TORONTO – Tyler Bozak isn’t interested in watching the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first playoff game in nine years from the sidelines.
The Leafs’ No. 1 centre went through a full practice Tuesday and expects to play Wednesday when they visit the Boston Bruins to open their best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series.
Bozak missed Toronto’s final two regular-season games with an upper-body injury. He skated briefly Monday but left practice early.
Bozak said Tuesday he felt good and desperately wants to be on the ice for the series opener.
“It’s really important.” he said. “We’ve come a long way as a team the last couple of years and especially this year.
“We’ve played pretty good hockey together as a group and it would be tough to sit back and watch the most important time of the year.”
In fact Bozak has got a head start on his playoff moustache, which he started growing two weeks ago.
“I can’t grow much and I have to start a little earlier than a few of the guys,” he said. “Hopefully we can go a long way and see how big I can get it.”
Having the six-foot-one, 195-pound Bozak in the lineup is a huge boost for Toronto. The 27-year-old Regina native had 12 goals and 16 assists in 46 regular-season games but was also the club’s top faceoff man.
“When you have a player that takes all the important faceoffs for you that’s the first place you miss him,” said Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle. “We seemed to be at a disadvantage, we didn’t start with the puck enough.
“Bozie is a real smart hockey player. He knows where to be on the ice, the puck kind of follows him around and his game is one where he does a lot of the little things that aren’t noticed but you notice them when he’s not there.”
Bozak skated Tuesday with regular linemates Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk and certainly didn’t look out of place. Kessel, who spoke with reporters twice Tuesday after declining to do so Monday, was glad to have his regular centre back.
“Bozie has been a big part of our team this year,” Kessel said. “He’s a great player and I love playing with him.”
Toronto (26-17-5) finished fifth in the East to earn its first playoff berth since 2004. But the Leafs dropped three-of-four regular-season meetings with fourth-place Boston (28-14-6).
Kessel led Toronto in goals (20), assists (32) and points (52) and will make his first playoff appearance since 2008-09 when he was with the Bruins. The Leafs acquired the 25-year-old native of Madison, Wisc., from Boston in September 2009 for 2010 first- and second-round picks and a 2011 first-round selection.
“They (Boston fans) are obviously going to be loud, probably going to be giving it to Phil a little bit,” Bozak said, drawing chuckles from the assembled media. “We’re used to that when we go there but it might be a little bit more upscale this time around.
“He (Kessel) is going to be fine, he’s going thrive under the pressure and prove them all wrong out there.”
Kessel had 10 goals and 18 points in Toronto’s final 11 regular-season games and isn’t worrying about the reception he’ll receive in Boston.
“It’s been four years now,” he said. “I had great years there, I love the city and the fans were great to me there.
“It’s another game, it’s an important game for us and another chance to prove ourselves here.”
But Kessel has struggled against his former team with just three goals and six assists in 22 career games. He had no points in the four regular-season meetings this season with Boston.
A big part of Boston’s defensive gameplan is captain Zdeno Chara. The towering six-foot-nine, 255-pound Slovak was the NHL’s top defenceman in 2008-09 and in 2010-11 he led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup crown since ’72.
“When you have the type of skillset that allows you to create offence I think you have to try and be as simple as you possibly can going up against a big body like Chara,” Carlyle said. “The reach and range and physical size of the individual plays into it.
“It’s easier said than done in a lot of ways to get away from that reach. Normally guys wouldn’t be as close to you as he can be and he uses his stick very effectively.”
Bozak admits Chara will present Toronto’s forwards with a formidable challenge, but the shifty centre plans to have a few tricks up his sleeve.
“I think you have to use your speed as much as you can,” Bozak said. “He’s so long and so strong, he’s a hard guy to get around and he covers a lot of ground.
“Obviously it’s going to be tough with him out there but he is human, he’s going to make mistakes and you have to take advantage of them when he does.”
While the Bruins won the season series with the Leafs, they were just 3-5-2 over their final 10 games. But that’s of little consequence to Carlyle.
“I think you throw it all out because it’s an old cliche, a new season, but it is,” he said. “We’ve said right from Day 1 the next one is the most important one and that has held true.
“I’d expect we’re going to get a Boston Bruins team that’s different than the last two weeks of their season and I’d expect we’re going to get a higher brand of hockey from our club also.”
Toronto did take three-of-four points in its last two regular-season meetings with Boston. The Leafs downed the Bruins 3-2 on March 23 before dropping a 3-2 shootout decision two nights later.
“Obviously we’re going to use that as a point that we’re not intimidated,” Carlyle said. “We feel . . . we can go in and play well against the best teams in the league and that’s one of the points you refer to.
“But again it has to be earned. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a man’s game and I would expect the game to be played at a very high level with a lot of physicality, a lot of one-on-one battles and that’s the way it should be.”