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Matthews scores 2 and helps Maple Leafs beat Red Wings 5-3

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DETROIT (AP) — Auston Matthews heard the short list of NHL greats he joined by scoring nine times in the first five games of the season.

Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Marleau, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy are the only other players in league history to pull off the feat.

”Nice,” Matthews said after scoring twice for a league-leading nine goals to help Toronto beat Detroit 5-3 Thursday night.

Matthews is the third player in franchise history to score in the first five games of a season.

”He had a fast start last year, too, unfortunately he got injured,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”He’s a big man. He’s really worked hard on his body. He’s worked hard on his skating and all parts of his game. With and without the puck, he’s better.”

Morgan Rielly had a goal and an assist, giving him 12 points to surpass Bobby Orr’s strong start during the 1973-74 season. Among defensemen, Rielly trails only Harry Cameron, who had 15 points in the Toronto Arenas’ first five games of the 1917-18 season.

”I’m not going to address personal stuff,” Rielly said. ”I think it’s more important to move on.”

Nick Jensen gave the Red Wings a 1-0 lead midway through the first period and scored a second goal midway through the third to pull them within a goal.

”It’s never as sweet when you get the goals but you don’t get the win,” he said.

Soon after Jensen’s second goal, Matthews took advantage of a power play by scoring his second goal of the game.

Detroit pulled within a goal again when a review determined Dylan Larkin scored with 6:04 left in the game. The Red Wings pulled Jimmy Howard to add an extra skater, but Ron Hainsey scored an empty-net goal to seal the win.

”I didn’t like the third,” said Babcock, a former Detroit coach. ”We didn’t take care of the puck as good and we didn’t keep our foot on the gas.”

Frederik Andersen made 26 saves and Mitch Marner had a goal for the Maple Leafs.

Howard had 30 stops for the rebuilding Red Wings, who have lost their first four games for the first time since the 1980.

”Bits and pieces of the game we did some of the good things, but it wasn’t enough done right,” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said.

John Tavares, the top prize in free agency last summer, had four assists for the Atlantic Division-leading Maple Leafs, winners of three straight.

”It’s great for the all the guys who are doing some scoring right now,” Babcock said. ”It makes you feel good. In the end, though, it’s about winning. It doesn’t really matter who does the scoring as long as you find a way to win. It’s an exciting time for our team, but we’ve got to get a lot better.”

NOTES: Matthews joined Sweeney Schriner (1944-45) and Corb Denneny (1921-22) in team history as the three players who scored in each of its first five games in a season. … The Red Wings announced before the game they will retire Hall of Famer Red Kelly’s No. 4 jersey on Feb. 1, 2019, when they host Toronto. Kelly played in Detroit from 1947-60 and for the Maple Leafs from 1960-67. Toronto retired his jersey two years ago. … Jensen has scored three of the six goals in his career against Toronto. The defenseman did not score in 81 games last season and had four the previous season as a rookie.

Three questions facing Toronto Maple Leafs

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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.

Three questions to ponder for the 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs…

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

1. Will the defense be good enough?

We know the Maple Leafs are going to score goals. This should be the best offensive team in hockey with John Tavares joining one of the best young collections of talent in the league, giving Toronto a dynamic and downright dominant offensive lineup.

The question then becomes will they be able to stop anybody at the other end of the ice?

Defense was a problem for the Maple Leafs in 2017-18 and the front office really did not do much to address in the offseason, at least when it comes to additions from outside the organization. The Maple Leafs finished the 2017-18 season in the bottom-five in shots allowed per game and surrendered 2.79 goals per game, a number that put them around the middle of the pack. Not great … not terrible … pretty average. Had it not been for some — at times — spectacular play from Frederik Andersen in net that number probably would have been a lot lower given the number of shots they allowed. Not making significant changes to the personnel could be seen as risky, but there is definitely talent on the back end. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are solid top-four defenders, and Travis Dermott had an outstanding debut in the second half. Maybe a little more of them and a little less from Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev could make a big impact in improving the group.

2. Will they give Frederik Andersen a break?

One of the more baffling decisions by coach Mike Babcock down the stretch last year was not giving starting goalie Frederik Andersen more rest as the team approached the playoffs. He took on a massive workload for the second year in a row and with the team having nothing to play for down the stretch continued to run him out there on a regular basis, once again having him finish near the top of the league in games played and shots faced. That is a lot to ask of a starting goalie, and it he probably could have benefitted from some extra rest by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Over the past two seasons only one goalie in the league has appeared in more games than Andersen’s 132 (Edmonton’s Cam Talbot has played in 140) while only three other goalies have played in at least 125 (Sergei Bobrovsky, Devan Dubnyk, and Martin Jones). No goalie has faced more shots than the 4,263 that Andersen has faced, while only Talbot has faced more than 3,900 shots. Andersen, Talbot, and Bobrovsky are the only three that have faced more than 3,700 shots, making the 4,200+ that Andersen has had to stand in against seem even more incredible.

