Totonto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers

Leafs’ Gardiner approves of Carlyle’s approach

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In a fairly short amount of time, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner went from someone who needed to be “freed” to someone who can freely spend a heaping amount of cash.

Whether you opt to take his comments at face value or attribute it to the happy glow of that $20.25 million extension, Gardiner told the Toronto Star’s Kevin McGran on Wednesday that he’s just fine with the way head coach Randy Carlyle treats him.

“He is a coach that likes to push his players and get the most out of them,” Gardiner said. “I think that was what he was doing with me.

“I have a lot more potential than what I’ve been doing. I think (Carlyle’s approach was) good for me. It will help me down the road.”

Of course, it might also help that new assistant Steve Spott might be able to play “good cop” to Carlyle’s gruffer “bad cop” with players like Gardiner. (Meanwhile, Peter Horachek would put the 5 in “Five-Oh.”)

“He’s a really positive guy and a good guy to have around the locker room,” Gardiner said of Spott on Wednesday.

For many, seeing Gardiner at his best might come down to a possible paradigm shift in the Maple Leafs organization rather than the blueliner merely adapting to Carlyle’s ways. The Score’s Thomas Drance argues that Gardiner could be a key piece to a more possession-conscious style in Toronto … at least if he’s allowed to do so:

Gardiner’s skating ability and overall hockey sense make him an excellent spatial problem solver, which allows the Maple Leafs to be outshot and outscored less dramatically when he’s on the ice.

The problem, of course, is that the Leafs are still outshot and outscored dramatically, but it doesn’t have to be that way, not with a handful of talented forwards, excellent goaltending, and quality puck-possession defenders like Gardiner and – the Leafs hope – eventually Morgan Rielly. Gardiner and Rielly could be – and probably should be – the engine for a club with lots of speed up front.

In other words, Gardiner’s been paid, but it’s the system that still needs to “free” him up.

Washington is ‘basically destroying everyone right now’

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 07:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals (c) celebrates his goal at 15:45 of the first period against the New York Islanders and is joined by Nicklas Backstrom #19 (l) and T.J. Oshie #77 (r)at the Barclays Center on January 7, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher didn’t mince words analyzing tonight’s opponent, the visiting Washington Capitals.

“They’re basically destroying everyone right now,” Boucher said on Tuesday morning, per TSN 1200.

And, well, he’s right.

With Monday’s 6-1 blowout of Carolina, the Caps extended their consecutive points streak to 14 games — the second-longest in franchise history. Washington is 12-0-2 during the streak and has scored at least four goals in eight consecutive games, and one of those losses came in overtime of a thrilling 8-7 tilt against the Penguins.

The streak looks even better in graph form:

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Unsurprisingly, the Caps have dotted the NHL’s weekly three stars announcements throughout January. Braden Holtby earned third star honors back on the 9th, Nicklas Backstrom netted first star on the 16th and, yesterday, T.J. Oshie scored third star of the week.

Those awards underscore the story in Washington — everybody is contributing across, the board.

Like last night, when Dmitry Orlov‘s rare two-goal effort helped the Caps past the ‘Canes. Or the game prior, when Matt Niskanen‘s three-assist performance pushed Washington over Dallas.

The Caps are a dangerous club at the moment. Even the players are willing to acknowledge it.

“We got all four lines rolling and with our depth and our ability when every line’s going, we’re tough to stop,” Oshie said, per ESPN. “Things are going well right now.”

Poor goaltending, lack of finish to blame for Kings’ latest loss

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jeff Zatkoff, left, looks at New York Rangers' Mats Zuccarello after Zuccarellos scored a goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in New York. The Rangers won 3-2. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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It was the story of the Los Angeles Kings’ season last night in New York:

— Lots of shots, but not enough goals.

— Not many shots against, but too many goals allowed.

The Kings fell 3-2 to Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers despite winning the shot clock by a huge margin: 38-17.

“I think we had a lot of opportunities. You’ve got to finish,” said head coach Darryl Sutter, per LA Kings Insider. “At the end of the day, we need better goaltending in there.”

Jeff Zatkoff was between the pipes for the Kings. His record fell to 2-7-1 with an .881 save percentage. So expect to see Peter Budaj tonight in New Jersey, and probably Thursday in Carolina, too.

