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How can Maple Leafs turn things around vs. Bruins?

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On paper, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins were supposed to produce a first-round series fit for a conference final.

On the ice, it’s been a staggeringly one-sided first two games; the Bruins possess a 2-0 series lead after beating Toronto by scores of 5-1 and 7-3. During the season, Mike Babcock said that the Bruins were making so many plays that he had to just turn off his TV (or close his laptop?). Maybe Babs was merely shaken by unsettling puck premonitions?

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Things seem pretty dire right now for the Maple Leafs as the series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 tonight, as suspensions, injuries, and struggles seem to thrust Tomas Plekanec in a role just about anyone not named Tomas Plekanec was expecting him to land.

To be more specific, it looks like Plekanec will center a second line with Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner as his wingers.

“You come in and you’re not quite as important on your next team, it’s harder to be impressive. He’ll get his opportunity tonight,” Babcock said of Plekanec, via TSN’s Mark Masters. “We’ve talked about this, to be prepared. I know he’s done the work. We expect him to be good.”

Now that we know about a change necessitated by injuries, let’s ponder what could or should change.

Drop the stubbornness

During an April 5 appearance on The Hockey PDOcast, Justin Bourne discussed Babcock’s worldview. Bourne (a former employee of the Maple Leafs organization who analyzed video for the Toronto Marlies) believes that, while Babcock is willing to embrace change, the well-compensated coach sometimes needs to feel like it’s his idea. Babcock needs to see it to believe it himself, essentially.

Frankly, such a mindset might have been to the Leafs’ detriment at times in 2017-18.

You see, Toronto’s place as the third seed in the Atlantic Division seemed firm for quite some time. With that in mind, the Maple Leafs had months to experiment with different lineup combinations, and they had incentive to do a lot of mixing and matching with Auston Matthews in the mix and when he was injured.

By being a bit rigid at times, Babcock & Co. have less data to work with when it comes to mixing and matching lines beyond just “throwing them in the blender.” (Just scan Matthews’ time on ice numbers at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see that he was essentially attached to William Nylander and Zach Hyman.)

Sometimes in hockey, you just have to wait out hot and cold streaks. Other times, you need to know when to change course.

Babcock needs to be proactive if he sees an issue that can be mended by maneuvering. To some degree, you just have to cross your fingers and hope the coin flip goes your way. Still, it’s also important to cut your losses when appropriate. More than anything else, the Maple Leafs need a malleable coach right now.

Things that should sort themselves out

Even if you give the Bruins a special teams edge in this series (as PHT did), few expected the results to be this stark. So far through two games, the Bruins scored five power-play goals on 10 chances while the Maple Leafs only converted once on seven opportunities.

There’s evidence to suggest that the Maple Leafs may struggle on the PK in this series, yet their power play has been getting its chances. Their PP converted on 25-percent of their chances during the regular season, a second-best success rate that stood as the Penguins only real rival in efficiency. Home ice might help them draw a stray extra chance or two, while the odds are in their favor to at least balance most of the special teams difference out.

The Maple Leafs should also get better work from their top guns.

Through the first two games, Auston Matthews hasn’t scored a goal or an assist. That doesn’t mean he’s shown no signs of improvement, though. After firing three shots on goal in Game 1, Matthews was prevalent in Game 2, unleashing nine SOG. Matthews generated 34 goals and 63 points in just 62 regular-season contests. Expect more from the American star, although sometimes a cold streak can submarine even a great player for a series.

Be ready to bench Freddy

Circling back to stubbornness, it’s totally fair for the Maple Leafs to be loyal to Frederik Andersen … up to a point.

So far, Andersen’s been abysmal, allowing eight goals in 73 minutes of time for an atrocious .822 save percentage. There’s no doubt that the Maple Leafs have done him few favors, though.

At this point, Babcock has to at least keep Andersen on a short leash. A couple of soft goals could really sink a Toronto team that seems fragile right now.

Load up?

Between additions such as Rick Nash and the ascent of quite a few quality young players, the Bruins sport some nice line combinations.

Still, if you were to name their three best scorers, you’d likely not even flinch in naming Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak in some order.

Babcock has been hesitant to load up with Matthews and Marner on the same line – as just one example – yet he might be wise to at least tinker with such a plan during the postseason. That’s especially true in Toronto, where he can take advantage of the last change to get them on the ice when Marchand and Bergeron are not.

If he remains skittish, Babcock could at least go all-out if Boston’s lower lines get stuck in their own zone after icing the puck.

***

At minimum, the Maple Leafs should be brainstorming different ideas. Maybe there are more granular considerations about handedness, such as what Tyler Dellow discusses in this article at The Athletic (sub required). On the other hand, maybe bolder moves are required, from loading up on offensive combos or making a change in net.

The Maple Leafs should look to the Wild’s turnaround in Game 3 to see that a change in venue can inject new life into a series.

