De­fence­man Zait­sev, pic­tured, to miss Game 1 for Leafs,

Top all-around de­fence­man hasn’t re­cov­ered enough from hit to the head

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - MARK ZWOLINSKI SPORTS RE­PORTER

The Toronto Maple Leafs are go­ing to learn, and very quickly, about the depth of their de­fen­sive corps with Nikita Zait­sev out for the open­ing game of their play­off se­ries with Washington.

Leafs coach Mike Bab­cock opened his post prac­tice me­dia scrum Wed­nes­day by an­nounc­ing Zait­sev will be re­placed by Martin Mar­incin.

“There’s a chance for some­one to step up here,” Bab­cock said. “Martin’s a good player.”

It’s a glo­ri­ous op­por­tu­nity for Mar­incin to re­verse his for­tunes. The de­fence­man played 21 games with the Leafs up to the end of Jan­uary, but just four games af­ter. Bab­cock chal­lenged Mar­incin to seize the op­por­tu­nity.

“He’s gotta de­cide whether he wants to play in the sec­ond game . . . he’s gotta play good,” Bab­cock said flatly.

The Leafs will jug­gle their pair­ings with Zait­sev out. Mor­gan Rielly, Zait­sev’s most fre­quent part­ner, will be re­united on the top unit with Matt Hun­wick, who he played with fre­quently last sea­son. The sec­ond pair­ing will fea­ture Jake Gar­diner and Ro­man Po­lak. And Mar­incin will play with Con­nor Car­rick.

The six-foot-four Mar­incin can be ef­fec­tive on the penalty kill with his long reach. But Zait­sev’s ab­sence cre­ates a few dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for the Leafs’ de­fence, which played strong, mostly con­sis­tent hockey in a 14-5-1 stretch late in the sea­son.

Rielly and Hun­wick, while fa­mil­iar with each other, are both left- handed shots. That means one of them will play on the right side, out­side his pre­ferred as­sign­ment.

“We’ve all been play­ing and prac­tis­ing with dif­fer­ent guys, so there shouldn’t be any ad­just­ments,” Rielly said. “We can flip flop, Matt and me . . . If he’s on the left side, and I’m on the right, that’s fine, and I think it’s im­por­tant that you play both sides. The good thing is we can change on the fly too, you just talk it out. It’s im­por­tant for us to be able to do dif­fer­ent things.”

Rielly and Hun­wick will play against Alex Ovechkin and the Cap­i­tals’ top line.

Po­lak, of­ten un­sung but bat­tle-tested, re­turned to prac­tice Wed­nes­day af­ter miss­ing Tues­day’s work­out. He took a hit to the thigh in Sun­day’s fi­nal game of the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Po­lak has played through pain for much of his ca­reer, and will do so in this up­com­ing se­ries. He has per­formed well with in­juries in past play­offs, tak­ing pucks to the face and nurs­ing knee prob­lems with San Jose and St. Louis. But he will also be play­ing a top-four role. He was fifth among Leafs de­fence­man in av­er­age ice time this sea­son (17:55), al­though he av­er­aged just four sec­onds fewer than Hun­wick.

Bab­cock said he could still tweak the pair­ings. There are other sce­nar­ios to pon­der — Rielly and Gar­diner to­gether, with Po­lak and Hun­wick re­unit­ing as a tough, phys­i­cal pair­ing — but the coach felt Wed­nes­day’s duos were the most likely for the opener.

“Matt (Hun­wick) can do it (play right side), he’s done it be­fore, but the matchups are not as good (with Zait­sev out) . . . you can say they are, but they’re not,” Bab­cock said.

“In­juries are a part of the game, and it be­comes a chance for Mar­incin to come in and play. Mar­incin can play the right side too, and it may be some­thing we do, but as you saw (at prac­tice Wed­nes­day), that’s the lineup.”

CLAUS AN­DER­SEN/GETTY IMAGES

Nikita Zait­sev will miss the Maple Leafs’ play­off opener Thurs­day af­ter tak­ing a hit to the head on the week­end.

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