Tavares living up to hype for Leafs with Matthews out

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot going on right now, and quite a bit of it is no good.

Auston Matthews‘ bad injury luck continues. The William Nylander contract impasse is dragging on far longer than most of us expected.

Good thing the Maple Leafs won The John Tavares Sweepstakes, then, right?

Thursday presented the latest example of that free-agent gift that keeps giving, as Tavares and the Maple Leafs beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3 in a game that was frequently filling. For some, it was a reminder that Tavares’ transition has been seamless compared to Erik Karlsson‘s growing pains with the Sharks. Such comparisons feel petty, really, when you consider just how joyous Tavares’ run has been so far with the team he rooted for (and slept on bedsheets for) as a child.

Consider that Matthews has last played on Oct. 27. Since then, Tavares has really embraced his role as the clear go-to guy for the Maple Leafs. While he was unable to generate a point in Toronto’s flat loss to the Flames in the first game following Matthews’ injury, Tavares has been trading off being electric and automatic since then.

The talented center managed to generate a point in every November game so far (five goals and five assists for 10 points). Tavares’ goal from Thursday also extended his goal streak to four games.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer provided praise heading into that Leafs – Sharks game that ended up being prophetic.

“I just love the honesty to his game. He plays both ends of the rink, he wins battles, he goes to the dirty areas of the rink, he makes other people around him better, which you think is everybody in the NHL, but it’s not,” DeBoer said, via Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “That’s a short list of guys. You can put a John Tavares with almost anybody and he’s going to make a line go or make those guys better. Joe Thornton has that ability, too.

“He’s just a special player.”

Indeed, Tavares showed that he can score ugly just about as efficiently as he can set up beautiful chances.

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t subsisting on Tavares’ shrewd play alone. Morgan Rielly continues to put up highly impressive offensive numbers from the blueline. While the Maple Leafs’ hit-or-miss defense can sometimes hang him out to dry, Frederik Andersen builds a case as an underrated goalie, including making 42 saves against the Sharks in that 5-3 win. Kasperi Kapanen is taking advantage of a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself, and Mitch Marner has been just about as explosive as many expected when it became clear that he’d line up with Tavares. Nazem Kadri is thriving as a second-line center.

Still, Tavares stands out for his consistency and versatility.

” … He’s been a leader,” Rielly told the AP after the Maple Leafs beat the Kings 5-1 on Tuesday. “He’s been a 200-foot player. He’s been putting the puck in the net.”

With respectable-yet-unspectacular possession numbers, it’s true that Tavares stands out most for his offense (23 points, including 12 goals, three of which were game-winners).

Even so, it’s heartening to see that Tavares can carry the Maple Leafs during those stretches where their deadly one-two punch goes down to just one (or, at least, a solid but less spectacular two in Kadri).

Considering a slightly-high 16.9 shooting percentage, perhaps Tavares will cool off during the grind of an 82-game season. So far, he’s living up to the considerable hype … and, besides, Matthews might be back in time to warm things up if Tavares suffers a cold spell.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Jonathan Toews is back

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After seeing his production dip in under 60 points in each of the last three seasons, many believed that we’d already seen Jonathan Toews‘ best days. Last season, Toews posted 0.70 points-per-game which was a career-low for him in his NHL career.

Picking up 20 goals and 52 points in 74 games is far from a terrible year for most players, but Toews isn’t most players. He’s the captain of the Blackhawks and his contract comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million dollars. To make matters even worse, Chicago ended up missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017-18.

It’s no secret that Patrick Kane has been the team’s MVP this season, but Toews hasn’t been too far behind.

The 30-year-old has picked up 28 goals and 60 points through 60 games and he’s picked up at least one point in 19 of his last 22 contests. He’s also scored in three straight games and he’s amassed 18 points in his last 11 contests. He hasn’t been a point-per-game player since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, when he had 48 points in 47 games.

“I guess you’re always looking to be better, no matter what,” Toews said, per the Chicago Tribune. “So if I’m comparing this season to my previous two years, yeah, things are better. But I still have a higher expectation for myself. Things are falling into place for our team and the power play’s looking better, so I feel I can relax and focus on my game and not worry about doing every single little thing right and maybe take some offensive risks and try to create some offense when our team game’s pretty solid.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“I always want to create more offense, and even though I’m on the board here and there, I can do a better job of just being more dynamic and offensive every time I get on the ice.”

When taking a deeper look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why Toews has been more successful, especially in the goal department. In the previous two seasons, he had shooting percentages of 10.6 and 9.5 percent. This year, he’s up to 17.2 percent, which is his highest percentage since 2007-08 (17.4 percent).