Right now Garret Sparks is the top backup on the roster and is coming off a couple of strong seasons in the American Hockey League.

His ability to step in and give Andersen some much needed rest throughout the season could be a big development for the Maple Leafs.

3. Will John Tavares be the missing piece to end Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought?

Players like John Tavares typically do not change teams.

At least not when they are still under the age of 30 and still in the prime of their careers. But not only did Tavares leave the New York Islanders this summer to join a new team, he joined his hometown team, in Toronto, joining a roster that suddenly has Stanley Cup aspirations and is looking to end a championship drought that goes back to 1967.

With all of that comes a ton of pressure.

Tavares is a world-class talent. He is probably one of the 10 or 15 best players in the world and is making huge money over the next eight years and as mentioned above is going to give the Maple Leafs a collection of offensive talent that is nearly unmatched in the league. Even with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner on the roster he is now the face of this franchise and is going to be expected to lift it to new heights and finally help bring a championship back to the city.

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.

Which team is most likely to come back from 2-1 deficit?

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We’re midway through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although the Vegas Golden Knights have already punched their ticket to the second round, there are still other spots that are up for grabs.

The Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild are on the brink of elimination. That’s not to say that they can’t overcome their current deficits, but they have a steep hill to climb. So let’s look at the teams that are down 2-1 in their respective series.

The Devils, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Capitals and Avalanche are all in that predicament. Every one of those teams, except Philadelphia, came away with a huge Game 3 victory, so there’s a sense of optimism surrounding those clubs. They aren’t in an ideal spot, but they aren’t dead either.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who has the best chance of coming back to win the series? Let’s rank them from least likely to most likely.

• New Jersey Devils

Taylor Hall was sensational in New Jersey’s Game 3 victory, as he recorded a goal and two primary assists. Hall has played at least 20 minutes in each of the first three games of the series. He’s a matchup problem for any of Tampa’s skaters, but getting Brayden Point on the ice against him is clearly the preference for head coach Jon Cooper. But will Devils bench boss John Hynes be able to get the desired matchups when the series shifts back to Tampa? Hall will produce no matter what, but there’s no denying that winning on the road and winning at home are two different things, especially for a team with quite a few youngsters.

The wild card in all of this is Cory Schneider, who picked up his first win of 2018 in Game 3. Schneider looked as confident as he’s looked in quite some time, so stealing a game or two would go a long way in helping New Jersey come back. Again, that might be a lot to ask from a guy that lost his starting job to Keith Kinkaid for a few weeks.

“Still a lot of work to go. One win is a starting points, so we have to make sure we come back with the same intensity (Wednesday) night,” Schneider said, per NJ.com. “But yeah, 2-1 and 3-0 are a big difference. It was an important game for us to win just to get into the series and make it a series. Hopefully we can continue to make it more difficult as it goes on here.”

It’ll also be interesting to see how the bad blood at the end of Game 3 affects this series. Can the Devils use Mikhail Sergachev‘s hit on Blake Coleman as motivation? Does the rough stuff help Tampa Bay focus on getting back to business? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into Game 4.

• Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have been overwhelmed by the Penguins in two of the first three games, but here they are trailing to just one game heading into Game 4. Discipline has been a big problem for them through three contests. Even in the game that they won, they still took silly penalties, but managed to kill them off. If that doesn’t change, this series will be over faster than you can say “Philly cheese steak with no onions and extra cheese whiz”.

As if the 2-1 deficit to the Penguins wasn’t enough, it now looks like they might be without Sean Couturier, who was injured during a collision in practice with Radko Gudas. Missing him for any amount of time would be a huge loss for the Flyers.

Whether Couturier plays or not, Philadelphia will need more from Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek.

“There’s a lot of guys in here that can pick up slack, guys that are itching to get more time too,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said, per NHL.com. “If he’s not available, if he is available, I think our guys are ready for that.”

The Flyers proved that they could beat the Penguins, now they just have to show that they can do it three more times.

• Colorado Avalanche

The Avs have surprisingly dominated the opening period of each of these first three games. Unfortunately for them, they only have one win to show for it, but they can pull positives from the fact that they weren’t skated out of the building on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Nathan MacKinnon and Hall are in similar situations, meaning that they’ll have to shoulder most of the offensive burden, but the Avs forward definitely has more help up front. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog can also be difference-makers for Colorado.

