Morgan Rielly

NHL

Spezza’s tough luck blooper helps send Maple Leafs to another loss

1 Comment

Just when it started to look like the Toronto Maple Leafs were turning things around and get back on track they had a couple of meltdowns over the past 24 hours.

After a disastrous third period sent them to a blowout loss in Philadelphia on Tuesday, they came back on Wednesday night and put together a really strong effort against the Colorado Avalanche that still turned into a tough luck 3-1 loss.

One of the reasons it turned into a loss?

This unfortunate sequence events for forward Jason Spezza early in the third period that led to a Valeri Nichushkin shorthanded goal that would end up going in the books as the game winner.

With the Maple Leafs on the power play, Spezza broke his stick on a shot attempt and then found himself in the awkward position of having the puck come right to him at the blue line.

His desperate attempt to hold the puck in the zone (without a stick) ended up turning into an unintentional pick on his teammate, defenseman Morgan Rielly, resulting in a collision and a clean breakaway for Nichushkin.

He did not miss.

The Maple Leafs have now lost two in a row and three out of their past four games to remain on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They definitely look better under new coach Sheldon Keefe, but they are still only on an 82-point pace for the season and really need to start piling up some points.

Games like Wednesday’s where they play well and still find a way to lose are not helping.

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.

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

21 Comments

The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

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.

Tavares back with Leafs; missed 7 games with broken finger

3 Comments

TORONTO — Maple Leafs captain John Tavares is set to return to the lineup Tuesday night after missing seven games with a broken finger.

The star center says he has made ”really good progress” and is looking forward to the game against the Los Angeles Kings.

Tavares was hurt Oct. 16 after a shot by Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly hit his hand during a 4-3 loss at Washington. The Maple Leafs were 3-2-2 without Tavares, including Saturday’s 4-3 shootout victory in Philadelphia. He had three goals and four assists in eight games this season before the injury.

Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with Toronto in free agency two summers ago. He had 47 goals and 88 points in his first season with the team.

The Buzzer: Fleury shuts out Penguins; hats off to Jost

Getty
1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. The Pittsburgh Penguins did everything they could on Saturday night, and probably even had the better of the play against the Golden Knights, but Fleury stopped all 29 shots he faced — including a couple of highlight reel saves — to get the shutout against his former team. Fleury is off to a great start this season and now has a .934 save percentage in his first six starts.

2. Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche improved to 7-0-1 by rolling over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night thanks in large part to a hat trick from Jost. Expectations were sky high for the Avalanche at the start of the season and they have done nothing but justify them so far. They have the best top line in hockey, an exciting young defense, and strengthened their secondary scoring during the offseason. It is now really difficult to find a clear weakness on this team.

3. Corey Perry, Dallas Stars. Style points don’t matter for the Stars right now. They were not particularly strong on Saturday night in Philadelphia, but they still managed to snap a six-game losing streak with a 4-1 win to get two points that they desperately needed. The star of the game was offseason Perry, scoring his first goal as a member of the Stars and recording two assists. How bad as the Stars offense been this season? Entering play on Saturday the Stars only had five players on the team record more than three points for the entire season (over nine games!).

Other notable performances on Saturday

Highlights of the Night

This is some vintage Anze Kopitar hockey here, turning defense into offense and scoring a slick shorthanded goal to help the Kings roll.

Look at the patience from Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck to wait for Pekka Rinne to make the first move and then beat him with a slick backhander.

Here it is again, the first NHL goal for the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, Jack Hughes. The only goal in a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Blooper of the Night

Jost ended up getting a splash of water to the face in celebration of his first NHL hat trick.

Factoids

  • The Vegas Golden Knights won the 100th game in franchise history on Saturday, needing just 173 games to reach it. That is the second fewest games needed to reach 100, trailing only the 165 games the original Ottawa Senators franchise needed back in 1917. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Hughes became the ninth player in league history to score their first NHL goal in a game against their brother. [NHL PR]
  • Morgan Rielly‘s overtime goal on Saturday night was the fourth of his career. Only Tomas Kaberle has more among Maple Leafs defenders in franchise history. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 1, Vancouver Canucks 0
Montreal Canadiens 5, St. Louis Blues 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Ottawa Senators 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 6, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Dallas Stars 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 0
New York Islanders 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (OT)
Florida Panthers 3, Nashville Predators 2 (SO)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Calgary Flames 1
Buffalo Sabres 4, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Maple Leafs’ Tavares out at least two weeks with broken finger

Getty
2 Comments

It has been a bit of a slow start for the Toronto Maple Leafs and they received a bit of bad news on Thursday afternoon that won’t make things any easier.

The team announced that captain John Tavares will be sidelined for at least the next two weeks due to a broken finger that he suffered during the team’s 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night.

Tavares will be re-evaluated by the team in two weeks when a more definitive timetable on his return will be known.

He was injured when he was struck by a Morgan Rielly slap shot during Wednesday’s game.

In eight games this season Tavares has three goals (including one goal on Wednesday) and four assists. He scored 47 goals for the Maple Leafs a year ago in his first season with the team.

Following Wednesday’s loss the Maple Leafs are 4-3-1 through their first eight games and are still struggling defensively, showing all of the flaws that have slowed them down in recent years. Now they will be without one of their best offensive players for what will probably at least the next six games, if not more. During this upcoming stretch the Maple Leafs play Boston two times, including their next game on Saturday night, and will also play Columbus, San Jose, Washington, Montreal, Philadelphia twice, Los Angeles, and Vegas. Not the most daunting schedule, but not exactly the easiest, either.

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.