Frederik Andersen

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Marner to play first Leafs game since Babcock drama (and Tuesday’s mini-meltdown)

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When it comes to a team’s 30th game of an 82-game regular season, you couldn’t ask for much more sizzle than what the Toronto Maple Leafs could provide against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs activated winger Mitch Marner, setting the stage for the crafty winger to play since Nov. 9, when Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An eventful month

To put things mildly, a lot happened since Marner’s unpleasant-looking injury:

That 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers began what would be a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs, and represented the end of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. It wasn’t, of course, the end of Babcock-related drama, however, as reports surfaced about Babcock playing mind games with Marner during his rookie season, and all that “hardest working players list” entailed.

Since then, there have been a wave of stories about coaches exhibiting abusive behavior (either physically, verbally, or sometimes a mix of the two), with the Calgary Flames parting ways with Bill Peters, Marc Crawford placed on leave from the Blackhawks, and plenty of other reverberations.

Akim Aliu stated that he expects “big changes” around hockey (and the NHL in particular) following a meeting with the league, but time will ultimately tell.

Either way, Babcock’s firing and that rookie-year story should fix even more eyes on Marner than usual, which is saying something considering all of the attention his offseason contract negotiations received.

A fuller view of the new-look Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe won his first three games as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the Buds have since stumbled in their last three games, going 1-2-0. Things ended on an extremely sour note on Tuesday, as the Maple Leafs experienced a bit of meltdown late in a 6-1 loss against the Flyers.

Auston Matthews said “we can’t fold like that,” while Keefe agreed that the Maple Leafs let Frederik Andersen out to dry, stating that “hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need.”

It doesn’t figure to be easy. The Avalanche are on a three-game winning streak, boast players like Nazem Kadri who will be pumped to play against his former team in Toronto, and are rested (their last game was on Saturday) while Toronto is closing out a back-to-back. The Maple Leafs have struggled lately in such back-to-back sets, at least stemming from Babcock’s days.

Watching Marner himself

Pension Plan Puppets points out that Marner is coming back basically as early as possible (assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks before Wednesday’s game).

Getting Marner back should be a thrill, and again, a nice opportunity to get a better picture of what GM Kyle Dubas truly envisions as his team now that he doesn’t have to clash with Babcock’s competing style.

But how close to 100 percent will Marner be? While his most treasured ability is his world-class playmaking, Marner is also known for outstanding edgework and agility, using his elusiveness to thrive as a smaller player (rather than Nathan MacKinnon-class speed). You have to wonder if recovering from a high-ankle sprain might at least hinder some of his skating strength.

That said, Marner will still have the vision and anticipation that makes him such a great passer. Jake Muzzin pointed out the way Marner processes the game, and while there could be a bit of rust there, chances are he’ll give Toronto another gear.

“His reads without the puck,” Muzzin said when asked where Marner’s hockey IQ really shines. “I feel like he’s one step ahead of the puck out there when he’s on. He’s got great vision with the puck, but picking guys and reading passes before they happen, he’s right up there with the best.”

Maybe the Maple Leafs will be a little tired on Tuesday, and maybe Marner won’t be quite there physically, but it still feels like we’ll get a better idea of what this team (and player) is capable of now that Babcock is no longer in the picture.

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.

Maple Leafs hoping ‘sour’ taste from rough loss leads to wake-up call

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PHILADELPHIA — During a pregame media availability on Tuesday, Maple Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson described the adjustment period so far under new head coach Sheldon Keefe as “a little up and down.”

“We have good periods and then we have bad periods,” Johnsson said. “Whenever you play you’re going to have bad periods because the other team is good, too. [We want to make them shorter] when it doesn’t go your way.”

The Maple Leafs had a good opening period against the Flyers Tuesday night, peppering Carter Hart with 15 shots. But they couldn’t crack the netminder, and while they managed to even the score at one midway through the third period, thanks to a fortuitous bounce, the rest of that final period? Mark that down as one of those “bad periods” Johnsson was talking about.

Eighty-eight seconds after Travis Dermott’s tying goal, Claude Giroux scored to help the Flyers regain the lead. 

That’s when the wheels fell off.

As the Maple Leafs pushed for an equalizer, poor puck containment in the offensive zone led to a two-on-one break the other way with Travis Konecny leading the charge. As Konecny’s shot was making its way through Frederik Andersen’s five hole, the goaltender knew he was beat and threw his head back in frustration.

After Joel Farabee put in an empty-netter to make it 4-1, Andersen went back in net for the final two minutes and promptly surrendered two goals in 12 seconds as the Flyers were 6-1 victors.

“We still had a couple minutes left, but we let in that empty net goal and I mean, we can’t just fold like that,” said Auston Matthews. “It’s unacceptable to do that to our starting goalie, a guy that’s stolen games for us. He’s been a brick wall for us all year. That’s just unacceptable on our part. We can’t just fold, that’s unacceptable. We just let him out to dry, breakaway, two-on-ones, odd man rushes all in the last minute and suddenly the score is 6-1, so that’s on us. That just can��t happen.”

