Injured Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev has missed 12 games since suffering a lower body injury in mid-December as a result of a blocked shot in a game against the Detroit Red Wings. Over that span, his team has gone 5-7… coincidence? Not likely.
The unheralded blue liner has been a key cog in the Leafs’ defence since arriving from the KHL prior to the start of last season and it’s clear that the team misses him dearly during their most recent mini-slump. The 26-year-old Moscow, Russia native has four goals and 10 points in 34 games with the Leafs this season, but more importantly he’s been the team’s best defensive player all season. He leads all Leafs blue liners in plus/minus with a +8 rating.
Zaitsev has mostly been used as the defensive foil to Jake Gardiner’s offensive play during his season and a half in Toronto, and it’s clear that Gardiner has missed the stability that his usual partner provides. When asked where he missed Zaitsev the most, Gardiner was blunt. “Basically everywhere… penalty kill has been huge,” said Gardiner. “He plays the most minutes of anyone. That chemistry that we had before… it’s tough for not only me but for everyone.”
If it wasn’t obvious before, this past month should make it plainly obvious just how important Zaitsev is to this Leafs team. So… when’s he coming back? Initially given a two-week prognosis for return, Zaitsev has been out a calendar month and Leafs staff have been reticent to offer up any more information.
Thankfully, TSN reporter and NHL insider Darren Dreger did some digging and uncovered a potential return date for the Leafs blue liner.
Encouraging news, but that still means that Zaitsev will be out of the team’s lineup for another 5-6 games. If they continue on their current trajectory and fail to pick up the points they should in those games, things could get ugly in a hurry.
Report: Babcock flames Leafs after 2-1 loss to Blues
In other Leafs news, the team blew their chance at a fresh last night in their game against the St. Louis Blues. The Leafs’ first game back off their league mandated bye-week could have been a turning point in an inconsistent season, as it is… the game proved to be only another blown opportunity.
Carrying a 1-0 lead into the final minute of play, the Leafs surrendered a late tying goal to Blues forward, and former Leafs player, Alex Steen. Then 21-year-old rookie and Lindsay, Ontario native Vince Dunn won it for the Blues in overtime on a picture perfect end-to-end rush.
After the game, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was none too pleased. The Leafs have squandered leads in each of their past three games, failing to stomp out the Blues, Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets while carrying late-game leads. It’s a trend that’s disturbing to Babcock, so on Tuesday night he let his team know exactly how he feels about the situation.
“You want to win this, you want to walk out of here feeling good,” said the Leafs bench boss. “But it’s simple, life is about lessons. Suck it up and find a way to win games.”
While it was obvious that Babcock wasn’t happy with forward Mitch Marner’s effort on the game winning OT goal, it was actually Steen’s game-tying goal that had Babcock talking on Tuesday night.
“One of their forwards came across, instead of just holding on their side, and then they ended up having an outnumbered situation on that side,” he explained. “All you have to do is be patient and hold and stay underneath … just settle down and play. We’ve done it lots and done it well, so we know how to do it, we just have to execute.”
As for Marner, he owned up to his mistake in OT… kind of. “I was just trying to take away a reverse to [Vladimir] Tarasenko,” Marner said, “Slowed up, kind of read it wrong and they got an odd-man rush and it didn’t go in our favour.”
Look closely and you’ll notice that Marner tries to “sell” an elbow or two and loses a step Dunn in the process.
Again, Babcock doesn’t like what he saw from Marner. “In OT, you can’t be on the wrong side of the puck,” said Babcock. “What you learn with good teams you can’t cheat – ever. You just keep doing things good, you stay patient and you get your opportunities. But if you cheat for offence, you lose.”
The Leafs have now lost six of their last eight games and they’ve scored three or fewer goals in each contest. Scoring goals, holding leads and finding a way to grind out close games has been a challenge for the team so far in 2018, but can they use this mini-slump as motivation? A learning experience for the road ahead?
“I don’t know if it’s really a learning experience. We had enough of that last year,” said superstar forward Auston Matthews. “We’ve just got to find a way to win because this game should have definitely been our two points and we let it slip away.”