Cam Tucker

Mike Babcock
AP

Babcock defends demoting impressive rookie Mitch Marner to fourth line

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Type ‘Mitch Marner‘ into a Twitter search, and you’ll see plenty of reaction to Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock putting the talented rookie forward on the fourth line Sunday.

This is a rather interesting development, because Marner, taken fourth overall in the 2015 draft, has had an impressive start to his first season with the Maple Leafs, racking up 20 points in 27 games and showing a dazzling display of speed, creativity and talent despite needing to pack on additional strength.

Against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, Marner found himself on the fourth line with Matt Martin and Ben Smith for the early portion of the game.

Prior to that, he had gone four games without a point despite 12 shots on net.

Babcock, who has always stood by his convictions in hockey, defended his decision to move Marner down the lineup.

“I’ve just been watching the games,” Babcock told Postmedia. “I think there has been a message (from the coaching staff) going on for a bit.

“That’s just the process of growing up in the National Hockey League. It doesn’t go your way all the time, in practice, in games. You have to work hard every single day. I don’t know if I saw a response — I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Marner did bust out of his mini-slump with an assist in the third period Sunday, but the Maple Leafs lost mostly because Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov absolutely stole the game for Colorado.

The Maple Leafs are in the midst of a five-game home stand. They play the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday.

Desperate for scoring, Sabres expected to load up a line with Eichel, Kane and Okposo

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 9: Kyle Okposo #21 of the Buffalo Sabres skates against the Ottawa Senators during the game at the KeyBank Center on November 9, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. Ottawa beat Buffalo 2-1 after a shootout. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
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The Buffalo Sabres could have a different look to their forward lines against the L.A. Kings on Tuesday.

Provided he’s feeling better and able to play, Kyle Okposo is expected to be put on the right side of a line with Evander Kane and 2015 second-overall pick Jack Eichel, per reports on Monday.

The Sabres are currently last in the entire league with 2.04 goals-for per game, so perhaps this move could help spark the offense. They could certainly use a boost from a trio of players with plenty of talent.

“Obviously when I was hurt I got to watch him a lot and learned a lot about how he plays,” said Eichel, per NHL.com. “I think he’s probably one of the most underrated players in our league, just how good he is with the puck, without the puck, in all areas of the game. He’s strong on it, he’s very skilled, and he can make passes.”

The Sabres landed Okposo as a free agent in the summer, spending quite a bit of money on the former New York Islanders forward.

So far, he has provided the Sabres with offense, leading the team with nine goals and 18 points. Buffalo also needs Kane to get going. He has struggled with injury and discipline this season, with only seven points in 16 games. Meanwhile, Eichel has played in only six games, re-joining the lineup at the end of November because of an ankle injury.

The Sabres currently sit last in the East, and 11 points out of the final Wild Card spot.

Video: Oilers defeat the Jets — thanks to a Patrik Laine own goal

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As this season has progressed, we’ve brought you clips of spectacular Patrik Laine goals during his rookie campaign. (See here and here as examples.)

There is no doubt that he’s in the early running for rookie of the year with 17 goals in 32 games. Only two players in the league right now — Sidney Crosby and David Pastrnak — have more goals so far this season. Laine scored Sunday — just into the wrong net.

And his gaffe, unfortunately, was a costly one, as the Jets lost 3-2 to the Edmonton Oilers.

Just past the halfway mark of the third period, Edmonton defenseman Mark Letestu ripped a shot from the faceoff circle, the puck easily stopped by Connor Hellebuyck. The rebound kicked right out to Laine, who fired the puck right into his own net, giving the Oilers their first lead of the night.

These things happen. Laine isn’t the first NHL player to score into his own net. He certainly won’t be the last.

Laine, appearing dejected, could be seen at the bench being consoled by captain Blake Wheeler after it all transpired.

“He’s 18-years-old and he feels terrible. These things happen. I’ve done it many times, it’s just a bad bounce,” said Wheeler, per Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun.

After back-to-back shutouts, does Antti Raanta get a fourth straight start for the Rangers?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 17:  Antti Raanta #32 of the New York Rangers wears a 'FDNY' helmet against the San Jose Sharks during the first period at Madison Square Garden on October 17, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Within the span of four days, the New York Rangers goaltending situation has really become one to keep an eye on.

On Sunday, Antti Raanta made his third consecutive start in place of Henrik Lundqvist, the usual No. 1 goalie for the Rangers. In those three games, Raanta has been almost completely unbeatable, with shutouts in back-to-back games, capped with a 19-save effort against the rival New Jersey Devils.

He has allowed only one goal in that time and the Rangers have been victorious. They thoroughly beat the Devils 5-0 on Sunday.

Raanta is the first Rangers goalie since Mike Dunham in 2003 to post back-to-back shutouts. Alain Vigneault has, over these last few days, gone with the hot hand and the decision has paid off.

Lundqvist is, of course, taking the team-first approach to this whole development.

“It’s hard to argue, he’s playing well. It’s about what’s best for the team, not about me,” Lundqvist said, per NorthJersey.com. “I’m going to focus on what I can control here. If he wasn’t playing well and I was still sitting, then it would be hard to accept.”

Now, the question becomes: Who will Vigneault — a coach with plenty of experience in dealing with goalie controversy in Vancouver — start at home against Chicago on Tuesday? Does Raanta get the fourth straight start, or will he relinquish the crease to Lundqvist?

Per reports, Vigneault knows who he is starting. He just hasn’t informed his goalies yet.

The Rangers have a busy portion of their schedule coming up. Beginning Tuesday, they will have five games in seven days, including a back-to-back with travel from Nashville to New York. If Lundqvist doesn’t get a start immediately this week, it’s likely he would get back in the net at some point soon, given the rigors of the schedule.

Again, something to keep an eye on.

Video: MacKinnon takes a stick to the face, then dangles through Maple Leafs for winning goal

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon celebrates after scoring a goal against the Detroit Red Wings in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Coors Field Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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The deciding goal in Sunday’s game between the Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs was a beauty from Nathan MacKinnon.

It occurred in the third period, giving the Avalanche a two-goal lead. After Saturday’s embarrassment in Montreal, the Avs rebounded — sort of? — for a 3-1 win over the Maple Leafs, despite giving up 52 shots on goal.

Semyon Varlamov‘s performance was crucial to the win.

MacKinnon’s goal was decisive. He took the puck in the neutral zone, then took a stick to the face from Leo Komarov and proceeded to deke his way through the Maple Leafs before beating Antoine Bibeau under the blocker.

Certainly not Morgan Rielly‘s finest moment defending. MacKinnon could be seen with blood dripping from his lip following the goal — a result of the high stick.

Truth is, though, that Varlamov completely stole this game for the Avalanche — a day after a shockingly brutal performance from the entire Colorado team. Winning isn’t sustainable when you allow such a high amount of shots on goal.

But Varlamov gave them every opportunity to remain in this game, allowing for that critical second goal for MacKinnon and his team.