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Auston Matthews expected to miss a month with shoulder injury

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Here we go again.

A hard hit, a grimacing Auston Matthews and a lengthy spell without one of the best players in the game.

For the second time inside a calendar year, a bone-crushing hit from an opponent will see the Toronto Maple Leafs superstar miss an extended period of time with a shoulder injury. The Maple Leafs announced on Monday that Matthews, the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals and 16 points, will miss a minimum of four weeks.

Matthews was walloped by Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba on Saturday night. The clean hit sent Matthews immediately to Toronto’s bench and shortly after that, right down the tunnel. He was not seen again on the ice and is now on injured reserve.

“It’s frustrating,” Matthews told reporters in Toronto on Monday. “There’s not much you can do. It sucks. It’s part of the game. I’m going to work as hard as I can to get back as soon as possible and feeling back to myself.”

Matthews said the injury is similar to the injury suffered to his right shoulder last season, only this time it’s happened to his left shoulder. He said he doesn’t need surgery.

The first shoulder injury cost him four weeks and 10 missed games.

Back in February, Matthews was caught between a rock and a hard place when two New York Islanders converged on him. The sandwiching hit knocked him out of the game that night as well.

The Leafs play 15 times over the next four weeks, so the impact of Matthews’ latest ailment is well-pronounced.

He’s been one of the best players in the NHL to start the season and a big reason why the Leafs have marched out to an 8-3-0 record.

The silver lining? Toronto faired reasonably well without Matthews during that 10-game chunk last season, going 5-3-2. And that was when they didn’t have the refuge of John Tavares in the lineup.

Every single Maple Leafs player will tell you that you don’t replace a talent like Matthews, and that is 100 percent accurate.

You manage.

The Leafs looked better equipped this time to do so this time around. You only have to look at Saturday’s game after Matthews was hit for some proof. Down 2-0 to the Jets, Toronto engineered a third-period comeback with three unanswered goals to take the game 3-2.

That said, Toronto’s depth is about to get tested.

The other worry here is Matthews’ proneness to injuries over the past two seasons. He played the full 82-game schedule during his rookie year but was limited to 62 games last season.

Injuries now to both shoulders, his back and a concussion have sidelined Matthews inside the past year. The Leafs were 11-7-2 during those times without the 21-year-old.

His, shoulders, specifically, have been a source of concern dating back before he entered the NHL.

And what becomes of the William Nylander talks now? Perhaps a little more leverage for the Swede?

Nylander still remains unsigned by the club, who could now use his scoring prowess. It’s unlikely the Leafs cave to his demands, but it has to be a little more appealing given the current circumstances.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Crosby continues goal-scoring resurgence with another backhand beauty

Associated Press
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Halloween is fast approaching and Sidney Crosby is reminding the NHL that he’s still the wizard.

Crosby’s latest sorcery? His backhand shot.

The victims? The Edmonton Oilers and now the Calgary Flames. Crosby is casting spells on Alberta and there’s not a darn thing they can do about it.

The proof? Here’s Flames forward Sam Bennett. He’s draped himself all over Crosby, presumably to try and stop any sort of shenanigans. Crosby, unfazed, decides to score anyway as he forces his backhand shot (which appeared to be a one-handed effort) past Mike Smith.

It’s sort of unfair.

Crosby’s latest goal — his third of the season and third in his past two games after a slow start — comes after making particularly nasty work of Oilers forward Ryan Strome on Monday.

You can only feel bad for Strome here. There wasn’t a thing he could have done as Crosby did Crosby and scored an incredible backhand goal to steal back the best-player-in-the-league title.

Crosby’s slow start had people wondering if, finally, the man would start to slow down. It seems now that he was just lying in wait.


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

Maple Leafs looking for their ‘mojo’ after back-to-back losses

Associated Press
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“We got to get our mojo back.”

The sky is far from falling in Toronto, but Mike Babcock knows the secret of his Maple Leafs is finally out.

The Leafs dropped their second straight game for the first time this season on Saturday in a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

That loss followed a 3-0 shutout defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the week, the first time Toronto’s dominant offense had been blanked this season.

There have been a few firsts over the past two games, but perhaps for every team in the league, there’s finally a blueprint out there on how to find success against Toronto.

The Leafs have constructed high-danger chance after high-danger chance since the start of the season (they’re third in the NHL with 92 of them) but over the past two games, they haven’t converted on any of them.

Toronto generated 20 high-danger opportunities over the two games but just couldn’t sort pucks into the back of the net in those contests.

Since getting zero goals off 20 chances over their first two games, Toronto had been on a tear, converting 10 goals off chances over their next five games in five-on-five scenarios.

In simpler speak, the likes of Auston Matthews and Co. haven’t been scoring at the same rates they were before their mini-slump here. The well has run dry when playing five-on-five right now and it’s been detrimental to Toronto’s success.

Babcock said after Saturday’s game that his team is finding out it’s hard to score in the NHL. And team’s adjust.

The better you are, the bigger the bullseye when another team takes the ice across from you. And the book on the Maple Leafs is that they’re fast, they transition well and they work well in space.

“The last couple nights, [we] haven’t won enough battles and races. You don’t feel very good about what’s going on,” Babcock told TSN on Sunday. “You have to get back to work, [and hopefully] let your ups be longer than your downs.”

