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Maple Leafs Jack Campbell will need to be at his best to beat Tampa

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Whatever works for you, Jack Campbell.

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The Maple Leafs goaltender didn’t have crazy plans on the eve of the start of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I’m just going to have a nice meal and watch something funny,” Campbell said after the Leafs practised on Sunday at the Ford Performance Centre.

As long as Campbell shows up for work on Monday night in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena and continues in the manner in which he concluded the regular season, the Leafs will be happy.

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After he returned from a rib injury on April 2, Campbell built a record of 7-0-2 with a .915 save percentage in nine games, helping put to rest what had been rough few months for the 30-year-old before he went to the sideline.

There’s no choice for Campbell, whose work in the first couple of months of the season earned him a trip to the all-star game, but to remain in that groove in the first round of the playoffs against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

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As much as Campbell will concentrate solely on how he has to perform to give the Leafs the best chance to emerge victorious in the best-of-seven series, he’s going to have to be better than Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been an integral factor in the Lightning’s back-to-back Cup wins.

There’s plenty to like about the 2021-22 Leafs team that set franchise records with 54 wins and 115 points. The group was able to forget a difficult start to the season that produced two wins in the first seven games, and never really faltered again.

Twelve Leafs, led by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, set personal highs in points, and Matthews is considered one of the favourites to win the Hart Trophy. Special teams were excellent, as the power play was first in the NHL and the penalty kill eighth.

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Still, anything less than stellar play by Campbell in the next couple of weeks and the Leafs probably won’t be playing beyond the middle of May.

“Not surprising,” Leafs captain John Tavares said of Campbell’s rebound in April. “The attitude, the positive nature and how committed he is and how driven he is to be a difference-maker, he knows his skill set and his belief in himself.

“He took the time to reset, get healthy and work on his game and do what he needed to do to have a good final stretch and be ready to go.”

There will be no secrets in clashing with the Lightning. Not only did the teams meet twice in April, with each side winning handily, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had lots of video evidence from Tampa’s past two Cup runs to review.

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“I expect it to be a very physical, borderline violent, series in a lot of ways,” Keefe said. “Our guys will be ready for that.

“If you’re going to push through the obstacle that we need to get through here, you might as well start with the best. These are the champs and any time that we’ve been challenged as a hockey team, and I’m just focusing on this season, we’ve responded really well.

“We have great respect for Tampa Bay. There’s no doubting it, no arguing it, there’s no debating it. They are the class of the league at this point. They’ve proven that, they’ve earned that.

“Our team will be ready for them.”

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Campbell said he won’t get the jitters when he looks down the ice and spies Vasilevskiy in the Tampa net. That would follow what happened a year ago, when Campbell wasn’t fazed in facing Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

“I learned a lot and it definitely gave me the confidence, getting the first playoffs experience,” Campbell said. “This whole season I kept learning.

“I feel great, just trying to do the best I can. I have total faith in the guys in front of me and we all do our jobs and I have total belief that we can get the job done.

“It has been an enjoyable year. I’ve learned a lot and there has been some ups and some downs and I’m right where I want to be at this time of the year. You just have to stay with it, and things will turn around. It’s good practice for the playoffs.”

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