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.

Stars’ top line firing on all cylinders, push Predators to the brink

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It would appear that the Dallas Stars have emptied the Nashville Predators’ well of ideas on how to stop them.

After three close games where Nashville walked away victors of two of them, the Predators have succumbed to a relentless forechecking team that’s clogged the neutral zone and found solid goaltending from Vezina nominee Ben Bishop.

There are just so many little things the Stars are doing right at the moment, and they now hold a 3-2 series lead after a 5-3 win against the Preds on Saturday afternoon, their second straight win in the series and second game in a row where they’ve pumped five goals into the twine.

There’s one team left in these Stanley Cup Playoffs that has yet to give up a power-play goal. That team currently has its foot on the throat of the Predators.

The Stars are 11-for-11 now on the penalty kill through five games of their Western Conference First Round series. It’s been a big boon for the Stars in a series that was tight through the first three games.

Scoring for the Predators has come at a premium in this series, and having a completely misfiring power play has made it much worse.

Nine goals against in his past two outings isn’t what you’d expect from Pekka Rinne, but that’s the reality right now as the reigning Vezina winner isn’t making the saves required. The Predators can’t handle Dallas’s forecheck when it’s going full steam ahead and Rinne is taking the brunt of it.

Nashville’s offense has fallen off a cliff, which is saying a lot for a team that wasn’t a high-scoring offense during the regular season.

Rocco Grimaldi‘s third goal of the series to give the Predators a 1-0 lead was just the sixth goal by a Nashville forward in the series up until that point.

Grimaldi has been great, but he shouldn’t be leading the team at the moment. Ryan Johansen finally picked up his first of the series later in this one. Kyle Turris, too.

Radulov’s brace to open the second period opened up a 3-1 lead. Johansen’s goal pulled the Predators back one, but Tyler Seguin snatched the two-goal cushion back before the second was over.

Dickinson’s second of the game put Dallas up 5-2 and other than Turris’ response 28 seconds after that, the Predators didn’t show their teeth much.

Jamie Benn finished with three assists and his line with Seguin and Radulov combined for seven points. Bishop made 30 saves.

Game 6 goes Monday at American Airlines Arena. The time for the game is TBD. 


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

Bishop, Lehner, Vasilevskiy are the 2019 Vezina Trophy finalists

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Awards season shifts to the crease as the three finalists for the NHL’s top netminder were unveiled on Saturday.

The nominees, voted by the league’s 31 general managers, including Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The award was first presented by Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich, former owners of the Montreal Canadiens,1926-27 in memory Georges Vezina, who died in 1925 from tuberculosis. Prior to the 1981-82 season, the goaltender(s) of a team with the fewest number of goals allowed during the regular season was awarded the trophy.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The case for Ben Bishop: Bishop was superb all season, leading all goalies with a .934 save percentage, finishing second in goals-against average with a 1.98 and third in shutouts with seven. Bishop came to life down the stretch, going 8-0-1 in his final 10 appearances as the Stars grabbed the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference. He had three straight shutouts during that span, setting a franchise record for longest shutout streak at 233:04. His .934 save percentage was also a franchise record and the eighth-best by any goalie in league history. Bishop was 27-15-2 in 46 games.

The case for Robin Lehner: Lehner had a turnaround season for the ages, overcoming some personal demons and switching teams from Buffalo to the New York Islanders. Lehner thrived in his move across state, posting the second-best save percentage in the league at .930, third in goals-against at 2.13 and tied for fourth with six shutouts. Lehner’s season play really shined between Dec. 18 and Jan. 10 where he won eight straight games. He, along with Thomas Greiss, formed a formidable one-two punch in the Islanders’ crease, one that ultimately helped the Isles into the postseason after losing John Tavares to free agency last summer. The Islanders went from worst in goals-against to first, a feat only done once before in NHL history. Lehner was 25-13-5 in 46 games.

The case for Andrei Vasilevskiy: Vasilevskiy posted 39 wins in 53 games and was a big reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning tied an NHL record for most wins in a season with 62. Vasilevskiy won 18 of the first 21 games he appeared in to get Tampa to the feat, including a 10-game winning streak between Feb. 9 and March 5. Vasilevskiy’s best play came after a loss. In fact, he only lost consecutive outings once all season, posting a 13-0-1 record following a defeat. He finished third last season and has a good chance to take home the hardware this year.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy


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

WATCH LIVE: Jets face elimination; Capitals, Preds look to go up at home

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Game 5: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
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Call: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti, AJ Mleczko
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Game 6: Winnipeg Jets at St. Louis Blues, 7 p.m. ET (Blues lead 3-2)
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Call: Brendan Burke, Ray Ferraro
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Game 5: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
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Call: John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
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Team USA women’s hockey Olympic gold medalist Hilary Knight will join NBC Sports’ Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage as a guest studio analyst this Saturday, April 20, on NBC and NBCSN. Knight will contribute to studio coverage of Jets-Blues on NBCSN and Hurricanes-Capitals on NBC.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Rookie coaches enjoying chess match that comes in playoffs

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Rod Brind’Amour does not think what he is doing is anything special.

