Jason Brough

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Babcock wants Leafs to be aggressive with the lead

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One of the youngest teams in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still learning how to win hockey games.

If they could only figure out how to win the third period, they’d be in much better shape standings-wise.

Consider:

— The Leafs have won just 10 of the 16 games they’ve led after two periods, falling once in regulation and five times in overtime or the shootout.
— Their goal differential is plus-5 in the first two periods combined, and minus-6 in the third.

Last night against San Jose, the Leafs jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Zach Hyman and Auston Matthews. But the Sharks scored twice in the third, then won it in the shootout.

“We have left points out there,” said Toronto coach Mike Babcock. “I think part of it is just not continuing to play with your foot on the gas as much. I didn’t think they took it to us big time or anything like that.”

They didn’t, really. The Sharks only outshot the Leafs, 13-9, in the third. They tied it on the power play with just 5:10 remaining, after d-man Matt Hunwick got called for interference.

But Babcock will keep telling his players the same thing.

“The best way to play when you have the lead is like when you have the first tied and you play like you want to get the next one, so you’re on your toes and you continue to get after the other team and you don’t just try to defend back in and play careful,” he said.

That, of course, is easier said than done, when the natural instinct is to play it safe with a lead. Get too aggressive and turn the puck over, you’re not going to look too smart if it ends up in your net.

So it’s a fine line, and the Leafs are learning where it is. They’re 11-11-6 after 28 games, six points back of third place in the Atlantic Division, i.e. six points back of a playoff spot.

Toronto hosts Arizona Thursday.

Lowest winning percentages when leading after two periods

wins

The Blues’ goaltending situation is once again worth monitoring

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If winning is all that matters, then Jake Allen is doing a great job for the St. Louis Blues.

More than a third of the way through the season, only three goalies — Sergei Bobrovsky (17), Carey Price (16), and Tuukka Rask (15) — have won more games than Allen (14).

But here’s where things differ between those four netminders: Bobrovsky’s save percentage is .934, Price’s is .940, and Rask’s is .932. Meanwhile, Allen’s fell to just .906 after allowing five goals in last night’s 6-3 loss to the Predators.

The league average save percentage is .914.

“You win as a team and you lose as a team,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, refusing to pin last night’s loss on his goalie, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“I think we made some big errors in our own zone with the puck and they took advantage of. You can’t play like that under the pressure. It just seemed that the third period we ran out of gas.”

That being said, the Blues’ goaltending situation is definitely worth monitoring. Partly because the Blues’ goaltending situation is always worth monitoring, but also because Allen is finally the undisputed starter. That wasn’t the case last year when Brian Elliott was still around. The new backup is Carter Hutton, who’s gone 2-4-1 with an .889 save percentage.

In fact, the Blues (16-10-4) currently have the NHL’s third-worst team save percentage, tied with the Flyers at .897. The Kings (.896) and Stars (.895) are the two teams below them. The former has been without their starter, Jonathan Quick. The latter, well, we all know the story with the latter.

Elliott, of course, was traded to Calgary after helping the Blues reach the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001.

Elliott’s exit left Allen with much to prove.

“It was tough to make mistakes when Brian was around because one game — you had a bad game — he was right back in the net and vice versa with him and me,” the 26-year-old said over the summer.

“I think you get a little bit more leeway, I guess, now. But not a whole lot. Carter’s a great goalie and I’ve heard a lot of great things about him. I feel that I had to etch myself into the league consistently. Now that I’ve done that, I still have another place to go and prove I’m a legit No. 1 guy.”

Allen also signed a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension in July, so he’s not getting paid like a backup anymore.

The Blues’ next game is Thursday at home to New Jersey. That may be one for Hutton to start, giving Allen the chance to rest up for Saturday’s visit from the Blackhawks.

Lowest save percentages (min. 15 games played)

saves

Major questions facing Canucks after disastrous ending to road trip

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Would the Canucks be any better off with a new coach?

That’s the big question today in Vancouver, after last night’s 8-6 loss in Carolina.

It was the second time in the last month that the Canucks had blown a three-goal lead in the third period. On Nov. 19, it was a 3-0 lead over the Blackhawks that turned into a 4-3 overtime defeat. Last night, it was a 5-2 advantage that disappeared in a matter of minutes.

The Canucks (12-16-2) finished 1-4-0 on their five-game road trip. They’re still only four points back of a wild-card spot, but no team in the entire NHL has won fewer games in regulation than Vancouver (5).

“There’s three games on that road trip we could have won that we didn’t win,” head coach Willie Desjardins told reporters. “You’ve got to find ways to win those games. You just have to.”

Desjardins has faced varying degrees of criticism this season. The way he deploys his players. The team’s structure. Its mentality. All those topics are fair game.

At the same time, his defenders will say he wasn’t given enough to win with, and that’s probably fair too. After all, the last thing this team could afford was injuries, and Chris Tanev has now missed 23 games, Alex Edler nine.

In other words, Vancouver has only played seven games with its top defensive pairing intact, and the Canucks went 4-2-1 in those seven games.

Last night in Carolina, their six d-men were Erik Gudbranson, Luca Sbisa, Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher, Alex Biega and Nikita Tryamkin. Granted, that group should still be able to protect a three-goal lead, but the fact it didn’t, well, try to act surprised.

At this point in the season, replacing the coach may be the only chip that GM Jim Benning can play. Maybe Doug Jarvis takes over. Or perhaps Travis Green gets the call from Utica.

