William Nylander

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Update: Matthews returns at perfect time for Maple Leafs

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Update: Auston Matthews is indeed playing for the Maple Leafs against Montreal on Saturday. Read below to find out why this is a big deal, even beyond the obvious of merely having a star return.

(And not just because they’re trying to win a sixth game in a row and make life more miserable for the rival Canadiens.)

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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock must be delighted by how his team is winning games.

Most obviously, they’ve been doing so without Auston Matthews, who’s currently dealing with an upper-body injury. The Leafs won their fifth consecutive game 1-0 in OT thanks to William Nylander‘s slump-breaking goal, and Toronto’s played the last four without Matthews.

The variety of wins – some in overtime, some with outstanding goaltending, many likely boosting other talents who step up – must really encourage Babs. And that confidence could come in handy very soon.

The Athletic’s James Mirtle breaks down how they’ve been winning and who’s stepped up in Matthews absence, so check that out for more in that regard (sub required).

That’s all good stuff, but here’s the thing: the Maple Leafs are lucky that Matthews seems like he’s nearing his return, because the rest of 2017 presents a beast of a schedule. Before we get to that, consider that Matthews appears to be a gametime decision for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens:

So, obviously, that’s not a guarantee that he’ll play. It implies that he’s at least getting closer, though.

Feast your eyes on the remainder of the Maple Leafs’ schedule during this calendar year, which might prompt a New Year’s resolution of “Let’s just try to forget what we just went through.” The away games are bolded, with back-to-backs underlined.

Sat, Nov 18 @ Montreal
Mon, Nov 20 vs Arizona
Wed, Nov 22 @ Florida
Fri, Nov 24 @ Carolina
Sat, Nov 25 vs Washington
Tue, Nov 28 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 30 @ Edmonton
Sat, Dec 2 @ Vancouver
Wed, Dec 6 vs Calgary
Sat, Dec 9 @ Pittsburgh
Sun, Dec 10 vs Edmonton
Tue, Dec 12 @ Philadelphia
Thu, Dec 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Dec 15 @ Detroit
Tue, Dec 19 vs Carolina
Wed, Dec 20 @ Columbus
Sat, Dec 23 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Dec 28 @ Arizona
Fri, Dec 29 @ Colorado
Sun, Dec 31 @ Vegas

The Maple Leafs play 15 of their next 20 games on the road. The final stretch is especially rough, with a five-game road trip and eight of nine away from home. There are also five back-to-back sets.

So, it’s great that the Maple Leafs have manufactured ways to win without their brilliant top forward. That said, as Mirtle points out, they’ve been outplayed pretty badly at times in those games, and you wonder how long that luck (and timely work, to be fair) can last.

From the look of things, the Maple Leafs might not have to worry too much about that, and Matthews’ return couldn’t come at a much better time.

Not that it will be easy even with him, especially since he might not be at full-strength right away.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Youth hockey coach fired for giving profanity-filled pre-game speech

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–The Ottawa Senators will be visiting Erik Karlsson‘s home country of Sweden this week, as they prepare to play the Avalanche on Friday and Saturday. Karlsson is pretty pumped about being able to show his teammates the country he grew up in. (Ottawa Sun)

–After he lost his good friend Rick Rypien to suicide, Kevin Bieksa started a website called mindcheck.ca, which is dedicated to raising awareness about mental health. On Nov. 5, Bieksa got a message from a fan on Twitter that told him she was able to see the signs that suggested her daughter was planning to kill herself, because of the information made available on the website. (Vancouver Sun)

–The Carolina Hurricanes are remarkably bad in overtime. Over the last two season, they rank third in the NHL in games played in overtime, but rank 27th in OT winning percentage. Why are they so bad in the extra frame? Head coach Bill Peters has to shoulder a lot of the blame. (canescountry.com)

–The Los Angeles Kings made an interesting hire when they added Pierre Turgeon as an offensive coordinator. He’s been a valuable addition to the team. “Your ability to connect with him as a human first and foremost is his strongest asset,” Kings forward Brooks Laich said. “He’s very personable, very light, always keeps it very enjoyable around the rink and making sure guys are having fun and then his knowledge obviously pours out from that connection.” (NHL.com/Kings)

