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Maple Leafs’ depth will matter in playoffs

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Poolies pick players such as Matthews, Marner, Stamkos and Kucherov for playoff points.

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Wayne Simmonds is betting on depth.

“You will obviously have your offensive contributors and big-name guys do what they do,” said Simmonds, a warhorse of 51 NHL playoff games. “But I’m a firm believer that a lot of series are won and lost on the depth guys. This is an opportunity for all our depth guys to prove we’re great players in this league as well.”

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Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Kyle Clifford, Colin Blackwell, and perhaps rookie Nick Abruzzese or a Marlie call-up will likely be in some kind of key situation before the series with Tampa Bay is done.

“We are going to need more out of our depth guys as playoffs begin, with the volume of games,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “It’s a good chance to show more. All the guys who have been in that position — Wayne, Spezza, Cliff — have moved around, played with different players on the fourth line and done a really good job.

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“For a while that line was sputtering, not doing much defensively, and we really challenged those guys to play and create positive momentum. Wayne‘s done a good job physically, had a lot more offensive shifts.”

Abruzzese likely sits to start the Tampa Bay series, but when Ondrej Kase returns from his concussion, newcomer Blackwell likely stays, and that could mean a change on either side of centre Spezza.

“Just like we have to make a decision on defence (Justin Holl and the imminent return of Rasmus Sandin), we have to make a decision at forward,” Keefe said. “That might be made on injuries and stuff like that, but those guys have given us great belief in getting more out of that line.”

SPEZZA STILL SHARP

Spezza hopes he’s playing when his 39th birthday rolls around in mid-June, deep in the playoffs. A title has eluded him as he embarks on his 13th post-season adventure. He, Simmonds and defenceman Mark Giordano are 1,000-game veterans from the GTA without the ultimate reward.

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“It’s very important for me. I’ve tried all my life to win a Stanley Cup,” Spezza said. “Obviously, Father Time is catching up to everybody. So, you don’t want to waste chances.

“We have a great opportunity, and I’m very excited for what’s ahead.”

Few took the first-round loss to Montreal a year ago harder than Spezza, but he signed another minimum-wage contract with his home team and is now knocking at the door again. He credits Keefe for lifting the spirits of a roster that spans the entire NHL diaspora, stars to foot soldiers.

“With the failure we had last year, it would’ve been easy to look past the regular season,” Spezza said. “I feel good where we’re at. Any time we’ve faced adversity, we’ve been able to figure out what we’re doing wrong, rally around it and find our game in short order.

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“In playoffs, there’s not a whole lot of momentum from game to game, so it’s important to have that mindset, like we’ve trained for all season, not to let losses get to us or get too high after wins.”

DUKES DEFEATED, MISS PLAYOFFS

For the first time since 2011, the Marlies will be watching the AHL playoffs from the sidelines.

Needing just a point on Saturday in Belleville, they fell 5-2 to Ottawa’s farm club, a result which gave the Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres) the last playoff berth.

Coach Greg Moore’s team had a record of 37-30-4-1. Bright spots were a rookie-record 24 goals by newly signed Leaf Bobby McMann, the tandem of Nick Robertson and Alex Steeves once they got through early season injuries, Joey Anderson, Brett Seney, big forward Curtis Douglas, AHL all-star defenceman Joseph Duszak, and Erik Kallgren, the goalie promoted to the Leafs.

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“I’m really proud of the team and what we’ve been able to accomplish.” Moore said. “Right now, it stings quite a bit, tough to digest. We truly felt our team is good enough to make the playoffs.”

CHAMPS NO CHUMPS

The Lightning are the 25th different team, the Toronto franchise will face in the playoffs, counting defunct clubs such as the Montreal Maroons, the original Ottawa Senators, and the PCHA’s Vancouver Millionaires, whom the Arenas and St. Patricks both beat for Cups 100 years ago.

But facing the defending Cup champions, such as Tampa Bay, has been tough. Bob Duff of HockeyDebates.com worked out their record of 3-13 in various series against the titlists, which includes losing the last meeting in 2001 versus New Jersey. Four times in the 1970s, the Leafs ran into the eventual champs, Montreal twice and Philadelphia twice.

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The good news? Toronto’s three wins all came in years it also went on to hoist the trophy, 1922 (St. Pats over Ottawa in the NHL final), 1945 (over Montreal in the semifinal) and their last Cup in 1967, stopping what would have been five straight for the Habs between 1965-69.

LOOSE LEAFS

Abruzzese thinks he’ll send the puck from his first NHL goal back to his parents in State Hill, N.Y. … While the rookie got a souvenir, former Leaf Nick Foligno already had been given a disc for what he thought was his 500th career NHL point, only to have his goal overturned by the sharp-eyed Leaf video coaches who saw an offside … The Leafs did not practice Saturday.

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