Tonight on Versus: Maple Leafs and Avalanche look to stay hot

If you looked at the standings this morning and caught a glimpse of who was leading the Northeast and Northwest Divisions, you might be caught off guard. There you’d see tonight’s combatants on Versus in the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Colorado Avalanche (7 p.m. ET). All right, sure, it’s early in the year and things get wacky – that’s fine but there’s a lot to like in what both teams are doing right off the bat.

The Leafs are seeing Phil Kessel take control as an offensive dynamo and making people think that he might not get picked last at the All-Star Game if he keeps up his torrid play (eight points in three games including five goals). We’re sure the jokes about Leafs fans planning the parade have been beaten into the ground already, but this time around their hot start doesn’t have the players thinking too big.

source: Getty ImagesJames Reimer’s play in goal also has the Leafs faithful thinking positively as he’s picked up where he left off last season when he took the starting job from Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Curiously enough, Giguere will be in goal for Colorado tonight hoping to cool off the Leafs. Money on the board, anyone? Giguere won’t be the only guy with money on the board as Leafs defenseman John-Michael Liles gets his first crack at his old team as well.

If you want to keep an eye out on anyone on Colorado, 18 year-old rookie Gabriel Landeskog is about as good as it gets. Landeskog has been playing on the third line and looking like a first liner while doing it. Getting the second overall pick in the draft usually means good things. Having a former third overall pick in Matt Duchene (2009) and former first overall pick in Erik Johnson (2006) can make it easier to get turned around too.

‘It’s all my fault’: Mike Babcock takes responsibility for penalty box blunder

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Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is often regarded as the best coach in hockey, but even the best make silly mistakes sometimes.

During last night’s game between the Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, Babcock’s error forced his team to play an extra 1:54 shorthanded.

Early in the third frame, Roman Polak was given a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct for boarding Oliver Bjorkstrand (Polak is scheduled to have a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Thursday morning). Instead of sending someone to the penalty box to serve the major infraction, Babcock decided to leave the box empty.

Coaches aren’t obliged to send someone to the sin bin right away. During any stoppage in play before the end of penalty, they can send someone to finish serving the infraction. Unfortunately for the Leafs, Babcock never did.

So when Polak’s five-minute major expired, the Leafs couldn’t simply throw someone onto the ice from their bench, they had to wait for a stoppage in play.

Toronto players tried to ice the puck a couple of times, but that didn’t work. So finally, Brian Boyle flipped the puck into the Columbus bench to get a whistle, but not before his team spent nearly seven straight minutes shorthanded.

They ended up winning 5-2, but they held a slim 3-2 lead at the time.

Luckily for Babcock, his penalty killers did an incredible job, as they only allowed one shot on goal throughout the kill.

After the game, he took full responsibility for what happened.

“I’m doing better now, but can you imagine?,” said the Leafs bench boss, per the Toronto Sun. “It’s all my fault, me, the two assistants on the bench, two in the video room and 15 players on the bench. And we can’t get that done right? Often it happens and you just fire a guy in the box. It could have cost you. It will never happen in my lifetime again, I will never wait to put a guy in. But our penalty kill was really good.”

PHT Morning Skate: Ovechkin will be rocking incredible custom skates for Russian Heritage Night

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–With only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, we’re starting to get a better idea of who will be in and out of the playoffs. With that being said, The Hockey News put together a list of five players that could benefit from playing on another team. Devils goalie Cory Schneider is at the top of the list. Schneider’s been solid since joining New Jersey, but the team hasn’t had much success. (The Hockey News)

Erik Karlsson has always been known as an offensive defenseman, but this year, he’s made several defensive improvements to his game. The changes have made him so effective that his head coach, Guy Boucher, believes he should be in the running for a Hart Trophy. (Canadian Press)

–The Washington Capitals will be hosting a Russian Heritage Night tonight. During the pre-game warmup, Alex Ovechkin will be rocking these custom skates honoring his home land and his American home. He’ll be auctioning off the skates too. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

–The New York Islanders trailed the Rangers 2-1 heading into the third period, but thanks to goals by Nikolay Kulemin and Andrew Ladd, they were able to come out on top. You can watch the highlights from last night’s “Battle of New York” by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Vegas GM George McPhee chatted with Sportsnet’s Gene Principe about being able to build a team from scratch. McPhee called the experience “fantastic” and “really neat”. He also discussed his vision for the team and how he’s approaching the expansion draft. (Sportsnet)

–The Detroit Red Wings have been a model franchise for quite some time, but they’ve on the verge of going through some pretty big changes. First, Joe Louis Arena will be closing its doors and secondly, their long playoff streak will be coming to an end this season. Sports Illustrated takes a deeper look at the old barn and the third-longest playoff streak in pro sports. (Sports Illustrated)

–Many people feel like the Calder Trophy race will come down to Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, but Bob McKenzie says there’s more than two worthy candidates because Zach Werenski has been equally good this season. But who is McKenzie leaning toward?

Ducks take control of second in Pacific after edging Oilers

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Connor McDavid was fantastic on Wednesday, but the Anaheim Ducks overcame his strong showing for a significant win in the Pacific.

McDavid scored a goal and two assists, yet Ryan Getzlaf was right there with him with three assists, helping the Ducks win 4-3.

With that, Anaheim is clearly ahead of Edmonton for second in the Pacific. The Ducks would hold home-ice over the Oilers if the playoffs began today, and better yet for them, a division title isn’t out of the question:

1. Sharks – 91 points in 73 games played
2. Ducks – 89 points in 73 GP
3. Oilers – 87 points in 73 GP
4. Flames – 86 points in 73 GP

As you can see, the Oilers aren’t exactly far ahead of the Flames for third, either.

Going forward, the Oilers have an interesting schedule: a mix of games against cellar dwellers (two apiece against the Canucks and Avalanche) plus two games apiece versus the Kings and Sharks.

The Ducks’ schedule includes two matches against the Flames, one against the Kings and one more match at Edmonton on April 1.

Long story short, the jockeying for position is far from over, but this was a pretty significant win for the Ducks.

Video: Connor McDavid shows off speed and skill (again)

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Connor McDavid‘s 26th goal of 2016-17 was a lot like many others: an impressive display of skill and speed. He didn’t blaze past the Anaheim Ducks like has against opponents on other occasions, but his rare wheels still came in handy.

Maybe more than sheer speed, this tally is a reminder that McDavid could do impressive things while losing little or no momentum. It’s one thing to have straight-line speed, but he has the hands and hockey IQ to take advantage of his swift skating.

McDavid already has two points in this one, pushing him to 84 points. He also extended his point streak to five games (three goals, six assists if he stays at one of each on Wednesday).