–Since his holdout ended, Josh Anderson has been an important piece of the puzzle for the Blue Jackets. Anderson has been able to do a number of important things for his team, which means that other veterans on the roster could become expendable. (thehockeywriters.com)

–The San Jose Sharks were giving up a ton of chances to their opposition on the penalty kill last season, but they’ve been able to improve that aspect of their game dramatically in 2017-18. Not only are they better on the penalty kill, they’ve leaned on it so far. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

–Is this the year Alex Pietrangelo finally wins the Norris Trophy? People in the Blues organization hope so. “He’s one of the best defenders,” former Blues defenseman Al McInnis said. “I don’t know if there is a better defender from the top of the circles down. He plays with a long stick. He’s got great reach defending and getting pucks out of battles with that stick, getting it to the forwards.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

–Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere is about to set a new franchise record, as he’s about to reach 100 points faster than any defenseman in franchise history. (Philly.com)

–In previous season, players that have made the jump from the KHL have had success. Guys like Artemi Panarin and Alexander Radulov turned their stellar play into big contract extensions. This season, the Russians that have made the leap to the NHL (Andrei Mironov, Vadim Shipachyov, and Victor Antipin) haven’t been able to stick with their respective teams. (fanragsports.com)

–Vice Sports’ Dave Lozo makes a case to move each one of Canada’s NHL teams to the United States. For example, here’s what he had to say about moving the Maple Leafs: “The longer the Leafs stay in Toronto, the more likely it is the media creates a scandal about Auston Matthews staying out too late or William Nylander eating too much falafel or Morgan Rielly spelling his last name incorrectly all these years out of protest against Justin Trudeau.” (Vice Sports)

David Pastrnak is a very useful player for the Boston Bruins, but he made some questionable decisions with the puck in the third period of Monday’s game against Minnesota. It’s something they have to figure out in the near future to take his game to the next level. (NBC Sports Boston)

–International women’s hockey has been dominated by Canada and the United States, and heading into next year’s Olympics, the two teams will see a lot of each other. Both sides do everything they can to get every little advantage over each other. (New York Times)

–A youth hockey coach was fired after giving his team a profanity-filled pre-game pep talk. The whole thing was caught on video. (Denver Post)

–Lightning defender Victor Hedman came up clutch for his team in a game against Columbus, but not in the way that you might think. Hedman actaully managed to win a face-off against Nick Foligno in a crucial moment of the contest. (Rawcharge.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How concerned should Maple Leafs be with recent slide?

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Two weeks into the season the Toronto Maple Leafs were the hottest team in the NHL. They were lighting up the scoreboard, winning games, and looking like they were on the verge of a breakout season that would see their young roster go from a promising team on the rise to a potential Stanley Cup contender.

Things have cooled off considerably in recent weeks.

After their 6-4 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night, a game that probably wasn’t as close as that final score would indicate, the Maple Leafs have now lost six of their past eight games and haven’t always looked great in the process.

Small blip on the radar during a long marathon season, or something that should have Maple Leafs fans a little bit concerned?

When you look at the underlying cause of the recent losses it’s probably more of the former than the latter.

A couple of things to consider about this recent stretch.

Goaltending has crushed them

Starter Frederik Andersen has not had a great start to the season and after Saturday’s loss is carrying an .895 save percentage that is among the worst marks in the NHL. During this recent eight-game stretch he has been even worse with an .891 mark. It would be unfair to put all of the blame on Andersen for the team’s inability to keep the puck out of the net because the team in front of him hasn’t always been great defensively, but the Maple Leafs are paying Andersen more than $5 million per season. They should be able to expect more out of him than what they are getting at the moment.

Their backup, Curtis McElhinney, has only played in two games and already given up eight goals.

If there is something to be optimistic about for the Maple Leafs it’s that Andersen should be better and most likely will be better because his start this season is very similar to what he went through in the first part of the 2016-17 season.

In his first year with the Maple Leafs Andersen had a brutal start to the season and in his first 13 starts was struggling with a .900 save percentage.

