From ‘pain’ to playoffs, young Maple Leafs face heightened expectations next season

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This post is part of Maple Leafs Day on PHT…

In the span of a year, the Maple Leafs went from the bottom of the NHL standings and front runners in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes to a playoff spot.

Matthews was taken first overall and made an immediate impact on opening night for a Maple Leafs team — and a fan base — in dire need of hope for a better future.

There is an abundance of hope in Toronto these days.

Matthews scored 40 goals and 69 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. William Nylander and Mitch Marner were excellent in their freshman campaigns and Nazem Kadri at age 26 had his best season with career highs in goals (32) and points (61). How quickly the fortunes of an organization can turn around, though, with a lottery win and a shot at a generational talent.

Two years after coach Mike Babcock predicted “pain” for the franchise as it underwent its rebuild, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. Then they gave the Capitals everything they could handle in six games before Toronto was eliminated.

Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to get excited about over the years. Never mind their Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967. They made the playoffs only once from 2005-06 to 2015-16 and that lone postseason appearance concluded with an epic third-period, Game 7 meltdown versus the Bruins.

This past season, however, had a different feel. The future looks bright, like success beyond 2016-17 can be sustainable. It’s not just with Matthews, Nylander and Marner. On defense, the Maple Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner, and goalie Frederik Andersen bounced back from a difficult start with his new team. He’s under contract for four more years.

Excitement brings higher expectations, for next season and beyond, as the club may be approaching a window to win a lot quicker than many would’ve predicted a year ago.

Take, for instance, today’s poll question: Will the Maple Leafs have the NHL’s best offense next season? That would be a lofty expectation. The results as of the publishing of this post were nearly 50-50.

They’ve even added notable veteran players like Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and, at three years and more than $18 million, Patrick Marleau to enhance their roster with more experience.

Their possible success, as is the case with every team, next season will depend on multiple factors. Will Matthews, Marner and Nylander be able to build off their impressive rookie seasons, or will there be a dreaded sophomore slump in there? It will also require their best players to stay as healthy as possible.

All three of their top young forwards were able to remain, for the most part, healthy during the regular season, with Marner playing the fewest games — at 77.

Andersen had the second most starts (66) of all NHL goalies last season, behind only Cam Talbot, and the Leafs will count on him again to provide the goaltending necessary to make the playoffs.

Pressure to win is inherent in playing hockey in Toronto.

Since the second lockout, however, the standard had been set very low. That was until last season, when Matthews and the Maple Leafs went from a painful rebuild to raising expectations.

The hockey world now waits to see if this young and talented team can handle the pressure and set the bar even higher next spring.

Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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We know the Boston Bruins are going to be hosting Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and now we know when that game will take place.

We just need to wait and find out which team will be facing them.

The NHL announced the schedule for the 2019 Stanley Cup Final on Friday night and the series will begin on Monday, May 27, in Boston, where the Bruins will play the winner of the Western Conference Final between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.

If there is a Game 7 necessary, it will take place on Wednesday, June 12, in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.

The Bruins are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2013 and are trying to win it for the first time since 2011.

The Sharks and Blues are hoping to win for the first time ever.

The Sharks most recently reached the Stanley Cup Final during the 2015-16 season (where they lost in six games to the the Pittsburgh Penguins), while the Blues have not reached it since the 1970 season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire series (All times ET, subject to change).

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC

*If necessary

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.

Sharks blown out by Blues and now have major injury concerns

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Whatever luck the San Jose Sharks had on their side earlier this postseason completely disappeared on Sunday in what was a complete nightmare of a performance against the St. Louis Blues.

Not only did they get thoroughly dominated in a 5-0 loss, but they had a terrible day from an injury standpoint and will be going into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN) facing elimination with a roster that will almost certainly be far less than 100 percent.

The Sharks’ injury list after Sunday’s game is a significant one and includes some of their top players.

