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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Jack Campbell has seen enough of playoff hockey from the bench. Now he’s ready to be playing in it.

The Maple Leafs’ netminder will finally get that chance when he starts for Toronto in Game 1 of its first-round playoff series against Montreal on Thursday. For the 29-year-old Campbell, it will be a postseason debut years in the making, and he’s savouring the long-awaited opportunity. 

“It definitely means a lot [to be starting]. A lot of hard work went into it,” Campbell said after the Leafs’ final pre-playoffs practice on Wednesday.

“[The feeling is] pure excitement. This is the best time of the year. I've been on the bench in the playoffs, and you still feel that excitement, but to be able to have a chance to be in there now, it's definitely awesome. I'm just looking forward to enjoying the whole experience.”

Coach Sheldon Keefe has tapped Campbell as the Leafs’ playoff starter over the more seasoned Frederik Andersen, saying on Sunday it “wasn’t a tough decision” given how Campbell has played this year. 

Even while persevering through an early-season leg injury, Campbell has been Toronto’s backbone between the pipes. His 11-0-0 run to open this year set a new NHL record. And when Andersen went down with a knee injury in mid-March, Campbell helped keep the Leafs on track to eventually win the North Division. 

Campbell finished the regular season with a 17-3-2 mark, and his .921 save percentage and 2.15 goals-against average are top 10 among NHL goaltenders with at least 20 starts. 

“Jack's been phenomenal for us,” said Jason Spezza. “He's the reason why we're in the position we are to start with home ice here and we have full confidence in him. He's a guy where nothing has fazed him all year. He's been thrown into tough situations and we have full belief in him.”

It’s been quite a journey for Campbell to become a team’s go-to goalie. He’s been a career backup until now, sitting behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles for three and a half seasons and then becoming a No. 2 for Andersen after the Kings traded Campbell to Toronto in February 2020.

Campbell produced decent numbers in the role, entering this season with a 23-26-6 all-time record and .917 save percentage. But Campbell didn’t want to remain forever in Andersen’s shadow, and is now firmly in the postseason spotlight. 

“I believed I could do some good things at this level, and I thought I proved that throughout my career,” he said. “It's where I expect myself to be and I'm grateful for the opportunity. It was a good step in the right direction getting in the net and rolling and playing more games [this season] and as a team we had a lot of success, so it gives us the confidence to do it in the playoffs.”

An avid amateur chef, Campbell said he’ll quell any nerves ahead of Thursday’s debut by cooking himself a nice meal Wednesday night and “I'll get ready to have some fun.” 

It’s the type of light-hearted attitude Campbell’s teammates have come to expect from him. Earlier in the year, Campbell was hard on himself after every game, but has heeded advice from those around him to take the highs and lows in stride. That’s made all the difference for Campbell and the players prepared to go into this next chapter with him. 

“Just his confidence [has really improved],” said Mitch Marner. “It’s been skyrocketing and it's great to see. And he has that confidence in net, where he’s playing everything so well and just getting out to the shots. He’s always communicating out there as well, just talking to us, letting us know where guys are behind us.”

One skater Campbell could see a lot of around his net starting Thursday is Zach Bogosian. The veteran defenceman wasn’t expected to be available for their opening-round series after suffering a shoulder injury in mid-April, but he’s gotten the required medical clearance and was on Toronto’s third pairing with Rasmus Sandin at Wednesday’s practice.

That bumped Travis Dermott out of the Leafs’ top six and onto the fourth pairing with Martin Marincin. Dermott is projected to be a healthy scratch on Thursday.

Bogosian won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, and is one of two players on the Leafs roster (along with Jake Muzzin) who knows what it takes to scale hockey’s highest peak. He was determined not to miss the start of the Leafs’ run this year. 

“It's a credit to him for the work that he's put in to get himself ready,” said Keefe of Bogosian. “He's got great experience coming off of last season's playoff and the elements that he brings to our defence helps us both at five on five and on the penalty kill, so it's a nice addition for us.”

Wayne Simmonds put it a bit more bluntly when he characterized the return of Bogosian as supplying “a whole lot of nasty.” Having Bogosian in the mix would mean all of Toronto’s regulars are healthy and will be involved from the outset of what the team hopes is a fruitful spring ahead. 

“I think as a group, we can count on each other,” said Campbell. “Since I've been here, the leadership group, the new guys coming in, the young guys, we [all] just gel together. We expect a lot out of each other, but that's a good thing. I believe so much in our team and our group and I just want to go in there and do my job for them.”