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The Buzzer: Kadri nets a hatty, Andersen stops 54, Varlamov shuts the door

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Players of the Night:

Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs: Kadri continued his torrid pace as of late, scoring a hat trick and recording five points in a 6-3 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kadri has seven goals in his past 10 games.

Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs: The Blue Jackets put 57 shots on Anderson. He stopped 54 of them. Yes, 54 saves – a career-high. Unreal.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche: Varlamov turned aside 43 shots, including five on the power play, to help the Avalanche to a 2-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens. It was Varlamov’s first win since Dec. 29.

Highlights of the Night: 

Andersen doing his thing:

Korpisalo, the Maple Leafs killer (not quite on Wednesday) but my goodness this save:

Sticking with the nice save theme:

Kadri’s hat trick goal, and quite the pass from Marner:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 6, Blue Jackets 3

Avalanche 2, Canadiens 0

Panthers 4, Canucks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Laying it on the lines: Maple Leafs rolling after adjustments

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

It’s kind of crazy how a little tinkering can completely change the complexion of an offense.

On Jan. 23, the Toronto Maple Leafs were stuck in a rut. For the better part of the past month-and-a-half, dating back to Dec. 12, they’d essentially spun their tires.

With a 6-7-3 record during that 16-game span, something needed to change, even if they were still sitting comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division.

Still, limping into the playoffs wouldn’t be ideal for Mike Babcock, so he did what he’s done best over his long tenure as an NHL bench boss: he adjusted.

Gone were the lines that weren’t working and in came something to experiment with.

Mitch Marner moved up to the second line. Leo Komarov dropped down to the fourth. Gone was Frederik Gauthier, who went from the fourth line to the minors. Matt Martin took a seat in the press box. And the Leafs brought up 21-year-old prospect Kasperi Kapanen, who put up good numbers in the American Hockey League.

The result looked like this:

Zach HymanAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander

Patrick MarleauNazem Kadri – Mitchell Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown

Leo Komarov – Dominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen

Babcock must be quite the alchemist. His concoction has proven effective. Really effective.

Kadri and Marner have benefitted most. The former had two points in his previous 20 games before welcoming Marner on his right wing. Kadri, during the team’s 9-1-0 run as of late, now has seven goals and 15 points (including a hat trick and a five-point night on Wednesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 6-3 win).

Marner had just one goal in his previous 11 games before linking up with Kadri and Marleau. Since then, he has seven goals and 13 points.

Even Kapanen is getting in on the fun. He’s got two goals and three assists in that span playing a less offensive role on the team’s fourth line.

Babcock wanted balance, and he got it.

The Leafs, for all their offensive successes during this stretch — they’ve scored 43 goals during their past 10 games — could give Frederik Andersen a bit of a break.

Andersen is seeing a lot of rubber. In Wednesday’s win, Andersen saw 19 shots come his way in the first period and another 22 in the second. The barrage continued in the third with a further 16. Yes, the quick math says 57 total shots. The man made 54 saves.

Wednesday’s result could have been much different if not for Andersen’s heroics.

In four of the past 10 games, the Leafs have surrendered 40 or more shots.

As good as Andersen has been for the Leafs, that isn’t sustainable.

The good news for the Leafs and their fans is that Andersen is in the top-five among starters (minimum 1,500 minutes played) when it comes to goals saved above average, one of the better goalie metrics to judge how good a puck-stopper is.

Andersen is also sixth in adjusted save percentage, which takes into account shot location when determining a goalie’s save percentage, taking the traditional metric one step further.

It’s all working right now for Toronto. And within their reach is the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs are just four points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

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When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf

Under Pressure: Mike Babcock

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When you’re the highest-paid coach in the history of the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you take over the most valuable team in the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you go to work under the most media scrutiny in the league, well, you get the point.

Mike Babcock is fully aware that the Toronto Maple Leafs represent the biggest challenge of his career.

“Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map,” he said upon his much-ballyhooed hiring.

“I love to win. I have a burning desire to win.”

Smartly, he also bought himself some time to accomplish that goal.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” he said. “This is going to be a long process. This is going to be a massive, massive challenge.”

So it’s not like the Leafs have to compete for a Stanley Cup next year. They don’t even have to make the playoffs.

But there has to be some semblance of progress, whether it’s from younger players like Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, or simply in terms of how the Leafs go about their business.

“Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up,” Babcock vowed at the draft. “We’re going to be a fit, fit team. We’re going to be a team that comes to the media everyday, after a win, after a loss, after practice, and owns their own stuff. Period.”

In other words, the Leafs can’t be a big ol’ tire fire again.

And remember, even with a Stanley Cup and a pair of Olympic gold medals on his coaching resume, Babcock still has his doubters. Not that he’s a good coach — pretty much everyone agrees that he’s a good coach — but that he’s as good as advertised.

The doubters point to the Red Wings team he won with in 2008, headlined by Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg. They point to the loaded 2010 and 2014 editions of Team Canada. They say those teams could’ve won with just about any half-decent coach behind the bench.

And let’s face it, they’ve kind of got a point.

But if he can win with the Leafs?

“I’d like to be the best coach in my generation,” Babcock said in a magazine profile before he took the job in Toronto.

That’s pressure.