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Maple Leafs among Canadian teams looking to take next step

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Auston Matthews watched the NBA champion Raptors parade through the streets of Toronto and couldn’t help but wonder.

What if instead of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, it was him and his Maple Leafs teammates celebrating the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1967?

”I definitely get stuck thinking about stuff like that,” Matthews said. ”You kind of picture yourself in that situation.”

Matthews first wants to picture the Maple Leafs on a long playoff run after three consecutive first-round exits. For Toronto and all seven Canada-based NHL teams, this season is about taking the next step, whether it’s into Cup contender status, into the postseason or a long-term rebuild.

The Maple Leafs with Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander up front and a retooled blue line featuring former Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie on paper look like the best hope to end Canada’s Cup drought that dates to 1993. But they play in arguably hockey’s toughest division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and the improved Florida Panthers , so they can’t really be judged until they get into the playoffs and show what they can do.

”Obviously the Achilles heel has been that first round for us,” Matthews said. ”It’s tough to really measure a successful season without reaching that ultimate goal and accomplishing it. For us obviously it’s been frustrating, especially the last two years – the same team, same result. So for us just making sure that everybody’s really focused and dialed in and ready to kind of get over that hump.”

Toronto lost to Boston in Game 7 of the first round each of the past two seasons. The Bruins got to Game 7 of the Cup Final before losing to St. Louis.

”They were that close,” Matthews said. ”It’s always in the back of your mind kind of that ‘What could have been.”’

WESTERN POWERS

Out West, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames are each coming off disappointing first-round defeats and have high expectations of burying those memories and advancing further this spring.

”We never really found that level that we did two years ago when we made it to the conference finals, and we need to get back at that,” Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said. ”We need to find that and we need to find it earlier. I’m excited for this year and I think the guys are, too.”

The Jets traded defenseman Jacob Trouba to the Rangers, lost Tyler Myers in free agency and are dealing with the possibility that Dustin Byfuglien could retire. The uncertain futures of unsigned restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor add to the uncertainty in Winnipeg.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Ehlers said.

MONTREAL’S HUMP

The Montreal Canadiens just want to get back to the playoffs after missing in two of the past three seasons. They haven’t won a round since 2015, and forward Max Domi can’t imagine what his first home playoff game will be like in a city starved for it.

”I watch videos all the time of people with their iPhones at a live Bell Centre Montreal Canadiens game in the playoffs and just visualizing how cool that would be,” Domi said. ”It’s a dream of mine.”

Carey Price, who in 2015 won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender, is the biggest reason to believe the Canadiens can overcome the odds and make the playoffs.

”He’s the best goalie in the world for a reason,” Domi said. ”It’s a major confidence boost, for sure. He’s outstanding.”

OIL SHORTAGE

The Edmonton Oilers have one playoff appearance in 13 years since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. They have a new general manager in Ken Holland, a new coach in Dave Tippett and new questions about captain Connor McDavid coming off a knee injury. Of course, the biggest question in Edmonton is if this once-proud franchise can put it all together and stop wasting McDavid’s prime.

”We all get frustrated at times,” center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”You’re kidding yourself if you say it doesn’t. We’ve got to find our way out of it. There’s no point dwelling on it, no point getting down about it. You’ve just got to push through and we’ve got to find a way to get out of it together.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Swedish sensation Elias Pettersson gives the Vancouver Canucks hope that they can return to prominence with a new wave of young talent. It’s still a process for Vancouver, which will need to build up some more talent before contending.

Defenseman Thomas Chabot‘s $64 million, eight-year extension is similarly good news for the Ottawa Senators that a rising star wants to stay there and be part of the solution. The Senators need a handful more players like Chabot before they can reach the playoffs again.

Lights went out during brief – but funny – moment in Bruins game

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The Florida Panthers were on the power play – and dangerous sniper Mike Hoffman had a chance to shoot from the slot – when the lights went out, briefly, at TD Garden on Tuesday night.

Now, this wasn’t like the blackout at Boston Garden during the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, when a Game 4 against the mighty Edmonton Oilers had to be replayed in its entirety in Edmonton because of such an outage. In that case, it went wrong for the Bruins, as they had managed a 3-3 tie during the second period of that nullified contest against that dynastic team.

In Tuesday’s case, you could imagine someone, somewhere – probably in Florida – claiming it was all a big conspiracy. For just a moment or two, the lights went out when the Bruins were killing a penalty. This screen grab of Sportsnet’s video (which you can watch fully above this post’s headline) gives you an idea of Hoffman’s location … if you squint a little. Actually, allow some help, as I fight the urge to go full John Madden in telestrator mode:

Apologies to conspiracy theorists, but these things happen. The brightest side is that it wasn’t a situation where a check was about to be delivered, as that could have made for a dangerous moment.

