THE DAILY GRIND

Grinder’s dili­gent work more im­por­tant than ever if star can’t face Bruins

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - MARK ZWOLIN­SKI SPORTS RE­PORTER

Zach Hy­man’s dili­gent dirty work down low for the Maple Leafs tends to fly un­der the radar . . . but it’s a bit dif­fer­ent with­out Aus­ton Matthews.

Maple Leafs winger Zach Hy­man isn’t about to panic about play­ing on a line with­out the in­jured Aus­ton Matthews.

The fact is that Hy­man re­mains a solid two-way player with a forecheck­ing pedi­gree that very few NHL play­ers can match.

He’s also got 1,500-game veteran Pa­trick Mar­leau as his cen­tre for now, and hard-work­ing Con­nor Brown on the other wing.

“No one re­places Aus­ton, and no one’s try­ing to,” Hy­man said after the Leafs’ Thurs­day prac­tice, on the eve of the opener of a home-and-home set against the Bos­ton Bruins.

Line com­bi­na­tions are in a state of flux with­out Matthews, but the pres­sure is squarely on his reg­u­lar line­mates — Hy­man and Wil­liam Ny­lan­der — to main­tain their level of play, who­ever they play with in the mean­time, un­til the su­per­star cen­tre re­turns from an undis­closed up­per­body in­jury.

Coach Mike Bab­cock said Matthews is day-to-day, which would mean he plays this week­end. But with four days off after Satur­day’s game in Bos­ton, the Leafs might choose to wait and ease him back into ac­tion next week.

The trend of grant­ing elite-level play­ers an un­of­fi­cial respite dur­ing the sea­son, a big is­sue in the NBA, has taken root more and more in hockey.

Matthews said only that he felt “sore­ness” that came back in the loss to St. Louis last Satur­day — the Leafs’ fourth game in six nights. It’s pos­si­ble that Matthews was slashed on the arm at some point and tried to play through it, but the prob­lem wors­ened un­der the heavy work­load.

“If he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go,” Bab­cock said.

“I’m not gonna give you guys an up­date ev­ery day. When you see him on the ice again, that means he’s a step closer. The kid wants to play. It’s not se­ri­ous, but it’s some­thing we’ve got to get fixed.”

For Hy­man, chang­ing line­mates could al­ter his game — which is to forecheck “like a ma­chine,” as Bab­cock re­cently said. At his best, Hy­man — while fac­ing the op­po­si­tion’s top de­fence pairs on a reg­u­lar ba­sis — is work­ing hard down low and feed­ing Matthews and Ny­lan­der for scor­ing chances. He was on his game in Wed­nes­day night’s 4-2 win over the Min­nesota Wild. On one oc­ca­sion, he spot­ted Mar­leau in good po­si­tion, fed him the puck and the re­sult was Mar­leau’s sixth goal of the sea­son.

Hy­man re­ceived a round of ap­plause from Leafs fans and high praise from Bab­cock for his spade work on the play.

For his part, Hy­man cred­ited some mas­ter­ful work with­out the puck by the 38-year-old Mar­leau, in his first sea­son as a Leaf.

“You saw that on his goal, just watch­ing it . . . a lit­tle, sub­tle thing he did. He stopped up when he was rush­ing for the net and he cre­ated a space there,” Hy­man said.

“A lot of guys keep skat­ing to the net, but he cre­ated a lane for me to get him that pass. That’s what goal scor­ers do.”

The as­sist was the fifth of the sea­son for Hy­man. While not an elite pro­ducer, he has nine points after 17 games and is on pace for 20-plus goals and about 25 as­sists — which would breeze past last sea­son’s 10 goals and 18 as­sists. Hy­man knows Brown’s game well. “We played about 30 games to­gether last year, and we played a lot to­gether with the Mar­lies,” Hy­man said.

“I know how he plays, and he works hard. You know where he’s go­ing to be, and when you go into those cor­ner bat­tles you know he’s go­ing to be there with you. It’s al­ways fun to play with a player who wants the puck back.”

Hy­man is that type of player him­self. And whether Matthews is in the lineup or not, it’s play­ers such as Hy­man and Brown who will help the Leafs es­tab­lish their iden­tity this sea­son.

MARY SCHWALM/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Zach Hy­man, de­nied on a wrap­around at­tempt against Zane McIn­tyre and the Bruins last Fe­bru­ary, does the dirty work down low for the Leafs.

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