Among them…

  • Defender Erik Karlsson, who entered the game obviously playing through a groin injury, was limited to just 10:32 of ice-time and played just three minutes after the first period, including zero in the third period.
  • Tomas Hertl, one of the team’s best forwards and leading scorers this postseason, exited the game after the second period. He was on the receiving end of a hit to the head from Ivan Barbashev in the first period that was uncalled.
  • Joe Pavelski also left the game in the third period following a high hit from Blues defender Alex Pietrangelo along the boards. Keep in mind that he missed the first six games of their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche with a head injury.
  • As if all of that was not enough, Joonas Donskoi also exited the game in the third period after he was hit in the mouth by a puck and was bleeding.

Even if all (or some) of those players are available for Tuesday’s game it is entirely possible they will not be 100 percent. That is especially true for Karlsson who was already looking to be limited in what he was capable of doing entering Sunday’s game. When he did play in Game 5 he looked tentative, slow, and was guilty of a brutal turnover that resulted in the Blues’ first goal.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That turnover was just the start of what would be a complete meltdown by the Sharks that saw them record 36 penalty minutes (including two misconducts) and give the Blues two 5-on-3 power plays. Add that to the return of the bad version of Martin Jones in net and you had a perfect recipe for a blowout loss on the ice.

As for the Blues, this was just an all-around impressive performance.

The win improved them to 7-2 on the road this postseason and is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it has them in a position where they are now just one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1970 season. It was also their 11th win of the playoffs, setting a new franchise record for most wins in a single postseason.

Jaden Schwartz, who scored just 11 goals in 69 games during the regular season, recorded his second hat trick of the playoffs to give him a team-leading 12 postseason goals, while Vladimir Tarasenko extended his current point streak to five games by scoring on a penalty shot in the second period (the first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history).

The Sharks had a couple of near-misses by ringing a pairing of shots off the goal post next to Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, including one from Evander Kane just 10 seconds into the game, but recorded just 10 shots on goal over the second and third periods, which was a pretty accurate reflection of the shutdown performance by the Blues defensively.

Game 6 of Blues-Sharks is 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday night in St. Louis.

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.

Tarasenko scores first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues history

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The St. Louis Blues put on an absolute clinic in the second period on Sunday afternoon, scoring a pair of goals and outshooting the San Jose Sharks by a 20-6 margin.

The second goal came from star winger Vladimir Tarasenko when he scored on a penalty shot by ripping a laser of a shot behind Sharks goalie Martin Jones, making him look relatively helpless in the process.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

It is a noteworthy goal not only because it gave the Blues a 3-0 lead, but also because it is the first time in Blues franchise history that they have scored a goal on a penalty shot in a playoff game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is also only the second time the Blues have had a penalty shot in a playoff game, as Tarasenko’s attempt joined Jimmy Roberts during the 1968 playoffs (Roberts did not score).

Tarasenko’s goal was his seventh of the playoffs and his second of the Western Conference Final. He has now recorded at least one point in every game against the Sharks. He was awarded the penalty shot when he was tripped by Sharks defender Brent Burns on a breakaway.

His goal came after Jaden Schwartz scored his 10th goal of the playoffs earlier in the period, capitalizing on a brutal play by Jones that saw him turn the puck over in front of the net to a wide open Schwartz.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks host Blues in Game 5 of Western Conference Final

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Game 5: St. Louis Blues at San Jose Sharks, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
NBC
Call: Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Liam McHugh anchors Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Final series:

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*If necessary
(All times ET, subject to change)

Sharks’ Karlsson set to play in Game 5 vs. Blues

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The San Jose Sharks will have one of their best defensemen in the lineup when they host the St. Louis Blues in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Erik Karlsson is set to battle through whatever is ailing his groin, a nagging injury that appeared to aggravated in a 2-1 loss against the Blues in Game 4 on Friday.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson grimaced on the Sharks bench, where he sat from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period. Karlsson was able to play out the final 1:55 of the game as the Sharks went hunting for an equalizer.

How effective Karlsson will be is up in the air. NBC Sports analysts Jeremy Roenick and Patrick Sharp broke down some tape of Karlsson, who was certainly hobbled by the injury.

Karlsson finished Game 4 having played 24:33. He has two goals and 16 points in these playoffs and scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 3.

At the very least, Karlsson’s presence will help Brent Burns, who is already playing nearly 29 minutes a game and probably doesn’t need more added to his plate.

[More: The Wraparound: Sharks step up to the plate in back-and-forth series]


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