***

That wasn’t the only wild part of Tuesday’s game. The Bruins had a 4-0 lead in the third period against the Panthers, yet Florida ended up winning 5-4 via a shootout. Wow.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Rangers’ Lemieux sets up Kakko for beauty vs. Penguins

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The New York Rangers ended the first period up 2-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (watch live on NBCSN; stream here) thanks, in part, to some tremendous passing.

Most impressively, Brendan Lemieux sent a tremendous long bomb of a pass, beating multiple Penguins defenders, to Kaapo Kakko, who scored what might have been his best goal in the NHL so far by finishing the play with great moves.

This marks the first multi-game point streak for Kakko, 18, who also scored a goal against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. The second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft now has five goals and seven points so far in his rookie season, and still has two periods to add more during his 16th game.

The Penguins failed on two power plays in the first period, pushing them to 0-for-28. They haven’t scored a PPG since mid-October.

[More on the Penguins’ struggling power play]

To make matters worse for the Penguins, Artemi Panarin sent a tremendous pass to defenseman Adam Fox for the 2-0 goal with less than 10 seconds left.

Pittsburgh’s been a slow-starting team quite often in 2019-20, and in some cases have been able to rally for comeback wins. We’ll see if they can pull off another one on Tuesday, as it’s been a very weak start, and it’s possible it could have been more than a 2-0 lead for the Rangers after 20 minutes.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins meet Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. 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 are coming off a 3-2 (SO) win on Saturday – a game they trailed 2-0 midway through the second period. It was their third straight game rallying from a multi-goal deficit. Despite earning the win against Chicago, Sidney Crosby left in the third period with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out for this game, and his status beyond that is unknown.

Pittsburgh enters this game on a massive power play drought. They have not scored a power play goal in their previous 11 games, going 0-for-25 in that span. The total drought actually extends to the game prior to that, when they failed on their final attempt, so the Pens are 0-for-their-last-26 overall.

Rangers No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad has missed the last six games with an upper-body injury, suffered on Oct. 27 on a hit from Patrice Bergeron. Zibanejad will reportedly not travel with the team to Florida, meaning he is out for at least the next three games. He was leading the team with 11 points in nine games prior to his departure from the lineup.

After alternating starts at the beginning of the season, the Rangers have spent the past few weeks giving chunks of consecutive starts to each of their netminders. Alex Georgiev will get the start in this game – his seventh of the season – after Henrik Lundqvist started the previous three.

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-RANGERS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Alex GalchenyukJared McCannJake Guentzel
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Dominik KahunNick BjugstadSam Lafferty
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Brian DumoulinJohn Marino
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack JohnsonJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris Kreider – Filip Chytil – Pavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenKaapo Kakko
Greg McKeggLias AnderssonBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

MORE: Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

Brendan Burke and Joe Micheletti will call the Penguins-Rangers showdown from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor studio coverage with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

Stars coach apologizes to Seguin, Benn for post-game comments

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After the Dallas Stars were on the losing end of a 3-2 overtime decision against the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday, coach Jim Montgomery expressed some frustration with the current lack of production of his top players, and even though he never mentioned Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn by name it was pretty obvious which players he was talking about.

It was the second year in a row (around the same point in the season) the Stars’ top-two forwards were the focal points of internal criticism, facing even more scathing criticism from team CEO Jim Lites this past December.

On Tuesday, Montgomery said he apologized to the team and the individual players for what he described as an emotional mistake, while also adding, “We win as a team and we lose as a team.”

That comes via Mike Heika of the Stars’ website.

Following the game on Sunday Montgomery said he was “disappointed” in the production of the team’s top players, and was dismissive when asked if he had seen any signs of progress.

He later added, “They’ve got to decide that they want to be a difference maker.”

Seguin and Benn did not seem bothered by the criticism and acknowledged on Tuesday that they need to produce more. They have combined for just four goals so far this season, though Seguin is still producing some assists and is tied for the team lead in scoring.

Even so, it is always noteworthy when a coach singles out individual players following a loss, especially when it is the team’s best players. Even with the lack of goal-scoring from the Stars’ big-two, they have still won seven of their past nine games and collected 15 out of a possible 18 points in those games to start building some momentum following a disappointing start. A lot of the improvement has been due to their goaltending and some depth players stepping up and producing.

Related: Seguin, Benn facing more internal criticism

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.