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Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were already one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive hockey teams.

Even though they missed Auston Matthews, their best players, for 20 games last season, they still finished as the third-highest scoring team in the league with 270 goals. Not only will they — hopefully — be getting a full season out of Matthews in 2018-19, but they also went into free agency and snagged John Tavares to add to a roster that is already loaded.

It is not out of the question to think that this could be the best offensive team in hockey this season, something that the Maple Leafs have rarely had in their existence. It’s been two decades (1998-99) since the Maple Leafs finished as the NHL’s leading goal-scoring team, and it’s something that has only happened once in the post-Original Six era. Even during the Original Six era you have to go all the way back to the 1940s to find a Maple Leafs team that scored the most goals in hockey.

This team is capable of pacing the league.

Just look at what they have at their disposal going into the season. It is an embarrassment of riches at forward.

[Maple Leafs Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Breakthrough | Three Questions]

— In Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Nazem Kadri the Maple Leafs have five of the top-70 players in points-per-game over the past two seasons. No other team in the league has more than four players in the top-70. All of those players will be age 28 or younger on opening night, while Matthews, Nylander, and Marner are all just now entering what should be their peak offensive years in the NHL. Those three were Toronto’s top point-producers this past season and not one of them had celebrated their 22nd birthday yet. It is not a stretch to think that all three of those players could improve on what they did this past season and be even better.

Patrick Marleau may be 39 years old and closer to the end of his career than his prime, but he has still been a lock for at least 25 goals and 45 points over the past four years. He scored 27 goals (one of six players on the roster to score at least 20) during the 2017-18 season and was awesome (four goals in seven games) in the playoffs. He is still an excellent player.

— Along with the established, front-line, All-Star level talent, the Maple Leafs still have a collection of younger, cheaper players that can complement their top players on the scoresheet. Zach Hyman and Connor Brown are both capable of 15-20 goals for a combined salary cap hit of less than $5 million over the next two years. Kasperi Kapanen, one of the key pieces in the Phil Kessel trade from three years ago, showed signs of being an impact player last season.

In short, there really isn’t much of a weakness anywhere in the forward lines, while they also jettisoned probably the two weakest links offensively in Leo Komarov and Matt Martin this summer.

There are a lot of teams at the top of the NHL that have superstar talents and strong depth (Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington, Winnipeg) but Toronto is really the only one that still has its most significant and impactful core players still in the prime of their careers, or just entering their prime with still having room to grow.

There is massive potential here for what this team could be capable of offensively and on any given night five or six goals (or more) is certainly possible. Will it result in a Stanley Cup this year or in future years? Odds are probably against them (that is just the nature of sports when it comes to betting one team against the field), but there may not be a more exciting team anywhere else in the league.

 

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.

Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs go home facing elimination

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A year after Mike Babcock told arena staffers in Washington he’d see them a few days later for Game 7, John Tortorella claimed his Blue Jackets would be back after winning Game 6 back in Columbus.

Now the trick is doing what Babcock’s Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t last year: stave off elimination from the Capitals.

“It’s about finding a way to win a hockey game right now,” Tortorella said Sunday. “There are so many ways of winning and losing in playoff hockey, so many ebbs and flows. That’s just the way the game is.”

Toronto is in the same spot as Columbus, down 3-2 in its first-round series against the Boston Bruins with Game 6 at home Monday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, stream). The Maple Leafs held off a significant surge from the Bruins on Saturday night to avoid being eliminated in five and send the series back across the border.

“You got to look forward — there’s no sense and no good in looking back,” forward Connor Brown said. “We’re going back to (Air Canada Centre) where we love to play. Our fans are going to be excited so right now we’re all just thinking about Game 6.”

Game 6 in the Bruins-Maple Leafs series comes after Boston took a 3-1 lead in the absence of suspended Toronto center Nazem Kadri. Goaltender Frederik Andersen needed to make 42 saves to keep the Maple Leafs alive as they hope to avoid another first-round exit.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Blue Jackets are trying to do the same in their Game 6 Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, CNBC, stream) after losing to the Capitals in overtime Sunday in Game 5. Four of the five games between Columbus and Washington have gone to OT compared to one total in the other seven first-round series.

“It’s been a crazy series,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “So much is happening. Calls and OT — it’s been fun. I think guys are enjoying it. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but we’re going to keep pushing forward here. We know we have a good team. They have a good team, as well. It’s not going to be easy.”

It’s rarely easy for the Capitals, who are 2-5 in their past five chances to eliminate an opponent and 6-11 overall in those situations in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re also 2-5 over that time in Game 7 at home, which they’d like to avoid another incarnation of Wednesday.

This is the same situation Barry Trotz’s team was in last year — an overtime-filled first-round series against Toronto — and it wrapped things up in six.

“If you have a chance to eliminate a team, you have to have that killer instinct,” Trotz said. “You have to have that ability to close out a team. And it’s the toughest game to win because the other team is desperate. Their backs are against the wall. They’re there. They’re going to give their absolute max effort.”

No one doubts max effort from the Blue Jackets or the Maple Leafs staring down elimination. Columbus outshot Washington 16-1 in the third period of Game 5, and while that kind of ice-tilting onslaught is unlikely, the Blue Jackets are going to try to push the pace and ratchet up the pressure on the Metropolitan Division champions after blowing a 2-0 series lead.

“The belief in this room is incredible,” captain Nick Foligno said. “There’s no better motivation than what we’re facing.”

Tactically, the Blue Jackets need to cash in on the power play after going 0 for their past 13. Goaltender Braden Holtby and Washington’s penalty kill have been the difference in the series.

“The penalty kill has been a major factor for us in the last few games,” Trotz said. “I think as a group, they’ve all stepped up. I don’t think I can single out anybody. They’ve all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They’ve been very committed there.”

WAITING IT OUT

The Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks will meet in the second round of the Pacific Division bracket, while the Winnipeg Jets await the Nashville Predators. In the East, the Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay Lightning finished off New Jersey on Saturday and will face Toronto or Boston in the second round.

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AP Sports Writers Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed.

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

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More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach HymanWilliam NylanderConnor Brown

Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakLeo Komarov

Matt MartinTomas PlekanecKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Travis DermottConnor Carrick

Starting Goalie: Frederik Andersen

[Maple Leafs – Sabres preview.]

Buffalo Sabres

Zemgus GirgensonsRyan O'ReillySam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJason Pominville

Jordan NolanJacob JosefsonKyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot — Kyle Criscuolo — Nicholas Baptiste

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Brendan Guhle — Casey Nelson

Nathan BeaulieuVictor Antipin

Starting Goalie: Chad Johnson

WATCH LIVE: NHL Stadium Series 2018 – Capitals vs. Leafs

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NBC’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals face off in a 2018 Stadium Series game at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland at 8 p.m. ET. You can catch all of the action on NBC or our live stream by clicking here.

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Toronto Maple Leafs
Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner
Zach HymanTomas PlekanecWilliam Nylander
James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown
Leo KomarovDominic MooreKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRoman Polak

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

[NHL On NBC: Maple Leafs, Capitals meet outside in Stadium Series]

[WATCH LIVE]

Washington Capitals
Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Brett ConnollyLars EllerAndre Burakovsky
Chandler StephensonJay BeagleDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.