Gustav Nyquist

Maple Leafs force Game 5, stay alive thanks to unbelievable comeback

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were four minutes away from being completely buried.

Four minutes away from having the longest offseason this core of players had ever had to deal with in terms of criticism and scrutiny.

Four minutes away from maybe dealing with the possibility of major changes coming to a team that — to this point — has been unable to get over the hump in the postseason.

That is when the madness started.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just 24 hours after blowing a three-goal lead to lose in overtime, the Maple Leafs flipped the script and erased a three-goal deficit with four minutes to play in regulation to force overtime. It was there that they completed one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history when Auston Matthews scored a power play to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win.

And with that, everything comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET – NBCSN) for the right to advance to the field of 16 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It really cannot be overstated as to how insane all of this was, and the perfect confluence of events that needed to happen for Toronto to win this game.

For 56 minutes the Maple Leafs were unable to solve Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and when Boone Jenner scored with under seven minutes to play in the third period to give his team a three-goal lead everything seemed over in Toronto.

But with Frederik Andersen pulled for the extra attacker, Toronto started to chip away.

William Nylander started the comeback with 3:57 to play when he scored a goal that — at the time — seemed to be pointless window dressing.

When John Tavares scored less than a minute later to cut the deficit to one, things really started to get interesting.

Even then Toronto needed some extra help to go its way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Game 3 hero for Columbus, had an opportunity to put the game away with an empty-net sitting in front of him, only to have his shot hit the outside of the net. Just a few moments later, Gustav Nyquist failed to gain the red line with the puck when he could have taken a shot at another empty net and gave the puck away, giving Toronto another chance.

The Maple Leafs did not waste the chance. With just 23 seconds to play in regulation Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Matthews scored midway through the period, capitalizing on a Nick Foligno tripping penalty.

During their late third period comeback Toronto had the same combination of players on the ice: Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

With that, Toronto now has a chance to salvage what could have been a disastrous postseason appearance. And who knows, if they lose Game 5 on Sunday all of the things mentioned up at the top (the criticism, the scrutiny, the potential changes) could still happen. This is, after all, a team that is supposed to compete for a Stanley Cup. Losing in the play-in round after three straight Round 1 exits would be awful for the perception of this core. But this win gives them a chance to fight another day and change the narrative around this team. If they do manage to do that and go on a postseason run from here, those four minutes are going be talked about for years.

As for Columbus, well, this has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.

They had this game — and the series — all but won. If you go buy the win probability stat, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning this game with five minutes to play.

All they had to do was avoid a meltdown, and they would have been a giant slayer for the second year in a row. But the meltdown happened.

The Blue Jackets were never supposed to be in this position this season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency, and then dealing with a season-long run of injuries. No one would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they badly regressed or fell off the map. If they are unable to bounce back in Game 5 on Sunday this is going to be the game that will be impossible for them to shake. It was right there. They had it.

Now it all comes down to Sunday.

Honestly, it is the perfect game — and perfect series — for the unpredictable mayhem that the 2019-20 season has been.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 [OT] (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 [OT]
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Mixed Blue Jackets injury news for NHL Playoffs: Jones in, Anderson out

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With a Qualifying Round best-of-five looming against the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets got mostly positive injury news lately. Seth Jones highlights the good injury news, while Josh Anderson is the most significant letdown.

Jones headlines good injury news for Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets activated Jones and fellow defenseman Dean Kukan off of IR on Thursday.

This capture the bigger picture: that the Blue Jackets should have quite a few key players back if that Qualifying Round series happens against Toronto. Jones joined Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and basically the kitchen sink on the injured list this season.

Jones, 25, scored six goals and 30 points in 56 games before injuries derailed his season.

By certain measures, Jones might not be quite the Norris Trophy-level defenseman many believe. His possession numbers are closer to solid than dominant, although some of that might boil down to playing more than 25 minutes per night.

Wherever Jones ranks in the stratosphere, he’s important to the Blue Jackets. So is Bjorkstrand and Atkinson, as this Evolving Hockey GAR Chart reinforces:

Blue Jackets injury news GAR
via Evolving Hockey

[MORE: Previewing Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs and other East Qualifying Round series]

Players Blue Jackets might not have in the lineup

You may look at that chart above and believe that Anderson isn’t much of a loss. In the framework of the 2019-20 season alone, that’s probably fair.

In the grand scheme of things, it likely is not fair, though. He’s been a useful player for Columbus for some time now. Anderson also boasts the sort of size and physical play that can make him difficult to handle in a playoff format. He was a handful at times for the Lightning during that shocking sweep during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Anderson is unlikely to be available until at least September (sub required).

That’s a big blow, although it does leave the door open for a return during the postseason — if the Blue Jackets made an even better underdog run than in 2018-19.

A lack of Anderson hurts because, frankly, the Blue Jackets figure to struggle to score — even while healthier. With expanded rosters in mind, look at Portzline’s guesses for the forwards Columbus will have on hand:

Cam Atkinson, Emil Bemstrom, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, Liam Foudy, Nathan Gerbe, Boone Jenner, Jakob Lilja, Ryan MacInnis, Stefan Matteau, Riley Nash, Gustav Nyquist, Eric Robinson, Devin Shore, Kevin Stenlund, Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg.

When you stack that group up against the firepower Toronto boasts in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and others, you can see why every Anderson-type helps.