The Kings (22-21-4) have lost four straight and sit three points back of Calgary for the second wild-card spot. The Flames also lost last night, and so did the team immediately below the Kings, the Winnipeg Jets. That was the good news for Sutter’s crew.

But with Jonathan Quick not expected back until March, it’ll be up to Budaj and Zatkoff to give the Kings the goaltending they need to get back into a playoff spot. And that’s a big ask for two guys who’ve played more AHL games than NHL games over the last few years.

As far as the offense is concerned, the Kings badly need more from Anze Kopitar, who only has four goals in 41 games. After all, Tyler Toffoli (lower-body injury) did not make the trip, and Jeff Carter can’t be asked to score every night. Carter (25 goals) and Tanner Pearson (14) are the only Kings with double-digit goal totals.

“We probably out-chanced them, what, five-to-one tonight? It’s the percentages,” said Sutter. “So the percentages are that you score on a percentage of those chances. The other team’s scoring on not-percentage chances, put it that way.”

 

No hearings scheduled after wild Flames-Leafs game

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None of the combatants from Monday’s incident-filled Toronto-Calgary game will face disciplinary hearings, an NHL spokesman confirmed this morning.

The two sides combined for 16 minor penalties across a nasty, chippy affair that included:

— Leafs forward Leo Komarov catching Johnny Gaudreau with a huge bodycheck.

— Flames captain Mark Gioradano quickly jumping Komarov in retaliation.

— A pair of Calgary youngsters, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk, accused of slew-footing.

The incident that drew the most attention was Komarov’s hit on Gaudreau. The diminutive Calgary winger looked to be in trouble after the check — requiring assistance off the ice — but went through concussion protocol and was cleared to return a short while after.

Komarov’s hit was deemed legal, and he didn’t receive a penalty on the play.

“I feel fine,” Gaudreau told the Calgary Herald following the game. “It’s part of hockey, you’re going to get hit every once in a while and with the concussion-test stuff, they want to make sure you’re alright.

“So I had to go in there and do that, and it was fine.”

 

 

NHL on NBCSN: Pens look to push winning streak to five games against slumping Blues

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 24:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates during the game against the St. Louis Blues at Consol Energy Center on March 24, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Pittsburgh Penguins host the St. Louis Blues at 7:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

Things are going well for the Penguins right now. They’ve rattled off four straight wins over Washington, Montreal, Carolina and Boston and in each of those victories, they managed to score at least four goals.

Everyone knows Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang have been terrific when healthy, but others, like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Justin Schultz have also been key contributors for their team.

Sheary in particular had a terrific week, as he was named the NHL’s First Star for his performance last week. The 24-year-old has played a good chunk of the season on a line with Crosby, and he’s already up to 17 goals and 17 assists in 39 games in 2016-17.

“It’s going better than I expected at this point,” Sheary said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I think it’s a mixture of a lot of things, the way we’re playing as a team and the way our line’s playing. I think it’s just been clicking right now. These streaks usually don’t last, so I’m just going to enjoy it while it’s here.”

Sheary managed to put up six goals and three assists in just four contests last week, and on Sunday, the line of Crosby, Rust and Sheary combined to score nine points in a 5-1 win over the Bruins.

“I think his game is just growing by the day,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He obviously has some nice chemistry with the line he’s on right now. He’s got pretty good chemistry with Sid in particular. That line has been really good for us. I think his confidence might be at an all-time high, which is helping him.”

If the Penguins are riding high, the Blues are on the other end of the spectrum.

Scoring hasn’t been an issue for them. They’ve scored three goals or more in four of their last five contests, but keeping the puck out of their net has been the big problem.

St. Louis comes into this game having dropped three games in a row. Although goaltending hasn’t been their only issue, Jake Allen‘s struggles are a big reason why they’ve been slumping of late.

“I take a lot of blame, I deserve it, no excuses,” the Blues goalie said, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I have no problem with taking the heat. You get more of the brunt of it as a goalie, the last line of defense, but in this situation I have no problem with it. I should be the backbone of this team and I haven’t been. A lot of it falls on my shoulders, letting the guys down in many situations, not giving them a chance to win.”

After Allen allowed four goals on 10 shots in a loss to Washington, the team decided he needed to stay behind while they traveled to Winnipeg (they lost 5-3 with Pheonix Copley in net) and Pittsburgh.

Tonight, the Blues will start Carter Hutton, but they’ll go back to Allen for Thursday’s game against Minnesota before they head off for the All-Star break.