The Maple Leafs netminder wasn’t happy with his teammates’ performance in the final five minutes. As soon as the buzzer sounded, he made a bee-line for the tunnel.

“I don’t really worry about me. I worry more about the way we played for the logo on the jersey,” Andersen said afterward. “I think we’ve got to get more pride than that. Hopefully we can respond and show what kind of character we have.”

(Andersen also sounded off on the lackluster effort of his teammates two years following a loss to the Flyers. )

Keefe had some things to say to his players afterward as he went into the dressing room and spoke to the team following the game, something he hasn’t done since taking over for Mike Babcock two weeks ago.

“Normally I would not go in after a loss or a game like this but I felt like it was important to address that situation,” Keefe said. “We want to be a team of high character and that cares for one another and I thought we just left our goaltender completely out to dry there and stopped playing, so that’s not a good sign for our group, but hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need. 

“I think as I look back on the game as that third period is unfolding, I think we saw two different teams. One that has kind of figured out how to win and know what their recipe is and another on our side that’s trying to find its way. I think that’s the difference in the game.”

The Maple Leafs are still learning Keefe’s system and Keefe is still learning his players’ tendencies and the strengths and weaknesses of their games. There’s plenty to clean up defensively, and that’s the goal in the coming weeks. They’re now 4-2-0 since the coaching change and now isn’t the time to lose the early momentum gained from firing Babcock.

“I think over time I’m starting to learn that a little bit of where we’re at and we’ll continue to make strides, but we don’t have a whole lot of time here,” Keefe said. “We’re going to get right back at it with a very good team [Colorado] waiting for us in Toronto. 

“We’ve got to regroup here really quickly and hopefully the way this game finished will leave a sour enough taste in our mouth that we’ll be coming out [Wednesday] and show we’re a different group.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Malkin a comeback; Bernier’s bad day

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Three Stars

1. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

If you really wanted to, you could really pile up Penguins (and to some extent, Canucks, what with Quinn Hughes generating three assists) in the top three. Jake Guentzel managed two goals and two assists, while Bryan Rust had a four-point night (1G, 3A).

But Malkin led the way with a five-point night on the strength of two goals and three assists. The fact that one of his tallies was an empty-netter feels trivial.

This Penguins team has been running on defense more than expected, yet nights like these remind you that this team is a chameleon that seems to find ways to win, whether that means adapting styles or dealing with injuries.

Read more about the Penguins’ wild win against the Canucks in this post.

2. Jonathan Bernier, Detroit Red Wings

OK, look … you can swap Bernier out for someone from the team that won Wednesday’s game 6-0. Choose a Maple Leafs player such as Andreas Johnsson (2G, 1A) or Frederik Andersen (25-save shutout).

To me, though, Bernier deserves recognition for even appearing in the game.

Bernier had been dealing with flu-like symptoms, so he apparently didn’t even dress for Wednesday’s contest. Yet, with Jimmy Howard getting hurt as the Maple Leafs scored a 3-0 goal against the Red Wings, Bernier was pressed into action.

Toronto fired 26 shots on goal during the second period alone, forcing Bernier to make 37 out of 40 saves to keep the game at least in the same zip code. While some might give Bernier demerits for spoiling the coveted emergency goalie experience, he deserves credit for working this hard while sick and that close to a holiday.

3. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

If hockey was pro wrestling – and sometimes it feels like it almost is, considering the overlap in fans – then Lundqvist might have demanded a “You still got it” chant on Wednesday.

Lundqvist made 41 saves in helping the Rangers steal one against the Hurricanes, with this stop against Martin Necas ranking as a candidate for highlight of the night:

Other highlights of the night

Speaking of still having it, Alex Ovechkin produced a beauty here, and kudos to Evgeny Kuznetsov for a well-timed and well-placed drop pass:

Max Pacioretty tied things up for the Golden Knights and Predators with .3 remaining in regulation, and Vegas ended up beating the Predators in OT. Ouch. If you want to frame-by-frame it, the video shows when the puck hits the net somewhere between the .4 and .3 mark at around the minute mark of the clip.

Factoids

  • Paul Stastny reached the 700-point milestone during the Golden Knights’ comeback win against Nashville. NHL PR notes that Paul and Peter Stastny became the third father-son combo to reach 700+ points apiece, joining Gordie and Mark Howe and Brett and Bobby Hull.
  • Sheldon Keefe is the first Maple Leafs coach to win the first three games of his NHL coaching career, according to NHL PR.
  • Phil Kessel joins a rare group of seven NHL players to play 800+ games in a row, via NHL PR.
  • Sportsnet points out that Patrik Laine already has at least one goal against every Western Conference opponent.
  • Another from Sportsnet: Matthew Tkachuk‘s 23 third-period goals since 2018-19 leads all NHL players.