Brind’Amour not only has the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs in his first season as coach but has made the necessary adjustments to tie their series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals at two games apiece. Along with Washington’s Todd Reirden and Jim Montgomery in Dallas, Brind’Amour is one of the rookie NHL coaches in the playoffs whose decisions are playing major roles in the first round.

Just don’t tell him that.

”The coaching thing is fun. I think it’s a little overrated,” Brind’Amour said earlier this week. ”You open the door and you say, ‘Go play.”’

Brind’Amour’s Hurricanes are playing at their peak with the chance to put the champs on the brink of elimination if they win Game 5 Saturday night in Washington (8 p.m. EDT, NBC). Carolina has already dealt with a concussion to 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov and an upper-body injury to big winger Micheal Ferland, and is expected to be without Jordan Martinook because of a lower-body injury that happened in a 2-1 Game 4 win Thursday.

The Capitals have a major injury concern of their own now after a hit from behind from Warren Foegele knocked winger T.J. Oshie out indefinitely. Devante Smith-Pelly was recalled from the minors and will go directly into the lineup. There could be more changes from Reirden after his team failed to score a 5-on-5 goal the past two games.

”That’s the game within the game,” Reirden said Friday. ”It’s up for me and our staff to decide how to fill those voids in different areas and put players in situations to succeed and if it’s not working you’ve got to also know when to stop and try something new.”

Craig Berube knew that moment had come in the middle of the St. Louis Blues’ Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets. The interim coach who took over in November moved David Perron on to the top line in place of Brayden Schenn, and the savvy change helped the Blues come back from a two-goal deficit to win in regulation and take a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6 at home (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN).

”Our team responded to it,” Berube said after the comeback win. ”You don’t score, you’ve got to change it up a little. It was a good time to make the change.”

Montgomery, who played with Brind’Amour for a brief time with Philadelphia in the 1990s, hasn’t had to make big-time changes but saw the Stars finally break through on the power play and find some offense in Game 4 against the Nashville Predators to tie that series. Dallas goes into Game 5 at Nashville (3 p.m. EDT, NBC) with the chance to put the Central Division champions on the ropes.

”They feel like we’re challenging them, for sure,” defenseman John Klingberg said. ”We’re giving them a tough fight.”

Montgomery instills that fight in his team after joining the ranks of college coaches to jump directly to the NHL. This isn’t the Frozen Four, where he led Denver twice and won a national title, but Montgomery is adjusting on the fly quickly in his first Stanley Cup playoffs.

”I’m like a baby learning how to walk right now,” Montgomery said. ”The downs have been like, ‘OK, how do we get better.’ The ups have been, ‘Let’s keep getting better.’ I feel we continue to get better in this series, which is a good feeling for all of us.”

Carolina has gotten better and better since allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period of Game 1. Brind’Amour credits his players, including goaltender Petr Mrazek for some timely saves, but he clearly made some tactical switches to turn the series around – even if he won’t say what.

”Can’t tell you that,” Brind’Amour said with a laugh. ”I think it’s just wet got to our game a little better.”

And there’s Brind’Amour, again, sounding like the veteran coach he already looks like.

BATTLE OF ATTRITION

Injuries played a role in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ shocking sweep of Tampa Bay, and they could tip the balance for Nashville-Dallas, too.

The Predators have been without forward Brian Boyle since Game 1 after an appendectomy, and forward Wayne Simmonds has been out since taking a one-timer from Roman Josi off the inside of his left knee. They’re considered week-to-week, but Boyle and Simmonds skated with the team Friday.

”I had my appendix out when I was in high school, you’re literally out for months and months,” Laviolette said. ”That was a long time ago. Now it’s somebody being able to be back and playing in less than a week is unbelievable. So he looked really good out there today. Wayne the same thing. When it first happened, we were thinking it might be that long and it’s never an exact science. But they’re both out there and they look good.”

Dallas could have forward Mattias Janmark back in the lineup after a lower-body injury caused him to miss the past two games.

The Capitals know they won’t have Oshie for a while. And while Brind’Amour quipped after Game 4 that the Hurricanes are dealing with more injuries, Oshie’s absence will take a chunk out of Washington.

”He’s a heart-and-soul guy,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. ”The thing with Osh is no matter what he’s going to find a way to have a positive impact on our team. … He’s a leader and he’s a guy that guys want to fight for.”

Whoever wins the Carolina-Washington series will face a shorthanded New York Islanders opponent in the second round. General manager Lou Lamoriello said defenseman Johnny Boychuk will miss three to four weeks with a lower-body injury.

AP Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, Teresa M. Walker in Nashville and Joedy McCreary in Raleigh contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports