National Post

Leafs to face Caps in playoffs


• Fans at the Air Canada Centre were chanting “we want Ottawa” for a first round opponent, but they were trumped by a 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Instead of a fifth Battle Of Ontario, it will be the first playoff meeting of the Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals in D.C., starting Thursday and Saturday at the Verizon Center.

There’s a world of difference in facing the Caps, the President’s Trophy winners, led by a super- motivated Alex Ovechkin, on a mission to avenge years of defeat at crunch time. At first glance, the Leafs seem a mere speed bump. “That’s a team that is probably the best in our league,” said Toronto centre Brian Boyle. “Their skill level, their depth, their goaltendin­g, the way they defend ... we ( saw) that first- hand here a couple of nights ago (a 4-1 loss on Tuesday). It’s going to be a challenge.”

That said, the Leafs didn’t get a free playoff pass, they earned their way back with 95 points, broke a spate of team rookie records and had several of its veterans reach career offensive numbers.

Coach Mike Babcock had Washington’s Barry Trotz on his staff for Team Canada and has a good idea of his playbook. And the Leafs brought a presence such as Boyle and his 100 NHL playoff games here to help guide a young team through this kind or ordeal. There might be some highlights.

“Any series, they kind of write their own stories,” Boyle said. “There’s a lot that goes into them.

“It’s exciting, you wouldn’t know t hat now because we’re disappoint­ed the way it went tonight, but it’s the most fun hockey there is. The first round is usually the hardest, the most intense. It’s buckle up, get ready to go and hit the ground running.”

The Leafs won one of three games against the Caps this year and were in a back-to-back when Washington waxed them on Tuesday. Nor was Frederik Andersen between the pipes, though Curtis McElhinney couldn’t be faulted in net.

“You take what you can from a season’s series, but you have to understand that win or lose, playoffs tend to be a different thing. Teams have equal rest, equal time to prepare. That’s why you see tight series.”

Ovechkin, who will likely bump up against Nazem Kadri’s line, is in beast mode.

“He turns it up,” Boyle said. “Because they haven’t won, he comes to play in playoffs. He plays hard, hits hard, you have to be aware of him, but you have to play just as hard against him. You have to respect the opponent, not fear him.

“There are going to be a lot of eyes on us and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Against Columbus, James van Riemsdyk scored a pair in the defeat and Curtis McElhinney made 29 saves for Toronto — a 2- 0 lead melting away in a porous second period.

Matt Calvert, Josh Anderson and Cam Atkinson scored in the comeback for Columbus. Joonas Korpisalo stopped 30- of- 32 shots to earn the win for the Jackets, who are set for a first-round matchup against Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, the Capitals do expect a battle against the Maple Leafs.

“It’s going to be a good series,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin t old reporters in Washington on Sunday night. “We just have to play our way, don’t give them lots of freedom and be patient.”

Ovechkin’s t eammate, Marcus Johansson, was reading from the same page. The Caps realize the Leafs didn’t earn a playoff berth thanks to a bunch of fortunate flukes.

“They’re going to come out ready and prepared and it (will feel) like they got nothing to lose,” Johansson said.

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