Out of context, the eighth-ranked Maple Leafs probably shouldn’t be big favorites against the Blue Jackets.

Look at the difference in firepower, then consider very different levels of media focus. Put that together, and Columbus is likely to be framed as heavy underdogs.

That’s just the way John Tortorella & Co. like it. With Jones looking good to go, they might just have a shot at making a run.

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.

The Buzzer: Brodie leads Flames to OT win; sizzling Flyers win seventh straight

Sean Monahan #23, T.J. Brodie #7 and Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames celebrate
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Three Stars

1) Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers

Wins on the road have been tough to come by for the Flyers this season, but they earned two points in a 5-2 victory against the division-leading Washington Capitals Wednesday. Provorov had a goal and an assist as the surging Flyers picked up their seventh straight win and moved to within one point of the Capitals for the Metro Division lead. Provorov and the rest of the Flyers defensive group have recorded an NHL-best 43 goals this season. The 23-year-old blueliner scored 6:36 into the final period to give the Flyers a 4-2 lead and wrap up the critical inter-division victory.

2) Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks

Rakell needed every second of overtime to lead the Ducks to a 4-3 victory against the Colorado Avalanche. The Swedish forward fired a wrist shot from the top of the right circle and notched his first goal since January 31 with 1.2 seconds remaining in OT. Rakell also assisted on Brendan Guhle’s marker which gave Anaheim a 2-1 lead at 13:40 of the opening period.

3) TJ Brodie, Calgary Flames

With less than 11 seconds remaining in overtime, Brodie fired a wrist shot from the slot to propel the Calgary Flames to a 3-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sean Monahan couldn’t finish a feed from Johnny Gaudreau prior to the game-winning goal, but never gave up on the play. He collected the rebound, skated around the net and found an open Brodie in between the circles. The Flames erased a two-goal third-period deficit with goals from Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk to force the extra session. Calgary sits in third place in the Pacific and trails the Vegas Golden Knights by five points for first place in the division.

Highlights of the Night

Derek Grant masterfully kicked a puck over to Kevin Hayes to help the Flyers take a one-goal lead in the second period.

Nick Foligno delivered a perfect saucer pass to Gustav Nyquist when the Blue Jackets opened up a two-goal lead on the Flames.

Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog feathered a wrist shot from the right circle to even the score at 2-2 late in the first period.

Blooper of the night

Coyotes forward Carl Soderberg ends up with credit for this fluky power-play goal.

Push for the Playoffs

Notable injury

James van Riemsdyk blocked a shot and will be sidelined for the foreseeable future with a broken right hand.

Stat of the Night

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, Washington Capitals 2

Calgary Flames 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (OT)

Anaheim Ducks 4, Colorado Avalanche 3 (OT)

Arizona Coyotes 4, Vancouver Canucks 2


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Blue Jackets rally for potential season saving win

Blue Jackets
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Thanks to an offensive outburst in the final seven minutes of regulation on Sunday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets were able to pick up a massive win against the Vancouver Canucks that they absolutely needed to have.

Columbus scored four goals in the final seven minutes of regulation to erase a two-goal deficit and storm back for a 5-3 win.

Zach Werenski scored his 20th goal of the season to tie the game with less than five minutes to play in regulation, while Emil Bemstrom scored the game-winner just three minutes later. Gustav Nyquist added an empty-net goal with 10 seconds to play.

It may not be much of a stretch to say the could be a season saving victory in Columbus.

Even though Columbus entered the game in a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference (and improved that standing with Sunday’s win) they had a couple of hurdles standing in their way.

For one, they had been mired in a massive slump that had seen them lose 10 out of 11 games.

They are also about to face an absolute gauntlet of a schedule that will see them play their next seven games against Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Boston, Washington and Toronto. Every one of those teams currently occupies a playoff spot.

But perhaps their biggest issue is the fact every team they are in competition with for a playoff spot has two or three games in hand on them.

That matters quite a bit, and when you dig into the projected point paces and possible points that are still remaining the Blue Jackets were starting to get themselves in trouble.

Just look at the current Metropolitan Division/Wild Card standings for the teams after Washington (The Capitals still hold the top spot in the Metropolitan Division) as of Sunday night.

The Blue Jackets are clinging to one of those wild card spots based on current points, but with only 15 games remaining there are only so many points left for them to collect. Based on their current pace and the games they still have remaining, the Carolina Hurricanes (currently outside the playoff picture based on total points) are still on pace to finish with more points than Columbus this season.

Now, these are just projects and current paces and games in hand do not necessarily mean “wins” in hand. A lot can still happen when the games actually get played. But it does at least give a sense of how big of a swing Columbus’ win on Sunday was and how much work still needs to be done to get one of those spots. A loss on Sunday would have put them at a 92-93 point pace.

No matter what happens this has been an incredible effort by the Blue Jackets this season given all of the free agency departures over the summer and the absurd injury list they have dealt with all season (and are still dealing with now).

As for the Canucks, this one has to hurt. This looked to be a game they had completely wrapped up and it all disappeared in a matter of minutes. For the time being they fall out of the top-three in the Pacific Division but still hold one of the Wild Card spots. They still have games in hand on a lot of the teams around them, but the current injury situation that has them without Brock Boeser and starting goalie Jacob Markstrom is going to make things a little uncomfortable down the stretch.

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.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

Blue Jackets Trade
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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

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.