You have to wonder how injuries have affected this series. How much do things change if Colorado has a healthy Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard and Semyon Varlamov. Missing Varlamov seems to be the biggest loss, as Jonathan Bernier has had his share of tough moments in the series. Is he capable of stealing a game in Nashville? That’s what it’s going to take for Colorado to move on to the second round.

Nothing is impossible, but it seems like the Avs are a year away from taking the next step. Overcoming this 2-1 deficit would be a huge surprise.

• Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are an interesting case. They played a relatively strong home game in Game 3, as they managed to keep the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak off the scoresheet. The thing is, they haven’t looked too good on Boston ice, where the desired matchups are a lot harder to come by. Deadline acquisition Tomas Plekanec along with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey did what they had to do to keep that line in check in Game 3. Can they do it again? Even at home, that’s not a sure thing.

Boston’s first line had their share of opportunities, especially when the Bruins were pressing in the third period. You just get the feeling like the Leafs will have to do an impeccable job defensively and they’ll have to pray that the opposing trio doesn’t bury one, or two, or three.

Goalie Frederik Andersen is also an interesting case. He’s let in some bad goals during this series, including in Game 3, but he’s also managed to come up with some impressive saves at times. The Leafs are going to need a little more consistency from their number one netminder, or this thing could get away from them in a hurry.

And, of course, Toronto has to hope that Auston Matthews‘ game-winning goal in Game 3 will help give him the spark he needs to continue producing regularly. Monday’s goal was his first point of the playoffs.

“People find it hard to believe, but it’s easy to lose your confidence very quickly at playoff time,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “I think we’re in a great spot to get it back, and I really felt it helped Freddie (Monday) night, it helped Auston (Monday) night. A lot of guys are feeling better about themselves.”

•Washington Capitals

This is arguably the most interesting one of the lot. Sure, they’re the most likely team to come back from a 2-1 deficit, but they could easily be down 3-0 if Lars Eller doesn’t get that lucky bounce in double overtime on Tuesday night.

The Capitals have all the firepower they need to make a deep run, they just haven’t ever been able to do it. As the Caps have found out, the Blue Jackets are no joke, so they’ll have to be at their best to advance to the second round. Bowing out in the first round would probably bring about more changes in Washington, so they’ve got to come through if they want to stick together going forward.

Braden Holtby made some big saves during Game 3, but he also let in an incredibly weak goal to Pierre-Luc Dubois to tie the game at one in the second period. Holtby has been off for most of the year, but if there was ever a time for him to emerge as a hero, it’s right now.

“It puts us right back in the series,” Holtby said, per NHL.com. “I thought we held our composure really well in the overtimes. We didn’t cheat. We stuck to our systems and got a gritty goal to win it. It’s a good sign.”

Of the five teams trailing 2-1, there’s no denying that the Capitals are the most talented team. On the flip side, they also have the most playoff baggage of all the teams, too. It’ll be interesting to see if they can overcome these mental hurdles, but that lucky bounce in OT may have saved their season.

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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.

Leafs blank Bruins’ top line, cut series deficit to 2-1

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Well, we’ve got ourselves a series.

The Toronto Maple Leafs managed to get themselves on the board in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins.

The biggest question coming into the game was how the Leafs were going to shut down the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Now that they were at home, they managed to get the matchup they wanted against that dynamic trio. Head coach Mike Babcock tried to get Tomas Plekanec‘s line out against them with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey on defense.

Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak got their scoring chances and shot attempts, but they didn’t get on the board in Game 3. The line combined to go minus-7 on the evening. Still, all three players finished the game with a CF% of 50 percent or more.

Meanwhile, Plekanec’s CF% was below 40 percent. That’s not great, but you have to expect that Boston’s top line will get their looks. If you’re matching up against them, you just have to pray that they don’t convert, and that’s exactly what happened in Game 3.

James van Riemsdyk opened the scoring in the first period, after the Leafs got a controversial power play opportunity when Riley Nash was given a penalty for putting the puck over the glass (it deflected before going out of play, but the officials missed it).

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Adam McQuaid tied the game at one early in the second frame when he beat Frederik Andersen with a shot from the point. Andersen made a number of key saves in this game, but there’s no doubt that he’s going to want to have this one back.

Even though he gave up at least one questionable goal in this one, the Maple Leafs netminder did what he had to do to keep his team ahead down the stretch. When it was all said and done, he turned aside 40 of 42 shots in Game 3, including this spectacular one on David Pastrnak late in the game.

Patrick Marleau restored Toronto’s one-goal lead just 55 seconds later. Again though, Zdeno Chara scored this goal from a ridiculous angle:

But before the end of the frame, Auston Matthews found the back of the net for the first time in the series, and he was pretty fired up about it.

