Messy 7-6 game or not, Maple Leafs, Panthers shouldn’t change

Watching games like Tuesday’s wild Maple Leafs – Panthers slugfest sometimes feels like observing some wild, woolly endangered species. As much as you giggle at those uneven patches of fur and all the cute snacking, you worry that some dusty grump might come along and eradicate that precious thing.

We see it all the time with high-scoring teams. It cropped up as the Panthers beat the Maple Leafs 7-6 in OT.

When will these teams learn to play defense? How will this ever work in the playoffs?

No doubt, both the Maple Leafs and Panthers want to play tighter games. Still, it’s disappointing that those negative reactions register just as loud (if not louder), than the reaction that should reverberate.

Why can’t more teams play like the Panthers and Maple Leafs? Why can’t more games be this exciting and strange?

Sure, Maple Leafs and Panthers, tweak things. But don’t let those scared of change discourage you from mad experiments that might just work.

Breaking down Panthers – Maple Leafs, the game itself; Huberdeau passes 100 points

Honestly, coming into this game, it seemed like the stage was set for the Panthers to overwhelm the Maple Leafs. A night before, the Maple Leafs rode an incredible Auston Matthews performance to beat the Lightning. Facing a rested Panthers team was no easy ask for the Maple Leafs.

Perhaps that context explains what would happen later. Yet, early on, the Maple Leafs carried that electric play to a fast start vs. the Panthers.

After Sam Reinhart made it 1-0, a William Nylander power-play goal ended the first period tied 1-1.

Huge twists and turns leading up to Huberdeau overtime-winner

Considering how the second period started, any of the many Leafs fans in Florida must have felt real regret if they were stuck in a restroom or concession line.

Early on, Mitch Marner drove play with some absolutely electric offense. Marner reached the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career in style, niftily working the puck around the opposition and then beating Sergei Bobrovsky. Within 1:07 of the middle frame, Marner scored shorthanded and on the power play. He’d end up with a whopping four points (2G, 2A) in this one.

(Marner’s work against MacKenzie Weegar is … art.)

Less than a minute after Marner’s second goal, Colin Blackwell inflated Toronto lead to 4-1. At the 8:40 mark of the second period, Jake Muzzin made it 5-1.

Against a normal team, that would be enough. We’d probably just be talking about how Sergei Bobrovsky might be a problem again for Florida. (And he might be.)

Clearly, the Panthers are no normal team. They’re an incredible offensive machine, and a night like this should send the message that they should probably accept the bad with the overwhelming good.

Either way, that 5-1 lead clearly wouldn’t last. With a power-play goal, Sam Reinhart made it 5-2 about three minutes after Muzzin scored.

Truthfully, you could only blame goalies so much in a game like this, but Radko Gudas‘ shorthanded tally was one Erik Källgren would regret. Claude Giroux scored his first goal with the Panthers as Florida’s last tally of the second to shrink that margin to 5-4.

[Giroux hadn’t been scoring goals for the Panthers, but still passes his early review]

Delightfully, there were more twists and turns in the third period, and a bit beyond.

As part of a brilliant five-point night, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the 5-5 goal, then assisted on an Aleksander Barkov tally that stunningly gave Florida a 6-5 lead.

With less than four minutes left, John Tavares erased that edge with a PPG, sending Maple Leafs – Panthers to overtime with a score of 6-6.

Finally, after some OT thrills, Jonathan Huberdeau pushed his nightly point total to five points with the clincher. The first Panthers player to ever cross 100 points rests at 102.

Yes, Maple Leafs and Panthers can make this work … just maybe not this season?

When it comes to the Atlantic Division playoff bracket — and, to an extent, the Eastern Conference’s top eight — there’s an elephant in the room. At least if you don’t want to overreact to your team’s highs and lows.

Your team might do everything right, and still lose in the first round.

This feels like another important time to lay that argument out. While the Panthers could draw an “easier” first-round opponent from the wild-card level, few would call the Capitals a cakewalk. Truly, it’s telling that the Lightning are currently ranked as the East’s first wild-card team right now. Someone really good is going to lose in the first round. That shouldn’t cause teams to overreact and ruin a good thing.

Are the Panthers perfect? Really, every team faces at least some doubt. Overall, they should be proud that they can combine historically prolific offense with respectable play in other areas. Evolving Hockey’s Team RAPM charts are one way to capture the bigger picture in a single image:

Their offense was literally off the charts before an adjustment. (Via Evolving Hockey)

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs experience less dramatic highs and lows, and may end up more balanced:

You’re not going to get a much better balance than this very often. (Via Evolving Hockey)

Both teams are extremely good, yet they won’t need to wait long to face a different, extremely good opponent. The Maple Leafs are nearly certain to face the Bruins or Lightning off the bat.

Local media won’t give the Maple Leafs a break. If management’s allowed to stick around if things don’t work out, they shouldn’t panic.

Comeback Cats

Because, really, some of this is by design.

It’s easy to gasp at the Panthers’ lapses and ignore the thought that they’re relentless at giving opponents zero room to breathe. The Maple Leafs can take some solace in this being the fifth Panthers win after trailing by at least three goals. The Panthers have already put together a ludicrous 23 comeback wins.

Instead of worrying about the Panthers’ ability to defend, maybe they should be exalted for never giving up? No lead is safe against the Panthers, and they (or the Maple Leafs) might be able to protect enough of their own leads to make all of this work.

Either way, it sure seems like a smarter strategy than just trying to be like everyone else.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today

    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.


    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.


    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

    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.


    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

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