Interestingly enough, a lot of his advanced numbers have taken a dip this season. Here’s what his advanced metrics look like from last year to this year:

CF%: 56.07 to 48.73
FF%: 53.16 to 47.06
HDCF%: 52.05 to 41.75

(All stats via Natural Stat Trick)

With Toews and Kane leading the way, the Blackhawks have found a way to get themselves back in the playoff hunt. Heading into tonight’s game, the ‘Hawks are just one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The only problem, is that three other teams also have 59 points.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Bruins look to extend winning streak against Golden Knights

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Things have been going well for the Bruins lately. Really well. Heading into tonight’s clash against the struggling Vegas Golden Knights, Boston has won each of their last six contests. They also haven’t suffered a loss in regulation all month (their only loss came in a shootout against the New York Rangers).

This recent surge has allowed them create some space between themselves and the teams in Wild Card spots. As of right now, the Bruins have a two-point lead on Toronto, who is sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division. They’re seven points ahead of Montreal, who is in the first Wild Card position.

The Bruins have also found a way to start scoring with a lot more regularity. They’ve scored at least three goals in seven of their last eight games. The most impressive thing about this recent offensive surge, is that they’ve done it with David Pastrnak on the sidelines for the last four games. They’re 4-0-0 without Pastrnak and they’ve scored 19 goals without him. That’s impressive.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Even though his team has been filling the net, general manager Don Sweeney would still like to add a significant piece or two before Monday’s trade deadline.

“My feeling is that we would like to try and add without necessarily giving up what we know is a big part of our future,” said Sweeney. “We committed assets last year to take a swing where we felt we needed to address an area of need and we will try and do a similar thing this year. I can’t guarantee that’ll happen. This time of the year, prices are generally pretty high, but we’re going to try. We’re going to try because I think we still need it.”

The Bruins have been linked to names like Wayne Simmonds, Mark Stone or Artemi Panarin. If they could land one of those players, it would make a world of a difference. They still wouldn’t be as good as the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it would certainly close the gap between themselves and the Bolts.

Will Sweeney be able to pull off a move of that magnitude? We’ll find out by Monday at 3 p.m. ET. For now, the Bruins just have to worry about finishing off their Western swing as well as they started it.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Worst deadline trades; How Blues almost got Kessel

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com takes a look at who will be buyers and who will be sellers at the upcoming trade deadline. (NHL.com)

• ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski breaks down the 20 worst deadline trades in NHL history. (ESPN)

• The Vegas Golden Knights and Vienna Capitals have entered into a collaborative partnership. “Our ambition is always to learn from the best. The Vegas Golden Knights are an outstanding benchmark in the hockey world and this partnership enables us a tremendous amount of opportunities to learn from this club. We are very proud to get the chance for this collaboration,” said Vienna Capitals General Manager Franz Kalla. (NHL.com/GoldenKnights)

• As part of Black History Month, P.K. Subban explains what it’s like to be a role model. (Sportsnet)

• A group of priests are trying to bring back the Flying Fathers, who are the hockey equivalent to the Harlem Globetrotters. (New York Times)

T.J. Oshie plays an energetic brand of hockey and he’ll probably never change. (Washington Post)

• Jaromir Jagr is back after a long absence. (CBC.ca)

• Robert Tychkowski can’t believe the Oilers are in the mess than they’re in. (Edmonton Journal)

• Dave Eastham is the trainer that helped Kevan Miller become a regular on the Bruins blue line. (WEEI)

• Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist isn’t letting the trade chatter bother him. (MLive.com)

• Remember that time the St. Louis Blues almost traded Keith Tkachuk and David Perron for Phil Kessel? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• NBC’s Pierre McGuire could learn a thing or two from John Tavares:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Miller, Ducks win again; Josi on a tear

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Three stars

1. Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks

A night after becoming the winningest American-born goaltender in NHL history, Miller produced a fantastic performance in a 31-save shutout against the Minnesota Wild.

The shutout was Miller’s first of the season and 44th of his career. The Ducks have now won two straight and are three points back of the Wild for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Wild, meanwhile, lost their fifth straight, including their second straight game being banished from the scoresheet. The Ducks are faring well without John Gibson.

2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators 

Josi scored twice in the third period, including the game-winner, and added an assist in the game for a three-point night

The elite defenseman now has four goals and 11 points in his past eight games for the Predators, who needed a win after going 1-3-1 over their past five games.

The Preds are now just a point back of the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Central Division although Winnipeg has three games in hand.

3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

Huberdeau scored twice and added an assist in a 4-2 win for the Panthers against the struggling Buffalo Sabres.

Huberdeau hadn’t scored in eight games prior to Tuesday’s contest and had just one goal in his previous 14.

Florida is nine points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Highlights of the night

Barkov with another dirty move:

Windmill:

Broke all the ankles:

Factoids

https://twitter.com/PR_NHL/status/1098065651539865601

Scores

Panthers 4, Sabres 2
Penguins 4, Devils 3
Lightning 5, Flyers 2
Rangers 2, Hurricanes 1
Canadiens 3, Blue Jackets 2
Blues 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)
Ducks 4, Wild 0
Predators 5, Stars 3
Coyotes 3, Oilers 2 (SO)


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=