Risk Factors: Toronto Maple Leafs edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Toronto Maple Leafs

1. The culture thing. Since the salary cap era began, Toronto has been one of the worst teams in the league.

Some of the teams were simply bad and none of them were great, but it’s also true the Leafs fell apart when it mattered most. In fact, this is the third straight summer where one of the key questions surrounding the club is how it’ll respond to a monumental collapse.

As such, it’s hard to believe Phil Kessel or MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke when they promise Toronto won’t have to endure another 2-12-0 season-ending stretch. Part of that confidence stems from the belief they’ve addressed their culture problem, starting with new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.

“I’m not sure the Leafs have [the right culture],” Maple Leafs CEO Tim Leiweke said in April, per NHL.com. “This is something these two gentlemen [Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis] will have to work on. I definitely sense that we lack an identity and right now we’re a team that lacks direction, and we want to change that.”

The sticking point, though, is that Shanahan really just picked around the edges of the franchise’s core. Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle kept their jobs, but each got new assistants. Shanahan also signed some complimentary players and rolled the dice on a few new veterans, but even with those additions the 2014-15 Leafs will look a lot like their predecessors.

Shanahan not only has to hope that’s enough to change the team’s culture, but that the team’s culture was what held it back in the first place. The Maple Leafs still have some significant question marks and if the issue in 2013-14 was that they simply didn’t have a playoff-caliber roster, then that’s a huge problem — because he’s done little to alter that.

2. They need to improve puck possession. Rather than claim that the Maple Leafs choked, some believe their poor play simply caught up with them.

Based on advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick, the Leafs overachieved last season. Toronto was one of the worst puck possession teams in the league and finished last in shots allowed (35.9 per game).

And just like with the team’s culture, Shanahan is betting on the notion Toronto’s poor performance wasn’t simply the byproduct of putting an inadequate team on the ice. He believes the squad is capable of controlling the play far more than it has in the past.

The Leafs took a unique approach in addressing this problem by bringing in Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager and to lead a new analytics department. The department includes Darryl Metcalfe, who built the once-popular advanced statistics website extraskater.com, which the Maple Leafs now own — and aren’t sharing.

“We don’t want anyone else seeing it,” Leiweke said, according to the Globe and Mail. “It’s called a monopoly. It’s good.”

Leiweke said he believes Dubas and Metcalfe will make the team smarter, but will that be reflected in future signings and trades? Will Carlyle be able to use this data to help the team now? The head coach was either unable or incapable of addressing such problems last season, so questions remain if this extra information will be impactful enough to make this existing group of Leafs at least passable in the short-term.

3. Will any of their summer gambles pay off? Let’s say hiring new assists for Carlyle isn’t going to fundamentally change the way the team is coached, and bringing in a 28-year-old assistant general manager isn’t going to revolutionize this franchise overnight.

After taking a minute to digest just how sad a time it is for Leafs fans when those are their best hopes for change, you’re left just hoping their summer signings will pay off — and this is where things get depressing.

As we’ve touched on already, Shanahan and Nonis didn’t change the team’s core. Instead, they’ve sign a lot of players that might be good, but are far from safe bets.

Stephane Robidas is a solid defenseman, but at the age of 37 might not have much left to give. David Booth limped through three seasons with Vancouver and is out to prove that he can stay healthy (he’s already off to a bad start) and still be a productive top-six forward.

Petri Kontiola, 29, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2007-08, but he’s eager to prove he belongs after several strong seasons in the NHL. He’ll have to start that journey in the minors, though, as he couldn’t even make the opening game roster.

From a cap perspective, the risk the Maple Leafs took on these players wasn’t great and therefore an argument can made that it’s okay if they don’t end up contributing much. What makes that misleading, though, is the fact that Toronto might not make the playoffs without such help. Last year, Mason Raymond was a good diamond in the rough signing, but so far it looks like the leading candidates to be this year’s version won’t pan out — which is problematic, given they lost Raymond over the summer and need to fill that void.

