Maple Leafs focused on task at hand in light of Kadri suspension

Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs players weren’t thrilled about the NHL’s decision to suspend Nazem Kadri for three games, but they stand behind their centre and are ready to win in his absence.

BOSTON – Success in the Stanley Cup playoffs is built on small victories. It is only through taking care of each of the tiny details along the way that you get to play games in June.

So it was not insignificant that the Toronto Maple Leafs chose to take the high road in reacting to a three-game suspension for centre Nazem Kadri on Saturday morning.

This was a controversial decision by the NHL’s department of player safety, even with Kadri’s checkered past and the ugly nature of his hit on defenceless Tommy Wingels in the opening game of a series with the Boston Bruins.

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Discipline in the playoffs has historically been meted out on a 2-to-1 ratio compared to the regular season, meaning that Kadri was judged to have crossed the line to the equivalent of a six-game ban during the year. For context, the vicious elbow from Brad Marchand that sidelined Marcus Johansson for more than two months drew a five-game suspension. And Marchand has a longer rap sheet than Kadri.

The point is not so much to take issue with the decision, but to underline how surprising it was to the Leafs. They knew they’d have to play Game 2 without Kadri and were prepared to lose him for Game 3. But the prospect of having Game 4 tacked on as well was not something that was seriously contemplated until the news came down on Friday night.

It was a significant blow – one that could ultimately be a defining moment in their season – but to their credit the Leafs players didn’t seem to be viewing it that way. They had already moved forward by the time they went through the morning meeting before Game 2.

“A little bit surprised, but at this point it’s a waste of energy to think about that,” said winger James van Riemsdyk.

“That’s what they decided and you’ve just got to move on, get a couple wins without him and then welcome him back,” added Jake Gardiner.

It was an encouraging sign for a team looking to make this a series after an ugly 5-1 loss in the opener. While you don’t simply solve all your problems by thinking good thoughts – Kadri’s absence clearly comes with added matchup challenges for the Leafs – maintaining a healthy outlook is vital during the playoff grind.

Take last year’s Penguins, for example.

They had to play the entire spring without top defenceman Kris Letang and then lost Sidney Crosby for a couple of games during a second-round series against Washington where they squandered a 3-1 lead and had to go on the road for Game 7. Had they been looking for excuses, there was no way they would have wound up lifting the Cup for the second straight year.

“Adversity you face in the playoffs – we’re going to have a long run – is always there and there’s not much you can do about it,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “So let’s just get on with it. We went without a number of centres this year.

“Let’s play.”

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Specifically, they played 20 games without Auston Matthews during three separate injury absences. That’s a quarter of what became a 105-point season and helps fuel the belief they can navigate their way through this.

For Friday’s practice, Babcock adjusted three different lines to account for Kadri’s absence. However, on Saturday morning he hinted that those new combinations may not survive the warmup in Game 2 – leaving open the possibility William Nylander is shifted to centre rather than Patrick Marleau, or perhaps that rookie winger Andreas Johnsson may enter the lineup higher than the fourth line.

The player most likely to be impacted by not having Kadri around is Mitch Marner, who was among the NHL’s leading scorers after being put beside him in late January.

“I mean, Naz feels like a big brother to this team,” said Marner. “He’s a guy that plays the game with a lot of passion. He’s a protector out there.”

But the 20-year-old didn’t want to critique the league’s ruling. He was another guy looking for solutions rather than dwelling on a problem.

“It sucks seeing that. Obviously, there’s nothing you can say or really do about it,” said Marner. “It’s a big loss down the middle for us. [Kadri’s] a big guy to have at home for a big matchup for their top line.

“We’re going to have to fill that void and make sure that we all step up our game.”

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