He finished the season with a .922 mark in his final 53 appearances. He has struggled for now, but he will not be this bad forever. He may not be a top-tier goalie in the league, but he has a proven track record of being an average to slightly above average goalie. Even that level of play would make a significant difference in the Maple Leafs’ recent fortunes.

Some of their young guys are struggling

The Maple Leafs have an embarrassment of riches at forward with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Connor Brown leading the way.

So far Matthews is looking like a potential MVP contender and continues to be better than he was originally advertised to be.

During this recent slump the duo of Nylander and Marner has hit a bit of a slump offensively combining for just one goal (Nylander) on 39 shots. Combine that with the fact that veterans Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk have only combined for three of their own on 32 shots and a significant part of the offense is mired in a slump.

This isn’t an uncommon thing during a long season as all players of all skill levels will go through peaks and valleys when it comes to their production.

So here’s where we are with this Maple Leafs team: They are an exciting (sometimes recklessly so) young team that still has some flaws in the defensive end. Right now those flaws are being magnified by some sub-par goaltending and a pretty significant cold streak from some of their top players. Put those two things together and you get a pretty ugly slump that takes away some of the excitement of the team’s fast start. Eventually the goaltending and scoring slump from the likes of Nylander and Marner are going to correct themselves, and when they do the Maple Leafs should be closer to the team we saw in the first two weeks instead of the past two.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Charles Hudon opens NHL account; Coyotes win

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Player of the Night: Charles Hudon, Montreal Canadiens

The Habs rookie scored his first two NHL goals an added an assist during an 8-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators. Artturi Lehkonen also scored twice and Shea Weber chipped in three helpers. Montreal has now won back-to-back games for the first time this season.

Highlight of the Night:

While Auston Matthews gets the goal, let’s send William Nylander some love for helping make this play happen.

MISC:

Steven Stamkos had a three-point night vs. Florida and leads the NHL in scoring with 24 points.

The Coyotes win!

John Tavares potted two more goals on Monday and now has nine in his last five games.

Another game, another Vegas goaltender getting hurt.

—Montreal’s eight goals on the road at Ottawa were their most away from Bell Centre since an 8-1 thrashing of Minnesota in 2011.

Alex Radulov was the overtime hero for the Dallas Stars. He now has 10 points in 12 games:

—St. Louis beat the LA Kings 4-2 to improve to 10-2-1, matching their franchise record start set in 1997.

—The San Jose Sharks paid tribute to Patrick Marleau as he returned to SAP Center as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Joe Thornton’s assist moved him passed Jari Kurri for 20th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 1,399 points.

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
NY Islanders 6, Vegas 3
Arizona 4, Philadelphia 3 (OT)
Columbus 4, Boston 3 (SO)
Montreal 8, Ottawa 3
Tampa Bay 8, Florida 5
St. Louis 4, Los Angeles 2
Dallas 2, Vancouver 1 (OT)
San Jose 3, Toronto 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Slow start pushes Marner to Maple Leafs’ fourth line

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the pleasant surprises of the 2016-17 season. The biggest reason they were able to make the playoffs last year was because of the play of their three terrific rookies: Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner.

Matthews and Nylander are off to roaring starts (Matthews has eight points in five games, Nylander has five points in five games). But things haven’t gone as well for Marner, who has a four points in five games.

That’s far from a poor point total for the sophomore forward, but head coach Mike Babcock hasn’t been impressed with his overall play (for whatever it’s worth, he’s a minus-6 this season).

On Monday, Babcock tweaked his lines, which shocked the fans and media in Toronto. Marner was no longer skating on a line with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. Instead, he was with Dominic Moore and Matt Martin on the fourth line.

“Their line wasn’t going, so tie goes to the veterans,” Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “(Marner) just happens to be the kid on the line, that’s it. Let’s not read too much into that. You have to have all your units going and we’re trying to do that. It was a big win in Montreal (on Saturday), but saying that, we didn’t generate a lot and they did.”

If you thought the Leafs coach was just trying to send a message for one day on Monday, guess again. Marner was right back out on the fourth line during Tuesday’s morning skate ahead of tonight’s game against Washington.

It looks like Babcock is serious about this wake up call.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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