The news isn’t good on the Nikita Zaitsev injury front: He’s been ruled out of Game 1 on Thursday.
While the Leafs defence would be in big trouble without any one of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner or Zaitsev, the argument could easily be made that this is the toughest possible loss from a matchups standpoint. While Babcock moved Rielly away from the top matchups in the middle of March, Zaitsev continued to play against top lines for the rest of the season alongside Jake Gardiner as the team went on its 9-3-1 run to make the playoffs. Zaitsev and Gardiner managed a 52.2 Goals For Percentage together this season, compared to the 40.5 GF% of Rielly and Zaitsev.
The loss of Zaitsev now throws the defensive pairings — which appeared to be settling in after the Rielly/Zaitsev divorce — out of whack again. Babcock’s solution based on today’s practice pairs looks like it will involve elevating Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak – who were a steady bottom-pair for the Leafs in the final two months of the season — into the top four alongside Rielly and Gardiner, respectively, with Hunwick on his off (right) side.
Rielly and Hunwick were the mainstay top pairing for the Leafs in 2015-16 prior to Hunwick’s season-ending injury, but that partnership was clearly in over its head in that role all year. The two managed a paltry 36.8 GF% in 735 minutes of even strength action together, and a 47.8% Corsi For. Alongside Gardiner-Polak, neither top-four pairing inspires much confidence in a matchup against the Capitals’ formidable top six forward group (Oshie – Backstrom – Ovechkin / Johansson – Kuznetsov – Williams).
Today’s bottom pairing in practice, Marincin and Connor Carrick, is an unfamiliar partnership for both players, not to mention Marincin hasn’t seen game action since the blowout loss to Florida on March 14. The two have shared the ice for just 53 minutes this season at 5v5 this season and managed a 40.3 CF% over that time.
Another possible configuration is placing Martin Marincin on the right next to Rielly; after practice, Babcock said it is an option and mentioned that Marincin played his best hockey in that role down the stretch last season.
Needless to say, the absence of Zaitsev leaves the Leafs even more susceptible to a four-line Capitals attack that is no doubt aware of Toronto’s vulnerabilities on the blue line and intends on exploiting them. In addition to the obvious threats in their loaded top six, the Capitals are a deeper, heavier team to contend with this year thanks to a reinforced bottom six (Connolly – Eller – Burakovsky / Winnik – Beagle – Wilson).
After Capitals practice yesterday, Jay Beagle spoke about his line’s game plan to get pucks in behind the Leafs D:
[The Leafs are] young, fast, offensive. Like to feed off of turnovers. That’s going to be key, getting it behind their D. You don’t want to get into a run-and-gun, neutral zone kind of game where they’re quick-upping it or high-flipping it kind of like how Pittsburgh did it last year, where they high flipped stuff from deep in their zone if you didn’t get it deep all the way in behind their D. You’ve got to make sure their D are having to turn around and go back for pucks. As a fourth line, we like to play that game and it will fit in good with us.
SportLogIQ tweeted out in early April that the Leafs are dead last in the NHL in possess-driving plays out of the d-zone per game (the Capitals are fourth best). The Leafs have also ranked as one of the highest dump-out teams in the league all season long. Partly that is systematic; the Leafs often deploy the ‘high flip’ Beagle refers to, or a chip off the glass, in order to bypass forechecks and create puck races up the ice for their speedy, skilled forwards to take advantage of in transition. Especially with the loss of a minute-eating, mobile puck-mover like Zaitsev off of the backend, we can expect to see plenty of these kinds of plays in Game #1.
While it’s hard to be optimistic about the Leafs’ defence ability to cope with strength and depth of Capitals attack (that was also the case before Zaitsev’s injury), spending more time with the puck in the offensive zone is going to be key, as will the Leafs’ structure through neutral ice without the puck. The Leafs forwards sometimes refer to it as “getting skin” on the opponent in reference to bumps, picks and heavy sticks through neutral ice that are hallmarks of Mike Babcock hockey. At 5v5, slowing the Capitals down through the neutral zone is going to be crucial in order to buy the Leafs’ defence time to retrieve pucks and make plays.
On special teams — a big key to success in this series if the Leafs are to pull off the upset — Morgan Rielly will step into Nikita Zaitsev’s power play minutes and the Leafs should be just fine there. Rielly is an asset on PP zone entries and carrying the puck over the blue line is more of a strength of his than it is Zaitsev’s; it will also give the PP a different look that the Capitals haven’t seen a tonne of in their prescout. On the penalty kill, Marincin is a credible replacement for Zaitsev; he makes good reads and he is effective at breaking up entries with his massive wingspan. Marincin’s shorthanded shots against rate is right there with Hunwick and Polak for best among Leafs defencemen (53.44 SA/60).
Wednesday Practice Lines
Leafs lines at practice
So, Connor, William flip again
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 12, 2017
Leaf pairings as of now:
Zaitsev not available for game 1. #tmltalk
— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) April 12, 2017
Leafs PP units
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 12, 2017