Clog those lanes, play a little tighter and bog the game down seems to be doing the trick over the past two games.

Toronto’s schedule doesn’t get much easier with back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets in a home-and-home mini-series next week. The Jets won their second straight game for the first time this season and are beginning to find scoring from all four of their lines.

Winnipeg is a big and bruising team that can frustrate opposing offenses. Quickly righting the ship will be a stiff challenge in the coming days.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Pens’ Justin Schultz out four months with fractured leg

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be without Justin Schultz for a while.

Schultz underwent successful surgery on Sunday to repair a fracture in his lower left leg, according to the team. Schultz was injured on Saturday night in a game against the Montreal Canadiens after falling awkwardly on his leg.

He’s expected to miss four months, pegging his return in the middle of February at the earliest.

Fair warning: the video isn’t for the faint of heart.

Schultz had been producing at a point-per-game rate before getting injured, with four assists in Pittsburgh’s first four games. That was good for second on the team in terms of defensemen scoring behind Kris Letang while averaging over 17 minutes during his first three games.

It goes without saying, but it’s a big blow to the Penguins’ back end.

With Schultz out, the Penguins are going to be looking for players to step up, including his partner Jack Johnson, who signed a five-year deal with the club this summer. Johnson has yet to produce a point so far this season. Olli Maatta is also another candidate that needs to jumpstart his season in a hurry. Maatta has already been a healthy scratch this season, and like Johnson, has yet to put up a point.

The Penguins started the season with Maatta and Johnson together so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them give that a go again.

“We have capable NHL defensemen so I’m confident that we can put guys in that I know can help us win games,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s not an easy guy to replace. He’s a very good player and has been very good for us for a long time. So it’s a tough loss from our standpoint, but certainly we’ve got to be prepared with the guys that we have.”

The injury will also mean more time for rookie Juuso Riikola and Jamie Oleksiak, who could be paired together going forward. Both players have spent time in and out of the lineup early on. Riikola could stand to benefit most from Schultz’s absence, so there’s a big opportunity there for him to grab some extra minutes.

Schultz was the second man over the boards on the power play after Letang. Perhaps Riikola gets a look there as well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

What’s behind Hurricanes’ early-season success?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are off to a mighty fine start, eh?

A 4-1-1 record, with their lone regulation loss coming against the Winnipeg Jets in a game they thoroughly dominated but lost on a late third-period hiccup. The Hurricanes have been a pleasant surprise in the NHL in the infancy of the 2018-19 season.

As PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed out last week, the team is young, fun and worth watching.

They are all three of those things, and they’re doing so in such dominant fashion thus far. Case and point: Over the past two games, Carolina has logged a whopping 100 shots on goal. They peppered Devan Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild into submission on Saturday night, finally winning the game in overtime on sheer volume alone on their 57th shot.

On Sunday night in Winnipeg, a team playing the second game of a back-to-back put up 43 more against a team that’s touted as a Stanley Cup contender. The Hurricanes enjoyed 61 percent of the possession in the game, producing 34 scoring chances, with 14 of those being of the high-danger variety.

Their loss on vs. the Jets was bad luck more than anything. Winnipeg didn’t deserve to win the game. The Hurricanes didn’t deserve to lose.

And while the ‘L’ might be a sobering reminder that life isn’t always fair in the NHL, Carolina’s play as a whole has put the league on watch.

The Hurricanes roll four lines that control the game’s shot share. Here’s a handy-dandy chart to explain:

Source: Natural Stat Trick

Carolina has been overwhelming teams thus far and it’s coming from everywhere. There’s little drop off no matter who’s on the ice.

There’s a disclaimer here and that is that the season is young. These are far from concrete numbers over the course of an 82-game season, but what they do show is how well the Hurricanes are clicking together amongst their four lines and how it’s having a direct effect on their results, even with the small sample size.

Are these numbers likely to regress? Yes.

But while they may fall closer to the earth going forward, they could get covered off if Carolina’s goaltending improves. Petr Mrazek was sensational against the Jets, and Curtis McElhinney has allowed eight goals in three starts. That’s good. But with the Hurricanes controlling so much of the offense, they’re giving up just 25 shots per game. Their team save percentage is sitting at .886 through six games, which is hardly world-beating.

The return of Scott Darling at some point could help that if he’s the re-invigorated man he claimed to be over the summer. And while regression will set it at some point, league-average goaltending would go a long way into mitigating its effects.

For now, the Hurricanes sit atop the NHL in possession, tied with the San Jose Sharks. They’re sixth in goals-for percentage, which is simply the percentage of goals-for vs. goals-against, third in scoring chances for, second in high-danger chances for, which is shots that occur in the slot in front of the net, and first in high-danger goals for, meaning goals scored from those high-danger areas.

In layman’s terms: The NHL’s most exciting team is also one of its most dangerous.

And the plan is for that to continue.

“We’re going to continue to try to play like that,” said forward Jordan Staal Sunday night. “It’s been our aggressive style. Obviously, we’re a quick team and we’re trying to play that way and create turnovers. Our [defense] has been really good with good gaps and creating a lot of shots, too, to kind of create seconds. We’re going to continue to try and pepper goalies and try to get some more goals.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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