Maple Leafs can’t solve Georgiev in Rangers’ upset

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If the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to lose to the New York Rangers on Sunday, you’d expect a few reasonable explanations.

Maybe the Rangers’ red-hot top line of Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, and Chris Kreider would light up the scoreboard, much like they’ve quietly been doing for weeks now. Perhaps the more-rested Rangers would take advantage of a Maple Leafs team coming off of an exciting overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens from Saturday.

That wasn’t really the story in the Rangers’ 4-1 win against the Maple Leafs, though.

Toronto sent a torrent of shots at New York’s net, but they could only beat Alexandar Georgiev one time. Georgiev celebrated his 23rd birthday by stopping a staggering 55 shots, ending Toronto’s four-game winning streak in the process.

The Maple Leafs were likely especially frustrated with their power play, as they went 0-for-4 on the man advantage despite an absurd 23 shots. Only Kasperi Kapanen could beat Georgiev, doing so on a breakaway.

While the Rangers’ top line didn’t win a scoring duel like one might have expected, they did chip in.

Zibanejad scored a goal just 28 seconds into the game, with Kreider and Zuccarello nabbing assists. It wasn’t the game-winner, but Adam McQuaid‘s surprising 3-1 goal was crucial, and Kreider got the lone assist there. It wouldn’t be surprising if that insurance tally ended up taking the air out of the Maple Leafs, as it came pretty late in the game. Toronto’s offense is scary, but the prospect of beating Georgiev twice – and quickly – might have felt like a steep climb.

A push for a playoff berth seems unlikely for the Rangers, yet on certain nights, the combination of a dangerous top line and sturdy goaltending could make them a real upset threat. Apparently that formula can sometimes be a winning one even when Henrik Lundqvist has the night off.

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: Rangers host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs won a pivotal division clash Saturday with a 4-3 overtime victory in Montreal to remain in second place in the Atlantic Division. John Tavares scored his team-leading 33rd goal (also T-second in NHL) in OT with a beautiful backhand past Carey Price.

With two points yesterday (goal, assist), Tavares has three straight multi-point games and reached the 60-point mark (33G, 27A in 54 GP), two games shy of his fastest season to 60 points (52 GP in 2013-14 w/ New York Islanders).

Toronto has won four straight games and has a six-game point streak (5-0-1).

On Friday night when the 1993-94 Stanley Cup champion Rangers team was honored for the 25th anniversary of their title, the current Blueshirts fell 3-0 to the Hurricanes. It was scoreless entering the third period before Warren Foegele scored the eventual game-winner and Carolina tallied two empty- netters. Petr Mrazek made 27 saves for Carolina in the shutout, though defenseman Jaccob Slavin also rescued two would-be goals on the doorstep.

The Rangers were shut out for the 5th time this season, tied for second most in the league.

Despite being shut out on Friday, the Rangers top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello has been one of the hottest trios in the league. Since January 12, they have combined for 41 points (19G, 22A) in the last 11 games.

Zibanejad has already set career highs with 53 pts and 31 assists this season. His previous career marks were 51 pts and 30 assists, both in 2015-16 with Ottawa. He is on pace for 80 pts, which would be the highest tally by a Rangers player since Marian Gaborik had 86 in 2009-10.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Jake MuzzinMorgan Rielly
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRon Hainsey

Starting goalie: Garret Sparks

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Pavel BuchnevichKevin HayesJesper Fast
Filip ChytilRyan StromeVladislav Namestnikov
Jimmy VeseyBoo Nieves – Vinni Lettieri

Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Madison Square Garden. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

Stop worrying about Maple Leafs’ salary cap situation

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Stop it.

You’re probably doing it right now.

You’re probably looking at the news that the Toronto Maple Leafs signed superstar center Auston Matthews to a five-year, $58.17 million contract extension on Tuesday and starting to panic.

You’re thinking about the contract extension they just gave William Nylander earlier this season, following the massive contract they gave to John Tavares in free agency.

