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Maple Leafs' Tavares ready for lead playoff role

And now, heeeere’s Johnny!

Though he doesn’t need an announcer, a band, a spotlight, or a flashing applause sign, John Tavares knows it’s his stage and Thursday is opening night.

The most expensive piece of the Maple Leafs upgrade chose Toronto — and alienated Long Island in the process — because leading his childhood team in his hometown to playoff glory has intrigued to him since watching Doug Gilmour’s exploits as a tot. Most would consider 47 goals a very good warmup act, but don’t expect Tavares to mention that very often as he prepares for the next step, the Bruins.

While part of the often-dysfunctional Islanders, Tavares only made three post-season trips in nine years, never past the third round. But he produced 22 points in 24 games, production the Leafs lacked last spring against Boston.

“I’m excited,” Tavares said. “It has been a few years (shut out of the dance) for me personally. A lot of guys had a tough defeat against Boston last year. Everyone’s hungry.”

Tavares is centring the Leafs most consistent line with top point man Mitch Marner on the right side and trench warrior Zach Hyman on the left. Their opposition will be led by Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

“We’re obviously playing a great hockey team, that’s had a lot of success with a lot of guys who’ve established their identity, their standard,” Tavares said. “They have a lot of young players as well. It will be a tough match-up, but one we’re looking forward to. To get where you want to be, you have to beat a lot of very good quality teams.”

Defenceman Travis Dermott’s stall  is across the Leafs room from alternate captain Tavares and he has watched the latter’s influence in many facets of the Leafs.

“You see what John has been able to do this season already,” Dermott said. “If he ups his game at all for playoffs, that will be a crazy thing to see. We expect Johnny to be Johnny and if he does just that, we’ll be more than happy.”



CALDER CALL

If the Leafs get a handle on the Bruins, some fingerprints of the 2018 Calder Cup champion Marlies likelywill be detected. Nine of those AHLers are on Toronto’s roster, spread through every position, including top six forward Andreas Johnsson, plus  defencemen Dermott, Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin.

Those Marlies, who just qualified for their eighth straight playoff appearance, tend to play into May and June.

“Once you get that taste of playing that far, you want it every year,” Dermott said. “You’re wearing shorts and T-shirts to the rink in Toronto. What’s better than that? The guys with the Marlies last year know what that feels like.

“(But) others have been on winning teams (Ron Hainsey and Jake Muzzin have won Stanley Cups). So I don’t think the Marlie guys will be talking it up too much in here.”

BEAR HUNT BEGINS

After a 6-5 shootout loss in Montreal, the Leafs took Sunday off and will be back at practice Monday. An extensive refresher on the Bruins is expected on and off the ice from coach Mike Babcock and staff. Entering the best-of-seven series on a three-game losing streak, just the club’s second such stumble this season, isn’t ideal timing, but Babcock and the players were quick to shrug it off.

“We know what we have to do in this room to be successful,” Marner said. “Make sure we’re staying above people, making it hard on them, getting to the puck, getting to the net. Just make sure we keep that rhythm going and don’t give up many chances defensively.

“It’s everyone’s third year going into the playoffs. This team has been together a long time now. Other guys who came up this year won the Calder and know what it takes to win. For (the rest of us) it’s showing up every day ready to work. It won’t be an easy task. They have a lot of offence on that team and we just have to make sure we get the puck behind them and just play down low.”

LOOSE LEAFS

Frederik Andersen was getting treatment after Saturday’s game (he was shaken in an a collision with Andrew Shaw) and did not speak to the media. But as with game scratches Nikita Zaitsev, Muzzin, Dermott and Hainsey, he’s expected at Monday’s practice … In his last appearance, Andersen passed James Reimer for ninth place in minutes played by a Leafs goalie, now at 11,198 … Marner finished as Toronto’s leading scorer with 94 points, the most since Mats Sundin reached that figure in 1996-97, the former captain’s best season. That’s also more ammunition for Marner’s negotiating team in the summer for his next contract, which a good playoff would bump even higher … Babcock expected some grief from Montreal fans when he almost ruined the feel-good story of Ryan Poehling’s first NHL goal in his first game Saturday by challenging it for goalie interference. It stood up, and the young Minnesotan went on to a hat trick and shootout winner. “I felt so bad, honest to God,” the coach insisted. “I said (to his assistants) ‘can you imagine if he doesn’t get it’? But I read the scouting report. It never said he was going to score four goals on Hockey Night In Canada. Good for him, a good start” … Poehling’s winner stopped what would have been Toronto’s first sweep of the Habs in consecutive regular season series in 101 years.

lhornby@postmedia.com

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