PHT’s Top 13 of ’13: Leafs finally make playoffs, then collapse

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are by far the richest franchise in the NHL — and when that’s said, no one for even a minute thinks that’s referring to anything other than financial gains.

Despite their financial might, the Leafs endured seven consecutive campaigns of heartbreak from 2005-06 to 2011-12. In some of those seasons they were in a rebuilding mode, but in others they portrayed themselves as legitimate contenders, only to fall short.

During the 2011-12 campaign, the Maple Leafs were poster children for chokers as they went from having a 28-19-6 record in early February to 35-37-10 by the end of the campaign. It was so bad that minority owner Larry Tanenbaum felt the need to issue an apology.

After that, expectations were low for the Maple Leafs. Despite a strong rookie season and the fact that his poor sophomore campaign had been disrupted by a concussion, there was a belief that Toronto desperately needed to find an alternative for goaltender James Reimer. That led to fierce rumors that Roberto Luongo would be sent to Toronto. At the end of the day, even Luongo was surprised when it didn’t happen.

Instead, Leafs ownership shocked the hockey world by firing GM Brian Burke right before the start of the shortened campaign. It was a move that “floored” and “stunned” Burke and, in retrospect, probably left him dwelling on what might have been.

He might have reaped the rewards of Reimer bouncing back and 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri breaking out, all while his major acquisitions, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf led the way. By the end of the campaign, no one was accusing the Maple Leafs of being an great team, but for the first time since 2004, there would be playoff hockey in Canada’s most populous city.

They were the underdogs going into their first-round series against the Bruins, but they weren’t without hope. Boston had been forced to play six games in nine days to end their season, which led to questions about how much energy they still had.

Although the Bruins took a 3-1 series lead, the Maple Leafs countered with back-to-back victories, the second of which involved Kessel netting the game winner against his former squad. Suddenly, Toronto didn’t just look like a team that could make the playoffs; they could compete in them too.

“We’ve grown as a group,” Phaneuf said, going into Game 7. He was arguing that they weren’t the same team that, as coach Randy Carlyle put it, “self-destructed” in their Game 1 defeat.

And they weren’t…for the first 51 minutes of the deciding contest. Then, it happened. The collapse. The huge, immense collapse. Holding a 4-1 lead, they allowed three unanswered goals in the third period. The resilient Bruins went on to win the game, and the series, 6:05 minutes into the overtime period.

“I don’t know what happened to us,” Kessel remarked.

At the very least, the Leafs’ playoff drought was a thing of the past.

And by very least, we mean very least.

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks at Penguins – Wednesday Night Rivalry

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The latest edition of NBCSN’s Wednesday Night Rivalry presents quite the treat: the Chicago Blackhawks at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Both teams are at 103 standings points and each squad already punched a ticket to the playoffs. Even so, they’re dealing with mini-slumps that they’d like to work out tonight.

For all we know, this could be a preview of what would be one extremely fun, high-profile 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Either way, it’s a showcase of two premiere franchises brimming with star power.

You can watch on NBCSN, online and via NBC Sports App. Click here for the livestream.

Yes, NHL will share protected, available player lists for expansion draft

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We can debate all day how much the NHL, Vegas Golden Knights and others involved really want to do this, but they’re making the right choice with the expansion draft nonetheless. The league will make protected and available players lists available at the same time they’re shared with teams, according to NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika.

(The NHL tweeted out as much, too.)

Could this lead to feelings being hurt or perhaps even certain sneaky deals being scuttled? Perhaps, but those are headaches that management should be expected to absorb.

The bottom line is that an expansion draft is a dream come true for armchair GMs, rumor enthusiasts, fantasy sports fans and … really, just about anyone interested in hockey. It would be a bewildering decision to try to keep all of this information locked down, even for a league that frequently garners a reputation for choosing comfort over entertainment value.

Cotsonika reports that such lists will probably be made available on June 18, though that isn’t set in stone.

(If you’re the type to take off work if a trade deadline was exciting, you might want to start drumming up excuses/putting aside vacation time/practicing your best “I’m sick” voice just in case …)

Cap Friendly provides a handy timeline for the expansion draft process:

Goalie nods: Blues give Hutton first start in two weeks

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Even though Jake Allen has played extremely well of late, Carter Hutton will get the call when the Blues take on the Coyotes in Arizona tonight.

Some of this could have to do with the opponent. The Coyotes are playing out the string on a forgettable campaign, and have lost six of their last seven. That includes a 4-1 defeat in St. Louis on Monday (in which Allen stopped 27 of 28 shots for the win).

As mentioned above, Allen has been great in March and deserves huge praise for turning his season around. He’s gone 8-1-1 this month with a remarkable .951 save percentage, allowing a mere 14 goals over his 10 appearances.

Hutton, though, has played equally well when called upon. He’s gone 4-1-0 over his last five starts, posting a .962 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. In his last outing, on Mar. 16, he allowed just one goal in a victory in San Jose.

For the Coyotes, Louis Domingue is in goal.

Elsewhere…

— A good matchup in Pittsburgh tonight, as the two defending Stanley Cup champions go head-to-head. Marc-Andre Fleury starts for the Penguins, while Corey Crawford goes for the Blackhawks.

— Calgary can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight so, unsurprisingly, it’ll go with No. 1 Brian Elliott. No word yet on who starts for the visiting Kings, though it could be Ben Bishop after Jonathan Quick lost last night in Edmonton.

Philipp Grubauer gets the call for Washington, after Braden Holtby led the Caps to victory in Minnesota on Tuesday. Grubauer will take on Calvin Pickard, who starts for the Avs.

Vegas wants ‘progressive’ head coach, says McPhee

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Golden Knights GM George McPhee continued to list the characteristics he wants from a head coach this week, explaining that he’s searching for a forward-thinking bench boss.

“We want someone who is very current on the game, who is progressive on how the game should be played,” McPhee said in a recent phone call with season ticket holders, per the club website. “We’re looking for that progressive guy that can really help us through the early years and help develop our team and our players.”

So, time to connect the dots.

Back in November, Vegas owner Bill Foley laid the initial groundwork for McPhee’s coaching profile, saying he wanted to hire an experienced head coach.

“He’s not looking for a first-termer,” said Foley. “Some may or may not be available. … I would say the coach that we name is going to be a recognizable individual.”

Among the names that have already been floated, many fit the above billing: Jack Capuano, Gerard Gallant, Ken Hitchcock and Michel Therrien, among others.

Vegas has already spoken with Gallant and reportedly made contact with Capuano as well, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Gallant was nominated for last year’s Jack Adams as the NHL’s top coach, and McPhee is familiar with Capuano, having worked as an adviser to Isles GM Garth Snow prior to taking the Golden Knights gig.

It’s also believed former Flyers head coach Craig Berube is being considered, along with current Montreal associate Kirk Muller.