Still, it might take more than home cooking and some lucky bounces to turn this series around. Then again, they pay their coach big bucks for more than just that scowl, right?

Game 3 airs on NBCSN beginning at 7 p.m. ET tonight. Here’s the livestream link.

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.

The Buzzer: Georgiev shines again; big days for Scheifele, Barkov

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Three Stars

1. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. It was a pretty dominant win for the Rangers on Sunday evening as they picked up a 5-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights thanks to some big offensive contributions from their blue line and another goal from superstar free agent signing Artemi Panarin. It was also another great day for Georgiev as he continued his recent stretch of great play, stopping all 38 shots he faced for his second shutout in his past four appearances. His save percentage for the season is now above .920 while he has allowed just four goals in his past four games.

2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg has been one of the big surprise stories in the league this season as they continue to make things work and collect points with a mostly makeshift defensive lineup. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been the big star for them this season — and he was great again on Sunday — but it was Scheifele that stepped up in a big way against the Anaheim Ducks with a pair of goals in a 3-2 win. He has now scored goals in three consecutive games.

3. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers. The Panthers were dominant on Sunday afternoon against a struggling San Jose Sharks team (read more about them here), and it was Barkov helping to get things rolling with an early goal and assist to get them out to an early 2-0 lead. He is now on a five-game point streak and is continuing to show this season how he is one of the league’s best all-around players. Alongside Jonathan Huberdeau they give the Panthers one of the best scoring duos in the league.

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • Colin Miller has been a healthy scratch quite often this season but was in the lineup on Sunday and helped the Buffalo Sabres get two huge points by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime.
  • Carl Soderberg helped the Coyotes erase a two-goal deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks by setting up one goal and then tying the game on a power play goal.

Highlights of the Night

Robin Lehner may not be able to stop anything in the shootout (read more about that here) but he is pretty great during regulation. This save on Clayton Keller was his best of the night on Sunday to help get the game to overtime.

The other goalie in that game, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, is also pretty outstanding and made a great save of his own to help them get another win to move back into a tie for first place in the Pacific Division.

Jack Eichel continued his brilliant season and extended his point streak by helping set up Colin Miller’s game-winning goal in overtime for the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.

Image(s) of the Night

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson takes Blake Wheeler‘s stick out of his hands and calmly placed it on top of the net.

Factoids

  • Thanks to points from Marc Staal, Tony DeAngelo, Jacob Trouba, and Ryan Lindgren the Rangers now have more points from their blue line this season than any team in the NHL this season, moving ahead of both the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Huberdeau moved ahead of Stephen Weiss for second place on the Panthers’ all-time scoring list. [Florida Panthers PR]
  • The Coyotes’ win in Chicago on Sunday was their third multi-goal comeback win this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Winnipeg Jets 3, Anaheim Ducks 2
Florida Panthers 5, San Jose Sharks 1
New York Rangers 5, Vegas Golden Knights 0
Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3 (SO)
Buffalo Sabres 3, Edmonton Oilers 2 (OT)

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.

Lehner’s shootout struggles continue in Blackhawks’ loss

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Robin Lehner has been one of the very few bright spots for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, and he was really good again on Sunday night in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

He stopped 44 shots, gave his team a chance to win on a night where they probably did not deserve the one point they ended up getting in the standings, and made an absolutely incredible save on a wide open Clayton Keller to keep the game tied mid-way through the third period.

For 65 minutes he was mostly outstanding, just as he has been all season. Sunday’s performance keeps his season save percentage at .929 — among the best marks in the league — as he continues to help mask the flaws of a bad defensive team and gives them a chance to win in almost every appearance he makes.

He has just had one major Achilles heel that showed itself again on Sunday — he can not stop anything in a shootout.

By allowing two goals on the only two shots shots he faced on Sunday to the Coyotes, he is now 0-3 in shootouts this season and has allowed six goals on seven shots.

This is not a new problem, either.

Dating back to the start of the 2015-16 season Lehner has won just one of the 14 shootouts he has participated with a .357 save percentage. Of the 75 goalies that have faced at least 10 shots in shootouts during that stretch, Lehner is one of just two goalies that has stopped fewer than 50 percent of the attempts against him. The only player with a worse mark is Michael Hutchinson, who has a .333 mark. Hutchinson has only faced 12 shots. Lehner has faced 42 shots.

The thing that has to be especially frustrating this season is that in the three shootouts he has lost he has been the only reason the Blackhawks were even in the games.

Back on Oct. 22 Lehner stopped 33 out of 34 shots against the Vegas Golden Knights in a game where he received one goal of offensive support in regulation. He then allowed two goals on three shots in the shootout.

It was a similar story on Nov. 23 when he stopped 40 out of 41 shots against Dallas and again only received one goal of support. He allowed two goals on two shots in the shootout.

Lehner was asked on Sunday if he has gone back and looked at things since his most recent shootout loss to see if there is anything he can improve on or do differently.