But management (and ownership) should not escape blame in all this, because the Canucks did not go into the year expecting to lose. They signed Loui Eriksson and kept veterans like Jannik HansenThey have so far resisted a tear-down rebuild, with the justification they wanted their “young kids to learn how to play in a winning environment, so they learn the right way to play.”

Which begs a pretty good question — can a “winning environment” exist without wins?

And if it can’t, what do you do then?

The Canucks host Tampa Bay Friday. And then it’s only fitting that John Tortorella will be in town Sunday, with a chance maybe to get his 500th career win.

Related: There’s one ‘vision’ in Vancouver this season, and that’s winning

The Red Wings are losing ground, with a playoff streak on the line

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They don’t want to panic, but the Detroit Red Wings better pull it together. Otherwise, it’s going to happen — they’re going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

Last night’s “embarrassing” loss to Arizona kept the Wings four points back of third place in the Atlantic Division. And they can forget about a wild-card spot, unless one of the five juggernauts in the Metropolitan falls apart.

“The sense of urgency is going to continue to be real high,” coach Jeff Blashill told reporters. “Is it frustrating? Sure. But we better put the frustration behind us because it doesn’t do anybody any good.”

There is still legitimate hope for a comeback, if only because of their division. The Montreal Canadiens have built a comfortable lead atop the Atlantic, but the Ottawa Senators appear vulnerable and the Boston Bruins are one Tuukka Rask or Zdeno Chara injury away from trouble.

That being said, the Wings will be battling with the Lightning and Panthers, two teams who entered the season with high hopes and have the potential to put a string of wins together. Even the Maple Leafs and Sabres could still be a factor.

In the end, missing the playoffs may be for the best. The Red Wings have been so successful these last few decades, the last time they drafted in the top 10 was all the way back in 1991.

To put that in perspective, Connor McDavid was born in 1997.

The Wings were able to stay competitive because they found Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in later rounds. However, two of those Big Three are gone now, leaving only Zetterberg, who turned 36 in October.

Yes, there is some young talent in the organization, but no more than the average NHL team, and considerably less than others.

Heading into the season, the veteran-laden Wings desperately needed to stay healthy, and that just hasn’t happened. Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and Jonathan Ericsson are currently out injured. Niklas Kronwall and Thomas Vanek have missed time. So has Andreas Athanasiou.

Given the Wings’ poor possession numbers, if not for Jimmy Howard and his .937 save percentage, things could very well be worse.

Detroit’s next game is Thursday at home to the Los Angeles Kings, who have their own issues these days.

“We all know we’re a better team than this,” Kronwall said, per MLive. “It’s one thing to lose if you’ve been playing well. It’s another thing to lose when you really haven’t been giving your best effort for 60 minutes.”

division

Red Wings get off to ’embarrassing’ start, fall 4-1 at home to Coyotes

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DETROIT (AP) Twenty-four hours made a huge difference for the Arizona Coyotes.

Jamie McGinn scored twice and the Coyotes beat the Detroit Red Wings 4-1 on Tuesday, one night after Arizona was routed 7-0 in Pittsburgh.

“That was certainly better than last night,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Tuesday. “You could sense before the game that they wanted to redeem themselves after that game, and they played a very strong game tonight.”

Lawson Crouse and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo also scored for Arizona. Peter Holland had two assists in his Coyotes debut, and Mike Smith made 37 saves.

“We did a lot of the things that it takes to win hockey games,” Smith said. “The offense took its chances and everyone made plays. We knew what happened last night and no one wanted to see that again. We’re a better team than that.”

Andreas Athanasiou scored for Detroit, and Jimmy Howard stopped 15 shots.

“Our start, the effort we had in the first period, it’s embarrassing. That’s on the leaders. That starts with me,” Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said.

“We’ve got to be better prepared in here to come out. We all know they played last night. They lost pretty bad so we knew they were going to come out and play fast hockey from the start and win a lot of battles. We had to match that and didn’t do that. Even though I don’t think they played great hockey in the first, but that just shows how bad we were.”

DeAngelo’s power-play goal opened the scoring 2:01 into the game. His shot from the left faceoff dot beat Howard on the short side. It was DeAngelo’s third goal.

Athanasiou tied it with 3:48 left in the first period. The rebound of Gustav Nyquist‘s shot off the rush went in off Athanasiou’s skate for his fifth goal.

Crouse gave Arizona a 2-1 lead with 16 seconds remaining in the first. He headed toward the net while battling Red Wings defenseman Mike Green, and Crouse’s backhand shot trickled through Howard for his second goal.

McGinn made it 3-1 just 2:39 into the second period. He tipped Holland’s pass off Howard and into the net.

McGinn got his second goal of the game with 8:33 left in the third. He put in a one-timer from in front off a pass from Anthony Duclair past Howard. It was McGinn’s sixth goal, and Holland got the second assist.

“Peter was great. He gave me a perfect pass for the first goal and then Duke (Duclair) gave me another one for my second goal,” McGinn said.

Holland was acquired from Toronto on Dec. 9, but his debut with Arizona was delayed by visa issues.

“Peter gives us that steady center that we’ve needed since (Brad) Richardson got hurt,” Tippett said. “He didn’t look like a guy playing his first game for a team. He immediately got McGinn back into the game.”

Zetterberg hit the post off Smith’s shoulder in the first minute of the third period. Detroit’s Tomas Jurco hit the post on a breakaway about 4:30 into the third.

The Red Wings didn’t get their first shot on goal until 5:33 remained in the first. It was a harmless backhand from along the left boards by defenseman Alexey Marchenko.

“It’s unacceptable. There’s no way it can look like that,” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said.

Related: The Coyotes are worth watching… for potential trades