His goal proved to be the game-winner.

Marleau’s second tally of the game extended Toronto’s lead to 4-2 in the third.

These two teams will get an extra day between this game and the next season, as the Leafs will host Game 4 on Thursday night.

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.

NHL GM Meetings Wrap Up: Goalie interference review recommendation; salary cap expected to rise

The NHL’s general manager’s wrapped up three days of meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. and came away with a recommendation for the league’s Board of Governors and the NHL/NHLPA Competition Committee.

As we wrote yesterday, the GMs want all decisions on coach’s challenges for goaltender interference centralized and the final say to come from the Situation Room in Toronto where a retired referee part of the NHL Officiating Management Team will be included in the process.

“At their annual March meeting, that concluded today, the general managers overwhelmingly voted to adopt this change to bring an added level of consistency to goaltender interference rulings and add the input of experienced former on-ice officials to the review process,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “While, since the adoption of the coach’s challenge, there have been relatively few controversial calls on goaltender interference – perhaps half a dozen of approximately 170 challenges this season – the objective is to be as close to perfect as possible. However, goaltender interference ultimately is a judgment call.

“The video review process was designed to enable our referees to determine, upon viewing video replays, whether to overturn their original calls. In the vast majority of cases, their final decision has concurred with the Situation Room’s view.

“The recommended change is intended to help resolve the rare cases in which the Situation Room and the referees might have different opinions of a particular play and is intended to produce more predictability for our players and coaches.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The core of the issue here is still the interpretation of what goaltender interference is. Sure, there’s a standard in place in the rulebook, but clearly that’s become a subjective issue depending on who’s officiating that night’s game. According to Bettman, that retired referee in the Situation Room won’t be the same one every night, meaning different eyes will see different things.

The definition of the call is still what many are seeking. How many NHL head coaches have publicly said they don’t know how goaltender interference is defined these days? Phil Housley, Mike Sullivan and Mike Babcock, for starters.

Should the BOG and the Competition Committee approve the recommendation, it will be enacted by the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month.

According to the NHL, through Tuesday night’s games there have been 172 coach’s challenges for goalie interference (152 have been initiated by head coaches) with 120 calls being upheld and 52 overturned.

UPDATE: The NHLPA reviewed the recommended changes with the Competition Committee and has given its approval.

Per a release from the NHLPA on Wednesday:

The National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has reviewed the NHL General Managers Recommended Change to Rule 78.7 (ii) Governing Coach’s Challenges for Goaltender Interference with our Competition Committee Members – Michael Cammalleri (Edmonton Oilers), Ron Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs), Kevin Shattenkirk (New York Rangers), Cory Schneider (New Jersey Devils), and Daniel Winnik (Minnesota Wild) – along with many other Players in our Membership.  Based on those discussions, the NHLPA has decided to approve the proposed change.  The rule change will now require further approval by the NHL’s Board of Governors.

“First and foremost, the players want consistency in the application of the rule, and therefore support this proposed change in order to help accomplish that goal,” NHLPA Special Assistant to the Executive Director Mathieu Schneider said in a release late Wednesday.

Offside review change fails to garner support

For the second straight year, the GMs failed to support any decision to revise offside reviews. According to Colin Campbell, head of the NHL’s hockey operations department, there were only 10 GMs were supported a change, with a two-thirds vote needed to move it to the governors and competition committee.

Head hits down, boarding up

George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, told the GMs that hits to the head have declined but hits from behind are increasing.

“Particularly with boarding, we do see a lot of younger players these days that turn their backs to the play at the last second, whether they’ve grown up that way not expecting to get hit, whatever it may be,” Parros said. “Those are the tough ones to determine where the fault lies. If a player can essentially get out of the way before making contact before he’s done seeing the numbers, we take that into consideration.”

Seattle gets same rules as Vegas

As has been said for months by the league, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly reiterated that should Seattle be granted an NHL franchise they will have the same expansion draft rules as the Vegas Golden Knights did a year ago. For $650 millon, you certainly would hope so.

Salary cap still expected to rise

The projections of next season’s salary cap ceiling remain on point with the range to land between $78 and $82 million. The current salary cap ceiling is $75 million, with an expected increase of at least $3 million for the 2018-19 NHL season. If the Players’ Associations uses its inflator, the ceiling could increase to $82 million.

Miscellaneous

What do you think about the idea of a period beginning with face-off in the offensive zone should a penalty carry over? The GMs apparently had no appetite for such a change. Nor did they see any need to do something about fights that begin after legal hits.

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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.