How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

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There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

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.

The Buzzer: Vatrano helps Panthers win sixth in a row; Dodgeball ‘Storm Surge’

Vatrano hat trick Panthers six in a row Buzzer
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Three Stars

 1. Frank Vatrano, Florida Panthers

The Lightning understandably drew a ton of attention for their rise up the rankings. Should we give their in-state neighbors some love, too? Consider the Panthers’ winning run, which cued up nicely with Joel Quenneville’s return to Chicago:

  • The Panthers keep overcoming mostly hit-or-miss (and sometimes hit by injuries) goaltending by scoring, a lot. Tuesday’s 4-3 win against the Blackhawks marks Florida’s sixth win in a row. They’ve scored at least four goals in every game during that streak.
  • The Panthers’ strong play extends beyond this streak. Florida carried a strong 13-4-0 run in its last 17 games.
  • They closed off a three-game road trip, all with wins. They return with another three-game road trip (so technically, it’s six in a row on the road). If they stand strong after this stretch, it would be quite a testament to what Coach Q & Co. are building.

Vatrano caught fire during this six-game winning streak. Tuesday represents the peak of that run, as the winger generated his second NHL hat trick. Vatrano also extended his point streak to five games (five goals, four assists for nine points).

He showed flashes of brilliance in Boston, and has largely converted that into a solid niche with Florida. Vatrano quietly scored 24 goals and 39 points last season. Tuesday’s outburst places Vatrano at 14 goals and 27 points for 2019-20.

Florida needed all three of Vatrano’s goals, as his third ended up being the game-winner. The Panthers were up as much as 3-0 and 4-1, so Chicago fought back, but not enough.

Count Mike Hoffman as one of the other Panthers who are scoring up a storm.

2. Josh Bailey/Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

The Rangers generated a massive 42-18 shots on goal advantage on Tuesday, but the Islanders held on for a 4-2 win. Getting outchanced like that remains a cause for concern, but Griess bailed the Isles out with 40 saves.

(Quick thought: is it possible Barry Trotz needs to loosen up when the Islanders hold leads? They lost after coughing up a big one against Washington, and almost invited the Rangers to creep back in on Tuesday.)

Bailey generated three points (1G, 2A), so maybe you’d call him the bigger star over Greiss?

3. Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina Hurricanes

Justin WIlliams continues to make an early impact for Carolina. After producing the shootout-deciding goal in his return, Williams fired in two goals on Tuesday. Not bad, considering his modest 11:45 time on ice.

Teravainen gets the overall edge, though. Like Bailey, Teravainen scored a goal and two assists for three points. The shifty Finn is backing up last season’s almost point-per-game play (76 points in 82 GP), with similar results (48 points in 50 GP).

Andrei Svechnikov demands a mention of his own. The splendid sophomore collected two assists, placing Svechnikov close behind Teravainen with 45 points in 50 GP.

Kreider replaces Panarin at All-Star Game

The Rangers played without Artemi Panarin thanks to an injury. It appears that they’ll have a different All-Star Game representative, as Chris Kreider will replace him.

Another fun Storm Surge

If you can block a shot, you can dodge a ball?

Feisty Scheifele

The Jets are struggling, and thus Mark Scheifele is taking no guff.

Factoids

Scores

BOS 3 – VGK 2
NYI 4 – NYR 2
CAR 4 – WPG 1
PHI 3 – PIT 0
FLA 4 – CHI 3

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.

Flyers blank Penguins, keep pace in playoff race

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The Flyers need to make the most of each game to stay in the playoff race. Philadelphia’s 3-0 win against the Penguins wasn’t pretty — except where it needed to be.

Flyers hang in the playoff race

Actually, from a defensive standpoint, it was pristine. Brian Elliott only needed to make 19 saves for his first shutout of 2019-20. The Flyers asserted overall, generating a 30-19 shots on goal advantage.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin managed just three SOG in this one. Both teams eye the All-Star break, so maybe there was the hockey equivalent of “Senioritis.” Philly hit the books enough to get the shutout, though.

An empty-net goal exaggerated the score, but 3-0 felt fitting for how well Philadelphia played. Jakub Voracek and James van Riemsdyk scored all of the goals the Flyers needed, while Justin Braun iced it with the ENG.

