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Nikita Zaitsev back in Maple Leafs lineup for Game 3

Defenseman returns to face Capitals with best-of-7 series tied 1-1

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev will return to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals at Air Canada Centre on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports 2, CSN-DC).

The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1.

Zaitsev, 25, missed the first two games of with an upper-body injury sustained during the Maple Leafs' regular-season finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 9. Toronto managed a split of the first two games in Washington without him by pulling out a 4-3 victory in double overtime in Game 2 on Saturday.

"I'm so excited" Zaitsev said after the morning skate. "It was hard to watch the games on the TV and didn't play. So now I feel really good so I can help the team."


[RELATED: Complete Capitals-Maple Leafs series coverage]


Zaitsev's return is well-timed. The Maple Leafs will be without veteran defenseman Roman Polak for the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after he sustained a lower-body injury on a hit from Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik in the second period Saturday.

With Polak, 30, out after the 13:55 mark of the second period, the Maple Leafs relied heavily on defensemen Jake Gardiner (40:34 of ice time), Morgan Rielly (39:56), Matt Hunwick (35:46) and Martin Marincin (30:38). Connor Carrick (18:44) also picked up some of the slack.

"It's a huge boost for him," coach Mike Babcock said. "Obviously, losing [Polak], you feel bad from that. … It's nice to get [Zaitsev] back. It's an opportunity for him. He's been a real good player for us all year, he's ultra-competitive, moves the puck. He'll be on the penalty kill and the power play, so he's an important guy for us."

Polak's 51 games of playoff experience are the most among the Maple Leafs defensemen. Hunwick is second with 22 playoff games and Gardiner has played in eight. Rielly, Marincin and Carrick each made their playoff debuts in Game 1 of this series.

Game 3 against the Capitals will be the first NHL playoff game of Zaitsev's career. He had 36 points (four goals, 32 assists) in 82 regular-season games and was second on the Maple Leafs in averaging 22:01 of ice time per game.

Zaitsev wasn't sure how difficult it will be to jump into the middle of a playoff series after not playing in a game in eight days. 

"I don't know. So we'll see," he said. "It's always hard to come back [with] the speed of the game. It doesn't matter [if it's] the playoffs or the regular season. So when you come back from an injury it takes some to feel good."

But Zaitsev acknowledged playoff hockey is "really different hockey."

"It's more simple, more physical and it's interesting to watch," he said. "The speed of the game is faster, I think."

Returning to his usual spot on the right side in the defense pair with Gardiner, Zaitsev will likely see a lot of Capitals star left wing Alex Ovechkin. 

"This is a huge challenge," he said. "There's a lot of Russian guys, not only Ovi. There's [center Evgeny Kuznetsov] out there and [defenseman Dmitry] Orlov, so it's interesting. It's huge, a huge opportunity."

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