You’re thinking about the contract negotiation they now have to go through with Mitch Marner this upcoming summer and wondering which one of them they’re going to trade.

[RELATED: Maple Leafs sign Auston Matthews to five-year, $58.17M contract]

Maybe you’re even naive enough to think one of the other 30 general managers in the NHL, despite a mountain of evidence over several years to the contrary, is going to suddenly grow some guts this summer and try to sign Marner to a restricted free agent offer sheet, while also believing that Marner might want to actually play for the undoubtedly worse team that is offering it, bypassing an opportunity to get still get paid a ton of money and be a part of a Stanley Cup contending team in Toronto.

How can they pay all of these players? How can they keep them all? Who will they have to trade for DEFENSE?! This can’t work, you’re screaming!

Yeah, you might be doing that.

Well, if are you are, stop doing that. Right now. Because not only are the Maple Leafs going to figure out a way to keep all of Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Tavares, they are still going to have a chance to win by doing so. I’ve made this argument so many times I know I’m repeating myself, but until the hockey viewing and observing world gets over this fear of paying elite players I am prepared to continue pounding the table over this.

Make no mistake, the Maple Leafs will have to get rid of some people. They will have to make tough decisions and make trades and cut salary somewhere on the roster. But it is not going to be one of those four players. It shouldn’t be anyway. It also doesn’t have to be.

This situation is not unique to the Maple Leafs. They are not the first team in the salary cap era that has had to pay a core of All-Star level players big money at the same time while also trying to figure out a way to still build a competent team around them. They are not the first team that is going to have tough decisions to make. If your natural reaction to seeing the Maple Leafs do this with Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, and Marner is that it can’t work then you haven’t been paying attention to, quite literally, every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era. All of them have a core of four or five players that takes up close to half (or even more than half) of their allotted salary cap space. It is a necessary part of winning, as long as that money is going to the right players.

These four players are the right players.

Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that Marner gets $10 million per year on his next contract, which might be a good ballpark figure. It’s more than Nylander, little less than Matthews, and that is probably fair because that is where he fits on the Maple Leafs’ talent hierarchy. That would mean the Maple Leafs would open next season with $39.4 million committed to the quartet of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares. If the projected 2019-20 salary cap ceiling of $83 million becomes a reality, that is around 47 percent of the Maple Leafs’ allotted space.

Just for fun, here’s a little comparison of the past three Stanley Cup winners, who also had some pretty high-profile players on their rosters.

You are not winning the Stanley Cup without players of that caliber. Players of that caliber cost a lot of money. Every year between 2010 and 2015 we used to hear about how the Penguins’ model with a couple of big-money players at the top wasn’t working and they might have to trade one to get more depth. Alex Ovechkin‘s contract was just too much for the Capitals to win with because you can’t have one player taking up such a big portion of your salary cap space.

Rubbish.

Does this mean the Maple Leafs are going to be able to keep everybody they want? No. They will have to make some difficult decisions in the coming years. They might have to dump Patrick Marleau‘s contract this offseason. They might have to trade a young player like Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnnson. Or maybe even a Zach Hyman or a Connor Brown. And that’s okay. Those players are replaceable. Maybe not easily replaceable, but still replaceable. You can find another Kasperi Kapanen.

You’re not going to find another Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner.

Just look at the Capitals in the summer before their 2017-18 Stanley Cup season. The salary cap worked against them and they had to make some tough cuts. They couldn’t re-sign Justin Williams and they had to trade Marcus Johansson for pennies on the dollar. But they still had their core, made enough shrewd signings and trades, and had enough young talent coming through the system that they could still piece a competent team around their core and win the Stanley Cup.

Just like the Penguins did the two years before.

The Maple Leafs will be pressed against the salary cap for the foreseeable future, and some second-and third-tier cuts will be happening. But they also have a smart front office that no doubt knows what it’s going to take to make it work, and a front office that knows the type of talent you need to compete. They have it, they kept it. And before you start talking about their defense and how they could, in theory, trade Nylander or Marner for help on the blue line just remember they have a No. 1 defenseman in Morgan Rielly locked up on a long-term, bargain contract for the next few years and just acquired another top-pairing defender in Jake Muzzin without having to trade a core player of their own.