The Flyers improved their record to 27-17-6 (60 standings points in 50 games played). The bad news is that, if the playoffs began today, the Flyers would be out. The better news is that Philly didn’t lose ground in what could be tight races for the final East wild-card spots. The Hurricanes won their Tuesday game, so Philly risked losing ground:

Flyers playoff race
via NHL.com

Flyers, Penguins have been playing well lately

Again, the Penguins failed to impress in this one. They were the schoolkids staring at the clock at the end of class.

The Flyers earned this win, even if it was the equivalent to providing a boring lecture (or clogging passing lanes). Alain Vigneault’s group won four of its last five games.

Overall, the Penguins have been loading up points. This loss ended a two-game winning streak, and Pittsburgh is now 6-2-0 in its last eight.

The Penguins and Flyers meet again in Pittsburgh when their schedules resume. Maybe they’ll have to share reports about how they spent their All-Star breaks/summer vacations?

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.

Blackhawks welcome back Quenneville; celebrate Kane’s 1,000th point

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The Panthers are playing in Chicago on Tuesday, which means the Blackhawks got a chance to welcome back Joel Quenneville. Coach Q enjoyed an added reason to smile, as the team also honored Patrick Kane hitting the 1,000-point plateau.

The Blackhawks shared some Quenneville stats in welcoming him back and remembering the good times:

  • Chicago made nine playoff appearances under Coach Q, winning 76 postseason contests. Oh yeah, they also won three Stanley Cups with Quenneville. Sort of relevant too.
  • Quenneville clearly enjoyed himself in celebrating the victories, in the locker room and during parades.
  • He yelled more than a bit, as the video captured.

Tough to blame Quenneville for being all smiles, right?

Again, the Blackhawks celebrated Kane’s milestone as well:

Not enough #CoachQcontent for you? NBC Sports Chicago’s Charlie Roumeliotis caught up with Quenneville for this Q&A.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Penguins on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. 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.

The Penguins travel to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers in the second of four meetings between the two clubs this season. The Pens dominated the first meeting on home ice back on Oct. 29, defeating their cross-state rival, 7-1. Sidney Crosby tallied a goal and two assists, while Matt Murray stopped 29 of 30 shots to secure the victory.

These teams will meet Tuesday night in Philly and then again 10 days later in Pittsburgh on Jan. 31 as part of a home and home series that bookends both the All-Star weekend as well as both teams bye weeks.

Pittsburgh is coming off a 4-3 win at home over the defending Eastern Conference champion Bruins on Sunday afternoon. Matt Murray surrendered two goals on the first three shots that he faced and was jeered by the home crowd. David Pastrnak then increased the lead to three with just under five minutes to play in the opening period by netting his league-leading 37th tally of the season, although Jack Johnson inadvertently redirected the puck into his own net. Dominik Simon cut the lead to two 1:27 later on a nice pass from Sidney Crosby from behind the and then Crosby added another helper just 33 seconds into the second period on a pretty between-the- legs pass to Teddy Blueger. Jack Johnson (shorthanded) and Bryan Rust each scored in the third period to help claim the comeback win.

The Flyers continued their winning ways at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night, defeating the Kings 4-1. All-Star Travis Konecny recorded two goals to help pace Philly, while Brian Elliott stopped 34 of 35 shots to capture his 11th win of the season.

After losing to the Canadiens last Thursday, Alain Vigneault switched up the lines Saturday against Los Angeles. Claude Giroux was flanked by James van Riemsdyk and Konecny and the line shakeup appeared to be a success. The Alphabet Soup line, commonly known as JVR, G and TK, respectively, combined to total seven points, while van Riemsdyk tallied his second three-point game of the season and snapped a 12-game goal drought in the 4-1 win.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Joel FarabeeSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van Riemsdyk – Claude Giroux – Travis Konecny
Scott LaughtonKevin HayesNicolas Aube-Kubel
German Rubtsov – Connor BunnamanTyler Pitlick

Ivan ProvorovMatt Niskanen
Travis SanheimPhilippe Myers
Robert HaggJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

PENGUINS
Dominik Simon – Sidney Crosby – Patric Hornqvist
Jared McCannEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Zach Aston-Reese – Teddy Blueger – Brandon Tanev
Alex GalchenyukAndrew Agozzino – Joseph Blandisi

Jack Johnson – Kris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.