Maple Leafs defenceman Zaitsev a good bet to return for Game 3 against Caps

Zaitsev a good bet to return for Maple Leafs

TORONTO — The banged-up Toronto Maple Leafs got a day to catch their breath Sunday after a double-overtime Game 2 thriller sent them home from Washington with a split.

Relief is on the way for a Toronto blue line that lost Roman Polak due to injury and was quite taxed against the high-flying Capitals. Nikita Zaitsev is a good bet to make his series debut after sitting out the first two games with a suspected concussion.

Zaitsev skated at Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon and either he or Alexey Marchenko will get the nod for Game 3 on Monday night.

“Whichever one is in, that’s why you have eight,” Babcock said. “That’s why you acquire depth during the year. They all played a lot this year so I’m not very concerned that way.”

Polak will miss the rest of the post-season after suffering a right leg injury Saturday in Toronto’s 4-3 victory.

Babcock primarily used a four-man rotation after the veteran defenceman went down. Martin Marincin and Matt Hunwick received extended ice time but Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner led the way with about 40 minutes apiece.

“They’re playing with confidence, they’re competitive, they want to win and they’re great people,” Babcock said of Rielly and Gardiner. “They’re easy to coach. They’ve got a good attitude, they like to laugh, and they don’t mind a good tightening once in a while to get them back on track.

“They’re good guys and they’re good players.”

The opening game of the best-of-seven series also went to overtime last Thursday. Tom Wilson scored about five minutes into the extra session to give the Capitals a 3-2 win.

Babcock doesn’t think fatigue will be an issue as the series continues.

“I’ve been in tons of these series where you play lots of overtime,” he said. “The great thing about it is you’re playing at the greatest time of year. It’s fun anyway and you’d be amazed at how much energy you have.

“So let’s just keep on going.”

Zaitsev, a 25-year-old Russian rookie, had 36 points (four goals, 32 assists) and 38 penalty minutes over 82 regular-season games. He averages about 22 minutes of ice time a game.

Game 4 is scheduled for Wednesday in Toronto and Game 5 is set for Friday in Washington. If a sixth game is necessary, it would be played April 23 at Air Canada Centre. 

The Maple Leafs didn’t seem the least bit intimidated playing the top-seeded Capitals on the road.

After pushing Washington in the opener, Toronto outshot the Capitals 51-50 in Game 2 and had a 35-26 edge in blocked shots. Goalie Frederik Andersen was superb for the Maple Leafs and Kasperi Kapanen ended it midway through the second extra stanza with his second goal of the night.

The youthful Maple Leafs have used their speed to keep the Capitals on their heels. Washington’s attempts to cycle the puck in the Toronto zone have often been stifled by a defensive crew that seems patient and up for the challenge.

For an eighth-seeded team not given much of a chance in this first-round series, Toronto should be loose and confident playing before a playoff-starved sellout crowd in Game 3.

“Life is way easier when you don’t feel any tightness and everything is going good and you tic-tac-toe,” Babcock said. “Sometimes when you get ahead in games, you zip the puck around and it looks like the other team is standing still.

“If you can keep it tight against a high-octane team like that, the puck doesn’t move the same and the game is tighter for them.”

Snipers Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had a goal apiece in Game 2 for the Capitals, the first of the series for both players.

It will be interesting to see if Washington starts feeling the weight of high expectations. Facing an opponent that’s playing with house money can’t help matters.

Babcock has preached a message to his young team to make good on the opportunities they have now.

“I’ve lived both situations,” Babcock said. “I’ve lived where you’re the underdog and you’re not supposed to win and I’ve lived where you’re the best team in hockey and you’re supposed to win, and they’re totally different.

“People can tell you they’re not, I’ve lived it. They’re different, believe me.”

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Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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