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Matthews, Maple Leafs dig in for ‘great opportunity, great challenge’ in facing Lightning

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The Maple Leafs want to be like the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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First, they will have to beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, starting in Game 1 on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.

“We’re excited — it’s a great opportunity, it’s a great challenge,” Leafs superstar Auston Matthews said after practice on Sunday at the Ford Performance Centre. 

“This is a team that people have been trying to emulate the last couple of years, they’ve been at the top of the league. It’s a great challenge for us right off the bat to get our feet wet.”

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There is bound to be one lineup wrinkle for the Leafs in the opener of the best-of-seven, first-round series. 

Winger Ondrej Kase, who has not played since March 19 when he suffered a concussion against Nashville, skated on the second line with centre John Tavares and Ilya Mikheyev.

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Michael Bunting, who suffered a leg injury against Florida on April 23, participated before leaving midway through practice. 

“Kase looks close,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We’re going to make a decision on him tomorrow. I’d call it a game-time decision. 

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“Bunting also is close. We wanted to see how he responded today. I would say he’s doubtful for tomorrow, but we certainly expect to see him in the series.”

The Leafs are a confident group after putting up franchise records in wins (54) and points (115) during the 2021-22 regular season. They finished five points ahead of the Lightning to secure home-ice advantage in the first round, but now know they have to make something of it.

In net, goalie Jack Campbell will have to continue similar play after coming back from a rib injury, as he was sharp through the majority of his appearances in April. There’s no denying that being better than Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy will be a stiff test.

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“I think we’ve learned a lot,” Campbell said of his faith in himself and his teammates. “We’ve been through a lot together and (have had) the hunger from Day 1 of training camp. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ve continued to grow. We’ve improved in all areas of our game and we’re right where we want to be.”

Keefe expects a physically demanding series, one reason why rugged wingers Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds both will be in the lineup for Game 1.

“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 anytime that we’ve been challenged as a hockey team, and I’m just focusing on this season, we’ve responded really well. 

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“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.

“There’s no doubt our team will be ready for them.”

The projected Maple Leafs lineup for Game 1:

FORWARDS

Alex Kerfoot-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner

Ilya Mikheyev-John Tavares-Ondrej Kase

William Nylander-David Kampf-Pierre Engvall

Kyle Clifford-Colin Blackwell-Wayne Simmonds

DEFENCE

Morgan Rielly-Ilya Lyubushkin

Jake Muzzin-TJ Brodie

Mark Giordano-Timothy Liljegren

GOAL

Jack Campbell

Erik Kallgren

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