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Toronto Maple Leafs hope to squeeze tight Capitals in game one

Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate an empty-net goal by centre Auston Matthews against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period of the game in which they clinched a playoff spot on April 8, 2017, in Toronto.

Frank Gunn/AP

In the words of their coach, the Toronto Maple Leafs have Pucker Power going for them in their attempt to knock off the Washington Capitals.

This is Mike Babcock's description of the tightening up that occurs when the pressure to perform in the NHL playoffs strikes. He's been telling his young charges for the past few days that when their first-round series opens Thursday night against the best team in the 2016-17 regular season, the pressure will all be on the Capitals.

After all, they cruised to the Presidents' Trophy and first place overall with a record of 55-19-8 and 118 points, 23 ahead of the upstart Maple Leafs, who squeaked into the final Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spot. And there is that plus-81 goal differential compared to the Leafs' plus-9. The Capitals are expected to dismiss the Leafs in five games of the best-of-seven series, maybe six at the most.

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But the Capitals are still known as a great regular-season team that crumbles in the playoffs. And Babcock knows from personal experience what pressure can do to the best teams. He was head coach of the Detroit Red Wings in 2006 when they, too, cruised to top spot only to fall flat in the first round of the playoffs.

"If you let them get going, then they're going, they're loose and driving," Babcock said. "But that pucker factor is an unbelievable thing. Until you've been the best seed, until you've had the 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 never experienced anything like it. I couldn't believe how we couldn't skate or pass. Pressure is a wonderful thing for the underdog."

That is why Babcock has been not so subtly pointing to the Capitals' postseason record. From 2008 to 2016, they finished no worse than second in their division except for 2014 when the Caps missed the playoffs. But they never made it past the second round of the playoffs in any of those years. Barry Trotz was hired as head coach before the 2014-15 season to bring some defensive structure to Washington's go-go offence but so far the playoff results are the same – two second-round eliminations.

Trotz said Wednesday that Babcock was just engaging in the usual gamesmanship though the media.

"I listened to Babs's comments," Trotz said. "He's playing you guys with that. But I think we can understand that.

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"We expect ourselves to do well, that's the expectation that we put on ourselves. I don't think that's going to change. I think we're way more prepared for that, maybe, than we were last year. There's a way different feel this year than last year, a way different feel."

The idea is that the teenagers and 20-somethings who make up most of the Leafs roster and have little to no NHL playoff experience can just go fly up and down the ice because, well, what the heck, no one expects them to win. Besides, says the resident prodigy, despite all the talk about what a shock the kids are in for when they discover just how intense and close-checking playoff hockey is, what's the big deal?

"What's there to be afraid of?" Leafs rookie Auston Matthews said. "It's just hockey. It's hockey. Everybody in this locker room loves the game, everybody wants to do their best.

"There's nothing to be afraid of, play the way you play, play to have fun, play for the guys across from you."

The reality is the Leafs will open the first-round series with some question marks. One is the state of their defence, as Nikita Zaitsev cannot play because of a head-rattling body check he took last weekend from Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

His absence not only shuffles all three defence pairs, it brings a drop in quality. Martin Marincin, who has a long way to go to be an NHL regular, to put it mildly, will join the lineup and play with Connor Carrick on the third pairing.

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Marincin has not played since March 14, his second consecutive appearance since another stretch in the press box that went back to Feb. 4. That is a lot of rust to scrape off when you're stepping into action against the best team in the league. But Babcock wasn't offering any advance sympathy.

"He's just got to decide whether he wants to play the second game [of the series]," Babcock said after Wednesday's practice. "Just play good."

Based on Wednesday's practice, Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, the usual third pair, will split up. Hunwick will play with Morgan Rielly while Polak will join Jake Gardiner on the first two pairs. But Babcock said nothing is written in stone.

"[The new pairings] were fine but I haven't decided what they're going to be," he said. "We thought Zaitsev was going to play and when we found out he wasn't going to play, we had to move it around here. We went one way [Tuesday] and another here [Wednesday]. We've got a pre-game skate [Thursday]. We'll get it figured out."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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