Veteran Leafs defender Hunwick sees role expand in the post-season

Veteran Leafs defender sees role expand

WASHINGTON — Matt Hunwick had ice bags on his shins late Thursday evening, still sore from a wicked Alex Ovechkin first-period blast.

“You hope it hits you,” Hunwick said of the shot, which struck a shin pad. “You don’t want it to get to the net.”

The block came shortly after the Maple Leafs raced out to a 2-0 lead in a Game 1, only to see the Washington Capitals storm all the way back to win 3-2 in overtime.

Hunwick had a big hand in Toronto getting even that far.

The 31-year-old soaked up more than 26 minutes in the opener at Verizon Center — second on the team — and mostly succeeded under the heaviest strain he’d seen in months. Hunwick and fellow veteran Roman Polak were both asked to play more, and against better competition in the opener against the Capitals, because of the suspected concussion sidelining 25-year-old rookie Nikita Zaitsev.

Babcock has relied on the duo all season, but more so now with the uncertainty around Zaitsev along with the considerable inexperience on the Leafs’ roster.

“There’s simple things that we can do to set the tone for the team or set the example,” Hunwick said of himself and Polak, who went to the Stanley Cup final with San Jose last spring. “I don’t want to get into specifics, but when guys are doing it shift after shift after shift, the young guys on the bench can see it and everyone just kind of falls in line.”

Hunwick joined Morgan Rielly in Game 1 and finished as the team’s top defender in terms of possession (53 per cent). Polak slid into Zaitsev’s place alongside Jake Gardiner and fared OK against the Ovechkin-led top line.

The two composed Toronto’s third pair for much of the season and, despite looking overmatched early on, Babcock strenuously defended their value. He pointed to the Chicago Blackhawks routinely bringing back defenders who were well past 30 for their annual post-season runs.

Why?

“Because they know where to stand,” Babcock said earlier this season.

There’s some truth to that, Hunwick said, and it’s especially valuable come playoff time when the stakes rise.

“When you’re young, I don’t want to say you chase your mistakes, but sometimes you run out of position because you want to make plays or you want to redeem yourself,” he explained. “Sometimes less is more. I think sometimes you learn that later in your career.”

The 224th overall pick of the 2004 draft, Hunwick had to scratch his way into the NHL from the University of Michigan. Listed now at five foot 11 and 200 pounds, he wasn’t big nor especially skilled, but earned a role with Boston — and then Colorado and the New York Rangers — as a safe, simple, product on the back-end. 

He was someone could move the puck capably, kill penalties and bring some sense of dependability.

Babcock had crossed paths with him before he became Toronto’s coach at a Michigan gym. He liked Hunwick’s professionalism, and saw in him a veteran who could set an example as he overhauled the Leafs’ program last season.

Hunwick spent the bulk of that first season under Babcock playing primarily beside Rielly on the team’s top pair, a role that was above his skill-set but necessary for a depth-deprived squad.

He was pegged for depth duty this year as the Leafs improved, his season starting loudly on the wrong note when he was plastered into the boards by Chris Neil in the Oct. 12 opener. Hunwick had no choice but to watch Auston Matthews’ historic four-goal NHL debut in the trainer’s room.

“I’ve had a couple concussions in my career and kind of know what to look for the next day and I had nothing thankfully,” Hunwick said.

But something wasn’t right and after missing some time with a lower body injury, Hunwick’s first half proved to be a real struggle. By the end of December, he and Polak were stuck around 45 per cent possession — an especially weak number for a depth duo, though one that also assumed important minutes for the Leafs top-10 penalty kill.

Their effectiveness spiked in the second half and it looked to be largely the result of increased effectiveness from Hunwick, who was over 51 per cent possession in 2017. 

Hunwick isn’t certain what changed, though he thinks a comfort level with Polak helped as did the resulting increase in confidence. Whatever the reason, the uptick has proven timely. The injury to Zaitsev means the Leafs need both him and the 30-year-old Polak to handle more daunting loads against the powerful Capitals. 

A few more blocked shots, painful as they may be, are likely.

“This time of year, it feels good to have a couple ice-bags on after the game,” Hunwick said. “(But) it feels a lot better when you win.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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