“I have. We are still working on it,” said Lehner. “We will see what happens. We will see what happens. It is what it is. I am positive about it — just not very good at it. Have to get better, keep working on it, keep finding another way.”

As for the Coyotes, their win on Sunday, combined with the Edmonton Oilers’ overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres, puts them in a tie for first place in the Pacific Division with 40 points. The Oilers currently have the tiebreaker due to more regulation wins.

Related: What is driving Coyotes’ fast start, and can they maintain it?

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 still in trouble after miserable Florida weekend

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About a week ago the San Jose Sharks looked like they were getting back on track. They had won 11 out of 13 games, were climbing back up the standings, and starting to finally resemble the team that was supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender.

They were probably a little fortunate during that hot streak thanks to a bunch of one-goal wins, including a perfect 4-0 mark in games that went beyond regulation, but after the start they had they really need to stack up some points. To their credit, they did.

But after Sunday’s ugly 5-1 loss in Florida, which game just 24 hours after an even uglier 7-1 loss in Tampa Bay, the Sharks have now lost four games in a row and are just 6-8-2 away from the Shark Tank this season. This ugly Florida trip, which saw them be outscored by a 12-2 margin, also dropped their season goal-differential to a miserable minus-23, which is currently the second-worst in the Western Conference and one of the five worst in the entire NHL.

If you wanted to be an optimist about this team you could point to the fact that even with all of their struggles they are still just two points back of the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, still have enough talent on their roster to win, and still have 50 games remaining in the regular season to turn things around.

The problem with that is they have played more games (in many cases multiple games) than every team around them in the playoff race, while their point percentage (.500 as of Sunday night) is only 25th in the NHL, right between the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks, two teams that are going nowhere. They are only on pace for 82 points at the moment and still have a gigantic problem in goal. They were so dominant a year ago that they were able to mostly outplay their goaltending issues. They are not that dominant this season, and we are starting to get to a point where we are getting an idea of what every team is capable of and what they are.

The most concerning number for the Sharks is that goal-differential, because teams that get outscored by this many goals at this point in the season do not tend to get back on track. It is very simple: If you’re getting outscored by this many goals, and getting blown out this many times, it is probably a bad sign for how good your team actually is.

The Sharks have already lost 12 games this season by three goals or more. Only the Detroit Red Wings, a team that is looking to be historically bad, have lost more (14). The New Jersey Devils have only lost nine games by three goals or more. The Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers have only lost eight such games. These are teams that do not figure to be factors in the playoffs, and the Sharks are sitting there among them.

The Sharks’ wins are mostly close, one-goal games, and they have probably been very fortunate to be as good as they have in them (including 5-2 in OT/Shootouts), while they are getting completely blown out in their losses.

Not concerning enough?

Just consider these numbers as well.

— Over the past 10 years there have been 26 teams that have had a goal differential of minus-23 or worse through their first 32 games.

Do you know how many of those teams went on to make the playoffs that season?

Zero.

— Go back to the start of the 2005-06 season and teams in that situation are 0-for-40 in terms of making the playoffs.

— The last time a team with a goal differential this bad, at this point in the season, came back to make the playoffs was the 1997-98 Edmonton Oilers, who snuck into the No. 8 seed (with a losing record).

It might be early, and they may still be within striking distance of a playoff spot in the standings, but things are looking bleak for a team that still has the Stanley Cup in mind.

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.

 

 

Backstrom expected to return for Capitals vs. Blue Jackets

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Nicklas Backstrom had a smile on his face and no concerns about missing another game.

“I’m good to go,” Backstrom said. “It’s like that guy in `Mighty Ducks.’ I woke up, no pain.”

Backstrom was referring to the fictional Adam Banks character who returned from a wrist injury in time for a championship game. The Washington Capitals are getting the real standout Swedish center back while they’re on a roll.

The Capitals are expected to have Backstrom back Monday when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets. He missed the past eight games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, and Washington went 6-1-1 in that time.

With Backstrom ready to go, the Capitals are set to have their full, healthy lineup on the ice for the first time this season. Despite injuries, they lead the NHL with 22 wins and 49 points through 31 games.

“As of right now, we are playing good hockey and we are getting the points we needed,” Backstrom said Sunday. “It is still early in the season, so you have to keep build, build and build. We are a team that is building for upcoming things.”

Upcoming are matchups against the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a popular preseason pick to win the Stanley Cup. But Backstrom is of course referring to the playoffs, where the Capitals are looking to bounce back from last season’s first-round exit and make another championship run like they did in 2018.

There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do that, especially given their success more than a quarter of the way through the season without the full complement of healthy bodies.

“That shows the depth that we have all the way through our lineup,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s been a good problem to have, and it’s allowed us to see some other players get opportunities and showcase some of the abilities they have.”

Backstrom’s return puts Washington’s lineup back in regular order. He’ll take his regular place between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, allowing Reirden to keep the hot second line of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie together.

Braden Holtby is expected to start in goal against Columbus.