TORONTO — The Maple Leafs won't have their biggest minute-eater from the regular season available to play Game 1 against the Washington Capitals, and Toronto head coach Mike Babcock is still trying to figure out what to do about it.
Babcock said Nikita Zaitsev, who logged 22 minutes per-game as a rookie this season, would be out for Thursday's opener against the Capitals and perhaps longer. The 25-year-old was shaken up in the Leafs regular season finale Sunday night after a loud hit from Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno.
Toronto said he suffered an upper-body injury on the play, declining to say if he suffered a concussion.
"The great thing about this medical department is I don't deal with that part," Babcock said. "They just tell me he's not available to go. He's got an upper-body injury."
Babcock was hopeful Zaitsev could play in Game 2 on Saturday, if hardly certain after the defenceman sat out a second straight practice on Wednesday morning.
"I don't know 100 per cent for sure," said Babcock. "I thought he was going to skate today, (but) he didn't skate today so obviously he wasn't ready to go."
His absence is crushing to the Leafs defence, which was hard-pressed at full-strength even to slow down the NHL's third-highest scoring team.
Zaitsev spent his entire first season in the NHL on Toronto's top pair. He matched up against first lines, killed penalties and quarterbacked one power play unit. He finished second on the team's defence with 36 points.
Babcock experimented with different defence combinations for the second consecutive day ahead of Game 1. He reconnected two former pairings: Jake Gardiner with Roman Polak and Morgan Rielly with Matt Hunwick.
Martin Marincin, who hasn't played since March 14, was also officially penned into the lineup, potentially with Connor Carrick. The 25-year-old should also soak up penalty killing duties in Zaitsev's absence.
Babcock hadn't determined whether he'd stick with Wednesday's combinations or if he'd mix them up again. His challenge is finding the lineup which matches up best against the Capitals.
"It's not just like you're playing in the regular season, you're going to play the same team over and over again," Babcock said.
Babcock has to decide which pairing is best suited for matching up with the Caps' ace No. 1 line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
Gardiner was manning those duties alongside Zaitsev for the final month of the regular season, replacing Rielly. Does Babcock prefer the 26-year-old and Polak to combat the Caps' best unit or Rielly and Hunwick, the Leafs' top pair from last season?
There's not great answer either way for the head coach, who guided the Leafs into their first post-season since 2013 and first in a full season since 2004.
"I don't think it's a big adjustment at all," Polak said of the shuffling. "We kind of rotated (defence partners) during the game usually so we're used to playing together."
The club will at least have the 30-year-old Polak, who also suffered an injury Sunday against Columbus. He was back at practice Wednesday and finished the regular season relatively strong, absorbing almost 20 minutes per-game with a rotating cast of defensive partners.
He's perhaps the Leafs top penalty killing defenceman, an important source of toughness and veteran dependability for Babcock.
"Coaches and his teammates love him more than maybe the fans and the media do," Babcock said.
Hunwick also had a solid finish to the regular season, pushing nearly 55 per cent possession over the final 20 games.
Babcock said goaltender Frederik Andersen would be ready to start Game 1 after sitting out Sunday's finale.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press