When it comes to their blueline, the Maple Leafs will look fairly thin if Robidas regresses or has another injury-filled campaign. If nothing else, the Maple Leafs defense was pretty healthy last season as five guys played in a minimum of 73 games each. It wouldn’t be impossible for Robidas to do the same in 2014-15, but he’s coming off of a season where he was limited to 38 contests.

Canucks’ Tanev scores 11 seconds into OT to eliminate Wild

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The Vancouver Canucks are moving on.

They eliminated the Minnesota Wild on Friday night with a 5-4 overtime win that saw them come-from-behind on three different occasions.

Defenseman Chris Tanev scored the series-clinching goal just 11 seconds into overtime, giving the Canucks their first series win since the 2010-11 season.

That goal is tied for the second-fastest OT goal in NHL postseason history (Brian Skrudland scored nine seconds into overtime in a 1986 game for the Montreal Canadiens).

The win for the Canucks now sets the eight-team playoff field in the Western Conference (Vegas, Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Calgary, Vancouver, Arizona, Chicago) while the actual matchups will be determined when the round-robin phase is concluded this weekend.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tanev’s goal on Friday is the first postseason goal of his career and capped off a massive game that saw him finish with three points (goal, two assists) in 24 minutes of ice-time.

Along with the game-winner, he also assisted on Bo Horvat‘s game-tying goal with just under six minutes to play in regulation.

At one point the Canucks trailed this game 3-1 and quickly erased it thanks to a pair of goals from Brandon Sutter and Quinn Hughes just 84 seconds apart midway through the second period. Hughes, one of the finalists for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year and a significant part of the Canucks’ young core, was one of the Canucks’ most impressive players on Friday by logging a team-high 27 minutes of ice time and recording a pair of points. Keep in mind he is still only 20 years old and along with Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Elias Pettersson gives the Canucks a wonderful quartet of young stars to build around.

As for the Wild, this has to be a brutally disappointing result.

When the 2019-20 regular season was paused they were one of the hotter teams in the Western Conference and making a strong push for a playoff spot. It was far from a given that they would play their way in, but they at least gave themselves a chance. Then they opened this series by shutting out the Canucks in Game 1, giving themselves an early edge in the series. They were unable to build on that thanks to a couple of clunkers in Games 2 and 3, and then Friday’s game where they allowed multiple leads to slip away with their season on the line.

It is entirely possible that this game will be the last time Mikko Koivu, one of the finest players in franchise history, suits up for the Wild.

Next for the Wild: Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL draft lottery on Monday where they will have a 12.5 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN wins series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks 5, Wild 4 (OT)

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Maple Leafs force Game 5, stay alive thanks to unbelievable comeback

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were four minutes away from being completely buried.

Four minutes away from having the longest offseason this core of players had ever had to deal with in terms of criticism and scrutiny.

Four minutes away from maybe dealing with the possibility of major changes coming to a team that — to this point — has been unable to get over the hump in the postseason.

That is when the madness started.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just 24 hours after blowing a three-goal lead to lose in overtime, the Maple Leafs flipped the script and erased a three-goal deficit with four minutes to play in regulation to force overtime. It was there that they completed one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history when Auston Matthews scored a power play to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win.

And with that, everything comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday for the right to advance to the field of 16 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It really cannot be understated as to how insane all of this was, and the perfect confluence of events that needed to happen for Toronto to win this game.

For 56 minutes the Maple Leafs were unable to solve Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and when Boone Jenner scored with under seven minutes to play in the third period to give his team a three-goal lead everything seemed over in Toronto.

But with Frederik Andersen pulled for the extra attacker, Toronto started to chip away.

William Nylander started the comeback with 3:57 to play when he scored a goal that — at the time — seemed to be pointless window dressing.

When John Tavares scored less than a minute later to cut the deficit to one, things really started to get interesting.

Even then Toronto needed some extra help to go its way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Game 3 hero for Columbus, had an opportunity to put the game away with an empty-net sitting in front of him, only to have his shot hit the outside of the net. Just a few moments later, Gustav Nyquist failed to gain the red line with the puck when he could have taken a shot at another empty net and gave the puck away, giving Toronto another chance.

The Maple Leafs did not waste the chance. With just 23 seconds to play in regulation Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Matthews scored midway through the period, capitalizing on a Nick Foligno tripping penalty.

