Leafs head coach Mike Babcock doesn't know it. He saw what pressure can do to a successful regular-season team in his first year in Detroit, where he guided the Red Wings to a tremendous 58-16-8 mark and won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top club, yet found his team packing their bags for the summer much earlier than expected.

"If you let them get going, then they're going and they're loose and driving," Babcock said of the Caps. "But that pucker factor is an unbelievable thing, and until you've been the best seed, and until you have your whole city expecting, you don't know what that's like and how good a defence that is for the underdog. It's unbelievable. My first year in Detroit, I've never experienced anything like it - I couldn't believe how we couldn't skate or pass. So pressure's a wonderful thing when you're the underdogs."

Buds blueliner Connor Carrick concurred with Babcock.

"They have some expectations on them," Carrick said of Washington, who traded him to Toronto late in the 2015-16 campaign. "The whole league knows it, they know it. And I don't think it's something that's intimidating to anybody, it's more of a fact - they have a lot on their plate, finishing where they have. It's our job to make those demons as difficult to deal with as possible."

None of this should be taken to mean the Leafs don't have a healthy respect for how deep and dangerous the Capitals are. Toronto had a 1-1-1 mark against the Caps in the regular season this year, but Washington's most recent visit to Air Canada Centre ended in a decisive 4-1 win for the Caps, and they've got significantly more playoff experience than does the Buds. They know what they're up against.

"They had an outstanding year," Rielly said. "They have lots of skill, lots of speed. They're deep, playoff experience, you name it. They've been down this road before, and we're obviously new to it."

"They're a well-balanced team," Carrick added. "They've got good special teams, they've got good goaltending, good defencemen, they can score and they can score in a lot of different ways…it'll be a good test for us."

At this point last spring, the 22-year-old Carrick was one of many young Leafs - seven players on the current NHL roster, to be precise - who was getting set for a playoff run with the American League's Toronto Marlies. And while the Marlies ultimately fell short of winning an AHL championship, they did make it to the conference final - and their pursuit of a championship as a young core together is helping them out this time around.

"It helps when you have some success and grow together and learn each other's game," Carrick said of his time with the Marlies. "If anything with the Marlies, I think it was a good lesson that we did not play a tight-enough defensive game. I don't think we had enough bodies taking personal responsibility for each win and loss. 

"It doesn't matter if you're playing five minutes in the playoffs - those are an important five minutes. It doesn't matter if you're the backup goaltender - you might come in one game for one period, and it matters. And it's our job to bank some of that experience and be stronger for it."

Game 1 of Toronto's series with Washington begins in D.C. Thursday and continues with Game 2 Saturday before the teams head to Air Canada Centre for Game 3 Monday and Game 4 Wednesday. It promises to be an emotional, speedy, skilled clash - and although it will be a learning process for a young and evolving Leafs squad, everyone in the organization intends to put their best effort into it and see what happens from there.

"We're 0-0 in playoff games against them, and that's the fact of the matter," Carrick said. "(The playoffs are) a different animal. We're not playing them in February, we're playing them in April. And we want to be bringing a playoff-type of game ourselves. 

"The game will be tighter, but…at the same time, we want to play a grittier game, play in their end, cycle around a bit, and then maybe the game opens up as you've got tired bodies on the ice, poor changes, penalty kills, poor bench flow for the other team - things like that disrupt the game for the other team."

"We're going to have to create our own space," Babcock added. "When someone takes your space away, you've got to take their space away. You've just got to be patient. Obviously, playoff experience is on their side for sure. I like the youthful enthusiasm we have, I like how quick we can play…(O)ur intent is to get prepared over the next couple days, enjoy the process, and go into Washington and be prepared to win.

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