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Not a fan of Jake Gardiner?
Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock doesn’t really care.
“I think Jake Gardiner is a really good player,” Babcock said after the Leafs held an optional practice on Tuesday.
“I think he is someone that people have decided isn’t a good player, and so they pick on him.
“I can tell you right now, we can’t find another one. I guess the way I look at it is real simple for me. I think he is a really good player and I’m going to play him a lot.”
Gardiner long has been seen in a negative light by some, considering his every-so-often miscues that lead to goals by the opposition. For many in Leafs Nation, it came to a head last spring when he was minus-5 in the Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins, including being on the ice for each of Boston’s final three goals in a 7-4 loss.
“This is what he did: He came out to the media and said he had a tough Game 7,” Babcock said. “So then they ran with that for a while. We all lost. We all were there.”
This playoff run for the Leafs — however long it lasts, and few think it will go beyond Boston — likely will represent Gardiner’s final days in a Toronto sweater, as he is bound to get more on the open market as a free agent this summer than he would in Toronto (and hint to those who dislike the 28-year-old: It’s not because he is a bad player).
That likelihood is on Gardiner’s mind with the best-of-seven series starting on Thursday at the TD Garden in Boston. He’s the second-longest serving current Leaf after centre Nazem Kadri.
“Definitely,” Gardiner said. “Been with this team a long time, a lot of these guys, and definitely have to take advantage of it.”
Gardiner reports his back feels good after he missed 18 games, managing to play in the Leafs’ final two games of the regular season. He will be paired with Travis Dermott to begin the series.
Gardiner has his detractors, but the puck more often than not moves out of the Toronto with more fluidity when he is on the ice.
Gardiner said he has never sat and watched Game 7, which went down last April 25 in Boston.
“I don’t think too much about it, to be honest,” Gardiner said. “Just try to move on. We need to take advantage of our opportunities and make sure we’re prepared for each game.
“It was for sure a couple of weeks (that Game 7 stayed with him afterward). It was tough. But I got a good support system and family is very supportive. You never forget it, but you put it to the side and just it drives you to work harder and be better.”
Many Leafs who were part of that have talked about redemption this spring, and how the Game 7 loss now serves as a source of inspiration. Gardiner is in that group.
“Yeah, definitely,” Gardiner said. “Any time you have a defeat like that, it drives you to be even better each year. This is a different team, there are new guys on the team, it’s a fresh start.”
The Leafs are scheduled to have a full practice on Wednesday morning before travelling to Boston in the afternoon.
“The bottom line is the series is going to start in two days and the team that is most ready to play is going to have success,” Babcock said. “We really believe we’re going to be prepared. We have a lot of people back, we will be rested and ready to go. We’re excited about the opportunity and looking forward to going to Boston.”
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