During their late third period comeback Toronto had the same combination of players on the ice: Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

With that, Toronto now has a chance to salvage what could have been a disastrous postseason appearance. And who knows, if they lose Game 5 on Sunday all of the things mentioned up at the top (the criticism, the scrutiny, the potential changes) could still happen. This is, after all, a team that is supposed to compete for a Stanley Cup. Losing in the play-in round after three straight Round 1 exits would be awful for the perception of this core. But this win gives them a chance to fight another day and change the narrative around this team. If they do manage to do that and go on a postseason run from here, those four minutes are going be talked about for years.

As for Columbus, well, this has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.

They had this game — and the series — all but won. If you go buy the win probability stat, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning this game with five minutes to play.

All they had to do was avoid a meltdown, and they would have been a giant slayer for the second year in a row. But the meltdown happened.

The Blue Jackets were never supposed to be in this position this season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency, and then dealing with a season-long run of injuries. No one would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they badly regressed or fell off the map. If they are unable to bounce back in Game 5 on Sunday this is going to be the game that will be impossible for them to shake. It was right there. They had it.

Now it all comes down to Sunday.

Honestly, it is the perfect game — and perfect series — for the unpredictable mayhem that the 2019-20 season has been.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 [OT] (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 [OT]
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Canucks-Wild stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Canucks-Wild stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Canucks and Wild. Coverage begins at 10:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Wild Game 4 stream at 10:45 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shut out in Game 1, Vancouver responded with a 4-3 win over Minnesota in Game 2 and followed that up with a 3-0 victory in Game 3 on Thursday. Now the Canucks will look to win on back-to-back days and clinch their first playoff series win since 2011, when they made it to the Cup Final.

“Our players need to gain experience in these type of games, but we’re not just here to get experience,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “We want to win the games.”

Minnesota missed the playoffs last season and is now in danger of losing in the opening round of the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, August 7, 10:45 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Chris Cuthbert, Louie DeBrusk
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Wild live look-in stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN leads 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Blackhawks eliminate Oilers to continue wave of Game 4 upsets

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The Oilers put up a good fight with their season on the line in Game 4, but the way it ended was still quite embarrassing as the Blackhawks advanced with a 3-2 win. With that, the 12th-seed Blackhawks advance to the First Round via a 3-1 series win.

For the most part, the Oilers avoided the sort of stinker of an effort to end their season that, say, the Penguins were guilty of. Yet, with the way things ended, the Oilers still ended their season with frustration and embarrassment.

With their season on the line, the Oilers were whistled for a too many men on the ice penalty with 2:02 left in the third period. Edmonton had been pushing Chicago pretty hard to try to tie what was a 3-2 game, but that became a tougher task when emptying the net merely made the final moments even-strength.

Ouch.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Toews, Kubalik, Crawford make it happen for Blackhawks vs. Oilers in Game 4

To start the series, Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik outgunned Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the Oilers. They repeated some of that magic in Game 4, including Toews setting up Kubalik for the game and series-clinching goal.

Game 4 of Blackhawks – Oilers started wildly enough that it seemed like this would be another one of those video-game-style scoring fests. Connor McDavid set up Josh Archibald for a 1-0 goal just 45 seconds into Game 4, and it was 2-2 mere minutes in the second period.

Consider a big mistake averted the possible turning point.

Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat took an egregious boarding penalty when he hit Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear. Edmonton would get a major power-play opportunity for the trouble, but couldn’t cash in. That happened in part because Darnell Nurse took a penalty during that opportunity, yet it was still the sort of moment you highlight if the game ended up being close.

And it was largely up to Corey Crawford to turn a Game 4 of trading haymakers into something the Blackhawks could manage.

Crawford finished Game 4 with 41 saves, including all 18 during a frantic third period. While goaltending was a mess for the Oilers whether it was Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen in net during this series, Crawford stood tall at key times for Chicago.

Now all the Oilers have going for them is second-guessing moments like squandering that major power play. Oh, and hearing a lot of NHL Draft Lottery jokes between now and Monday’s drawing.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI wins series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 2

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.