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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.