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Matthews-less Maple Leafs look clunky against Flames

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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ weak effort in a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames wasn’t merely about missing Auston Matthews. It wasn’t even about the Maple Leafs being without Matthews and unsigned winger William Nylander.

Still, there was a brief stretch that might remind you one of the sneaky things that makes the full-strength version of this Leafs team so potent: they boast the offensive talent to essentially outscore their problems on many nights.

After dominating the puck through two scoreless periods, the Flames finally started breaking through in the third. Sean Monahan made it 1-0 5:39 into the final frame, while his linemate Elias Lindholm hammered home a great pass from Johnny Gaudreau to make it 2-0 less than a minute later.

It looked like the Maple Leafs were going to lose the game with a big thud, and honestly, a deserving one.

Yet, during one comically odd and misleading moment, it seemed like the Maple Leafs somehow tied the game.

Let’s set the stage:

As rudderless as the Maple Leafs seemed for most of the contest, Toronto was gifted a pretty lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity late in regulation. Calgary provided some hearty efforts on the PK, but the Maple Leafs finally broke through once Morgan Rielly sent a great pass to Mitch Marner, who set up a Nazem Kadri with an even sweeter feed.

Then, with about 1:30 left, a chance seemingly beat Mike Smith, prompting Zach Hyman and other Leafs to boisterously celebrate, as it looked like Toronto tied things up 2-2 with its net empty.

Nope, the puck actually was stuck in the twine on the outside of the net, creating an optical illusion that tricked the Maple Leafs and thousands of their hometown fans. There was so much confusion that Toronto was lucky enough to see the play whistled dead.

Instead of it being 2-2, Michael Frolik eventually scored an empty-netter to lock things up at 3-1. Perhaps Matthews would have made the difference in Toronto getting that extra push to steal that game, but hockey justice was served: Calgary was way, way better.

It’s just one game, but the clunky work clearly irritated Maple Leafs fans. With Nylander still in limbo and Matthews on the shelf for at least one month, Toronto still has some credible talent – Kadri has proven to be the sort of center you could easily place on the second line, and John Tavares is John Tavares – yet you wonder if more earthbound ammo might leave Mike Babcock that much more trigger-shy.

However you place the blame, the Maple Leafs struggled in transition in this game, and often asked Frederik Andersen to bail his team out a lot like he’d be doing on his old team, the Anaheim Ducks.

Players like Matthews are special (and fun to watch) because they make difficult athletic accomplishments look easy. Chances are, this will be a grind with him on the shelf, and Monday showed that the Maple Leafs have some serious work to do.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Alex Ovechkin lights up Habs’ Drouin with huge hit

via NBC Sports Washington
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Alex Ovechkin is known for scoring goals (my personal favorite, which was nearly replicated by a Penguins prospect), but the Washington Capitals superstar is so fun to watch because he’s also perfectly willing to throw his body around for a big check. It’s one of those things that made you believe that maybe he’d wear down, yet that Russian Machine Never Breaks.

Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin received a painful reminder that you need to keep your head on a swivel when Ovechkin’s on the ice, as the Capitals winger leveled Drouin with a huge hit on Friday.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Drouin was shaken up almost as much by the second impact:

Drouin left immediately for the locker room, but he’s taken some shifts afterward, so he might be OK … we’ll have to see.

Sometimes big hits like that light a fire under teams. Maybe Ovechkin was hoping it would do so for Washington, but instead Montreal might channeled that anger into getting even on the scoreboard, as they rattled off a 4-0 lead in response.

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.

Pittsburgh prospect’s incredible Ovechkin-like goal (Video)

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Earlier this week James O’Brien continued our “My Favorite Goal” series with a look back at Alex Ovechkin’s signature goal from his rookie season when he scored that seemingly impossible, sliding goal in Arizona.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Samuel Poulin did his best to try and recreate the finishing portion of that goal in a QMJHL game when he scored on an absolutely bonkers play late in his team’s 6-1 win.

Have a look.

As if the finish wasn’t enough, how about the move in the slot to get around the defender?

Poulin, a forward for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, scored the goal late in the third period of their win over the Cape Breton Eagles. It was Poulin’s 16th goal of the season.

The Penguins selected him in the first round (No. 21 overall) of the 2019 NHL draft as part of a promising draft class that also included Nathan Legare. Those two have been a much-needed boost to a farm system that has been depleted a bit due to trades in recent years to keep the current Stanley Cup window open.

