Shanahan tasked with ending years of collapses

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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ collapse will haunt Joffrey Lupul until the day he dies. He’s not the only player to be scarred by the team’s shortcomings.

“It doesn’t get much more embarrassing than that,” Leafs defenseman Cody Franson said after a particularly devastating late season game. “It’s one of those situations right now where it seems like no matter what we try to do it’s just not working. We’re having a tough time getting through it right now.”

The thing is, neither of them were discussing the 2-12-0 tailspin Toronto endured at the end of the 2013-14 campaign that ripped a playoff berth that seemed all-but secured away from the team. Lupul was talking about the Maple Leafs’ Game 7 collapse to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2013 playoffs and Franson’s quote was from March 2012 after the Maple Leafs lost 7-1 to the Flyers, which dropped Toronto to 5-17-3 in its last 25 games following a 28-19-6 start.

So when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke, who will step down, promised in April that the Leafs are “never going to have to go through this sort of thing again,” you could forgive Toronto fans for being skeptical.

After all coming up short — sometimes in defiance of the odds — seems to be a tradition for the Maple Leafs and while there are nevertheless reasons to be optimistic about the team’s future, the question remains: Are they losing in part because it’s become deeply ingrained into the team’s culture or is this purely a matter of the talent not yet being in place? Or to put it another way: Is there a psychological aspect of the Maple Leafs’ problems?

“I definitely sense that we lack an identity,” Lieweke conceded this summer. “Right now we’re a team that lacks a direction. And we want to change that.”

Given that he’s moving on, Lieweke won’t be the one to see that change through to the end. That task will instead fall to team president Brendan Shanahan. Since his appointment, he’s resisted the push to make dramatic changes by calling the idea of stripping Dion Phaneuf of his captaincy a “cop-out” and giving head coach Randy Carlyle a contract extension.

The Maple Leafs have made some roster moves over the summer, but they didn’t react to their latest collapse by pulling the trigger on a blockbuster trade or free agent signing. That’s in line with Shanahan’s belief that building through the free agent market is a bad habit.

Instead, the changes in Toronto have been a bit more subtle, or at least as subtle as is possible in the hockey hungry market. They changed Carlyle’s assistant coaches and brought in 28-year-old Kyle Dubas to serve as an assistant general manager. The latter move is particularly noteworthy given Dubas’ support of advanced statistics, which is something the Maple Leafs had previously been criticized for dismissing.

Combined with the fact that Shanahan himself is a recent addition and its fair to say that the Maple Leafs are starting to look different at the top. It remains to be seen if that will have a trickle down effect or if their recent history of pain will continue.

One thing we have learnt is that Shanahan has a vision for how he wants to see the team operate and while he hasn’t held his current position for long, he’s certainly acted as someone that won’t deviate from his preferred course in an attempt to alleviate fan or media pressure.

Related:

Under Pressure: Randy Carlyle

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.