Leafs' Zaitsev to make playoff debut in Game 3 vs. Capitals

Nikita Zaitsev is ready to experience the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Russian defenceman told reporters he will return to the Maple Leafs lineup Monday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET) after missing the first two games of the Eastern Conference quarter-final against Washington with a suspected concussion.

​Toronto, which evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece on Saturday, will be without veteran blue-liner Roman Polak for the balance of the playoffs after he suffered a right leg injury on a hit from Capitals rearguard Brooks Orpik on Saturday.

The rookie Zaitsev will be the 10th Maple Leaf to make his playoff debut this spring and rejoin Jake Gardiner on a pairing that's likely to match up against Washington's top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie.

"I feel better every day," Zaitsev said after the morning skate. "Now I feel good and I'm ready to play."

Zaitsev wasn't sure how he'd fare in his first playoff game, especially off an injury.

"It's always hard to come back [because of the] speed of the games," Zaitsev said. "It doesn't matter, playoffs or regular season. When you come back from injury it takes some time to feel good."

The other two pairs will remain intact from Game 2 with Morgan Rielly playing alongside Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin lining up beside Connor Carrick.

Marincin, who filled in for Zaitsev in the first two games of the series had his clearing attempt lead to Tom Wilson's overtime winning in the series opener. He posted a plus-2 rating in 30 minutes 38 seconds of ice time in Saturday's 4-3 victory in double overtime.

Zaitsev, 25, was hit into the end boards by Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno in the final regular-season game for both teams. The Maple Leafs rookie was a workhorse during the regular season, averaging 22:01 of ice time. Morgan Rielly was the team leader at 22:10.

Zaitsev, who reportedly is closing in on a seven-year contract with the Maple Leafs, spent his entire first season in the NHL on Toronto's top pair, matched up against first lines, killed penalties and quarterbacked one power play unit. He finished second on the team's defence with 36 points.

Zaitsev skated at Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon.

"Whichever one is in, that's why you have eight," said Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock of Zaitsev and Marchenko. "That's why you acquire depth during the year. They all played a lot this year so I'm not very concerned that way."

'They're easy to coach'

Babcock primarily used a four-man rotation Saturday night after Polak went down. Matt Hunwick and Marincin received extended ice time but Jake Gardiner and Rielly led the way with about 40 minutes apiece.

"They're playing with confidence, they're competitive, they want to win and they're great people," Babcock said of Rielly and Gardiner. "They're easy to coach. They've got a good attitude, they like to laugh, and they don't mind a good tightening once in a while to get them back on track.

"They're good guys and they're good players."

Even though Games 1 and 2 went to OT, Babcock doesn't think fatigue will be an issue as the series continues.

"I've been in tons of these series where you play lots of overtime," he said. "The great thing about it is you're playing at the greatest time of year. It's fun anyway and you'd be amazed at how much energy you have.

"So let's just keep on going."

Andersen stands out

After pushing Washington in the opener, Toronto outshot the Capitals 51-50 in Game 2 and had a 35-26 edge in blocked shots.

Goalie Frederik Andersen was superb for the Maple Leafs and Kasperi Kapanen ended it midway through the second extra stanza with his second goal of the night.

Polak visited with the group ahead of Game 3.

"Obviously you never want to see somebody go down like that," Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. "Roman's a pretty important part of this team, not only on the ice, but off.

"He's obviously had a lot of experience, especially in these situations."

The Capitals could be without one of their top defenders, meanwhile, with Karl Alzner a game-time decision for Game 3. Alzner didn't skate Monday morning and would be replaced by Nate Schmidt alongside John Carlson on the team's top pair.

Toronto will play its first playoff game on home-ice since May 2013.