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, Sharks, Golden Knights entering make-or-break stretches

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Even though the NHL season is only a quarter of the way through it is not too early for teams to start worrying about playoff seeding, or more importantly, whether or not they will even be able to make the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues showed last year it’s possible to overcome a slow start, but there’s a far larger sampling of recent history that suggest it’s not very likely. Once the calendar starts to approach the end of November not many teams that are outside of a playoff position tend to climb into one, and the ones that do aren’t more than a couple of points back. We tend to emphasize the stretch run of the regular season as being the most important games, but it’s really difficult to make up lost points from early in the season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams that should be Stanley Cup contenders that are facing some really big stretches over the next couple of weeks that could potentially make or break their season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Honestly, it’s time for this team and this coach to do something with all of this talent they have assembled. That is not even to say a Stanley Cup should be the expectation, but they should be capable of more than nothing but third places finishes and Round 1 playoff exits.

So far this season they have done nothing to show that anything with this team will be different.

Here’s the situation they are facing: They have lost three games in a row entering Friday’s game against a Boston team that has ended their season two years in a row, they are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division (sixth place by points percentage), and after playing the Bruins will be heading on a six-game road trip that begins Saturday night in Pittsburgh where they will be starting a backup goalie making his NHL debut. That road trip will also take them through Vegas, Arizona, and Colorado and be the start of a 15-game stretch where they will play 12 games outside of Toronto.

They have struggled on the road this season, still have not solved their defensive issues and do not have the goaltending to mask it. Even worse, they will now be without two key forwards (Mitch Marner and now Alexander Kerfoot) for the next few weeks. That is a pretty big challenge they are facing and if they don’t come out of it successfully things are going to get even more tense in Toronto than they already are.

Vegas Golden Knights

There was reason to believe at the start that this could be the best team in the Western Conference with a talented group of forwards, a solid defense, and a really good starting goalie. But so far pretty much everything about the team has been very ordinary. Their possession and scoring chance numbers paint the picture of a team that has maybe been a little unlucky so far, but they still have their share of issues, especially when it comes to finding another goalie that will not force them to run Marc-Andre Fleury into the ground, an issue that does not seem likely to go away anytime soon.

With only 21 points in 20 games they are on an 86-point pace for the season (that probably would not be anywhere near good enough for the playoffs) and have lost eight of their past 11 games entering the weekend. Some of the teams around them in the Pacific Division have been better than expected so far (specifically Edmonton and Arizona), while it is reasonable to conclude that San Jose and Calgary are going to improve as the season goes on.

If you assume 95 points is the “safe” number to secure a playoff spot, that would require Vegas to earn at least 60 percent of the possible points available to them the rest of the way. It’s a not impossible for this team, but it’s still a big number.

Saturday would be a good time to start making up that ground when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Seven of their next eight games are either against Pacific Division opponents, or teams they are competing directly with for playoff spots in the Western Conference (Dallas, Nashville).

San Jose Sharks

Unlike the other two teams here the Sharks have already started to get their disappointing season back on track, winning five in a row entering the weekend. They are in the middle of a 16-game stretch where 12 games will be played at the Shark tank, and that home cooking has helped them stack some wins together. The offense has been ignited, the goaltending has at least been passable, and they are starting to get some production from their big defense duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

Of all the contenders that stumbled out of the gate this always seemed to be the one that had the best chance of righting the ship because of the talent they have and the fact a lot of their problems could easily be solved with only one change (goaltending). They are not there yet, but they are on their way and with six of their next nine games on home ice they have a nice opportunity to keep digging out of that early hole.

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.

Flames’ update on Brodie: Tests negative, no timetable for return

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The Calgary Flames received a huge scare on Thursday when veteran defenseman T.J. Brodie had to be taken to a hospital after collapsing on the ice and convulsing during practice.

On Friday, the team issued an update on his status.

General manager Brad Treliving said that the initial neurological tests on Brodie have all come back negative so far, while also adding that more tests still need to be done and that no stone will be left unturned in trying to figure out what happened.

Team Doctor Ian Auld also added that so far it looks the incident was more likely related to a fainting episode than anything inside the brain.

“An event like this can be caused by something inside the brain, something scary, and it can also be caused by syncope or fainting episodes. The reasons for why people faint are many,” said Auld, via the Flames’ website. “I don’t think we have all the answers yet and we still have a few more tests to go but all the early indications are that it’s very likely more related to a fainting episode than something significant and inside the brain.”

There is obviously no timeline for Brodie’s return to the lineup at this point.

“We’re going to go through the process of checking every box and make sure we administer every test,” said Treliving. “But he’s come through everything thus far and doing well, feeling good. He’s on the mend. He will obviously not travel with us today as we head to Arizona and Las Vegas. He will stay under the supervision of our medical team led by Ian (Auld).”

The 29-year-old Brodie has spent all 10 years of his career with the Flames after the team drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL draft.

With him sidelined indefinitely the team has recalled Oliver Kylington from the American Hockey League.

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.