They have the core that can compete for a Stanley Cup. It is definitely not cheap, and it is not going to be easy, but neither is actually winning the Stanley Cup. This is simply the price you have to pay.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals – Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. 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.

Yes, every team hopes to enter the All-Star break on a high note, but the Capitals rank among those with the most incentive to churn out another win.

They’ve lost six consecutive games, and since it looks like Alex Ovechkin‘s playing on Wednesday (thus meaning he’s suspended for a game on Feb. 1), falling to the Maple Leafs would really make for a dour way to begin a little hockey vacation.

With the Bruins and Canadiens not all that far behind the Maple Leafs for second place in the Atlantic, don’t expect Toronto to take it easy on Wednesday. Considering all of these factors, it should be fascinating to watch these two teams duke it out.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs
Where: Scotiabank Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals – Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Dmitrij JaskinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonTravis BoydAndre Burakovsky

Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson
Michal KempnyMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJonas Siegenthaler

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MAPLE LEAFS

Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsMitch Marner
Zach HymanJohn TavaresKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik Gauthier — Trevor Moore

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Travis DermottNikita Zaitsev
Martin MarincinIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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.

Lightning ride Vasilevskiy’s spectacular return to beat Maple Leafs

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The Tampa Bay Lightning remained one of the best teams in the NHL even with Andrei Vasilevskiy missing 15 games, taking a seven-game winning streak into Thursday’s best-versus-best clash against Toronto. All due respect to Louis Domingue, but the Lightning wouldn’t have won their eighth game in a row without a vastly impressive Vasilevskiy.

Honestly, you could make a sane argument that no other goalie in the world could author such a masterpiece, but that’s a debate for your local, hockey-friendly bar.

Speaking of debates, NHL fans were treated to what could potentially be an epic, too-good-for-the-second-round series, with the Lightning beating the Maple Leafs 4-1.

Prediction: a lot of people will look at that 4-1 score and believe that the Lightning absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs. That wasn’t the case, at all, as Vasilevskiy showed the opposite of rustiness in stopping 48 shots.

Vasilevskiy set a new Lightning franchise record for saves in a home game, and tied the overall mark. To review: Vasilevskiy set a new career-high for saves against one of the most explosive offenses in the NHL, and he did it in his first game back since Nov. 10. Tremendous.

Many of those saves were jaw-droppers, rather than run-of-the-mill, with this making a late push for Save of the Year contention:

You can’t really put the Leafs’ lone goal on Vasilevskiy, either, as Kasperi Kapanen stole an ill-advised pass, getting a ton of time and room to score:

After an evenly-matched, exciting 1-1 first period, the Lightning pulled away by scoring three times during the middle frame. All of those tallies were painful for Toronto. Tampa Bay made it 2-1 when Nikita Kucherov scored a barely-goal that Frederik Andersen seemingly gloved, and then the game really got away from the Maple Leafs when the Lightning scored two more times in the final minute of the second period.

Overall, the Maple Leafs generated a gaudy 49-21 shots on goal advantage. While you could accuse the Bolts of sitting on their lead late (they were outshot 16-2 in the third, and endured at least a 13-minute SOG drought), Toronto generated an edge during each period. It didn’t matter, because Vasilevskiy was a human highlight reel in net.

It’s foolish to read too much into a single night during an 82-game season, but perhaps a night like this might give the Maple Leafs that extra push to add that missing piece or two? If nothing else, the Lightning only strengthened their stranglehold on the Atlantic Division crown, not to mention the top spot in the East, and the Presidents’ Trophy.

Sure, the score was lopsided, yet this game made a best-of-seven series that much more tantalizing to imagine, even if getting there would be easier said than done. You know, kind of like getting pucks past Vasi.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.