Scores

CGY 3 – BUF 2 (OT)
BOS 2 – OTT 1
TOR 6 – DET 0
STL 4 – TBL 3
NYR 3 – CAR 2
PIT 8 – VAN 6
WSH 4 – FLA 3
PHI 3 – CBJ 2
VGK 4 – NSH 3 (OT)
ARI 4 – ANA 3 (SO)
COL 4 – EDM 1
LAK 4 – NYI 1
WPG 5 – SJS 1

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.

Maple Leafs get embarrassed as losing streak reaches 5 games

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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened an extremely important six-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Saturday night and turned to 26-year-old rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo to try and snap their current losing streak.

It did not go well for him in his NHL debut as he gave up six goals on 38 shots.

That was the bad news for Toronto. The even worse news for Toronto was that even with those numbers he was by far — BY FAR! — their best player in an ugly 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that extended their losing streak to five games.

With that loss the Maple Leafs are now an extremely disappointing 9-9-4 on the season, have just four wins in their past 15 games, and have allowed at least four goals in each of their past four games.

This one might have been the ugliest of the bunch as they were never competitive.

If you wanted to you could try to look for some excuses for such a lackluster effort, and you wouldn’t have to look very far.

They played the night before and had to travel from Toronto to Pittsburgh. They are without two key forwards in Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot. They started a 26-year-old rookie in goal making his NHL debut.

All true. All worth noting. But it takes about a half-second to poke holes in all of them when you consider the Penguins also played on Friday night and had to travel (from New Jersey to Pittsburgh), and were playing without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist, and were also using their backup goalie (Tristan Jarry) in net.

They still controlled the game from the opening face-off.

When asked how to fix this current mess, coach Mike Babcock went back to the same well he always goes to when things are going poorly and talked about needing to play harder.

“The number one thing is, we have to play harder, and for longer,” said Babcock (via TSN’s Kristen Shilton). And as soon as something goes bad, we can’t stop playing. Push through it. Every one of us in our life, things go bad. Dig in.”

Forget playing harder, they need to play better.

As if the pressure wasn’t already through the roof for this team things are probably about to get a whole lot worse. This is still one of the league’s worst defensive teams and has shown no real improvement in that area. If they do not get elite, All-Star level goaltending the whole thing seems to just collapse around them. In recent years Frederik Andersen was able to give them that level of play in net and mask many of their defensive flaws. This year he has not been able to do that as often, and the unsettled backup situation behind him only makes things worse (they are now 0-5-1 when Andersen does not start).

You have to feel for Kaskisuo on Saturday. He waited years for this moment and was completely abandoned by the team in front of him as the Penguins had players skating wide open throughout the neutral and offensive zones. Odd-man rushes, uncontested forwards driving down the middle of the ice, and chance after chance after chance. The play of Kaskisuo is the only reason the Penguins did not score eight or nine in this one.

At some point the temperature under Babcock’s seat is going to start increasing dramatically, and if this thing does not get turned around soon you have to wonder how much longer management will along things to continue like this. They are now 3-6-0 on the road this season (with their only road wins coming against Columbus, Detroit, and Philadelphia) and play 11 of their next 14 outside of Toronto. Their next three are in Vegas, Arizona and Colorado so things are not going to get any easier this week.

Related: Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering potentially make-or-break stretches

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 slow-starting Stanley Cup contender can turn it around?

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One month into the NHL season and there are a lot of things in the standings that are upside down.

Teams like Buffalo, Edmonton, and Vancouver that were expected to be in the basement are all near the top, while Stanley Cup contenders like Tampa Bay, Toronto, and San Jose have stumbled.

It is a long season and the early surprises still have to prove they have staying power, while the the disappointments have time to turn things around. We have seen the latter happen over the past few years with the 2019 St. Louis Blues and 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins overcoming brutal starts to win the Stanley Cup. Not every team is that lucky, and both of those examples needed to go undergo significant in-season changes to their roster and coaching staff to reach the top.

Is there a preseason contender off to a slow start this year capable of such a turnaround?

Let’s look at three of the big ones.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Confidence in a turnaround: Fairly high

The pressure is on for this team to do something significant this season and so far they are not really doing much to inspire confidence that this team will turn out any different than the past three. They can score a lot of goals, they give up a lot of goals, and as of Thursday have won just six of their first 14 games of the season. It is one of the worst 14-game stretches they have had over the past three years, being topped only by their 14-game stretch to end the 2018-19 season (when they won only four games down the stretch).

If you’re looking for a positive in Toronto it’s that for all of the struggles they have had so far there are signs that they can easily get this turned around.

For one, they are going to be getting John Tavares back soon. That’s a big add to the lineup.

And for as much as they have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, a lot of that is related to the play of their goalies. They still have their share of flaws defensively, but they are the second-best shot attempt differential team in the league and while they still give up a lot of shot attempts, they have  cut that number down from where it was a year ago. The biggest issue is in goal where Frederik Andersen has not yet played up to his expected level and backup Michael Hutchinson has given them literally zero chance in the four games he has started.

There is reason to believe Andersen will be better based on his track record, and a backup goalie can be fixed with a trade. Better goaltending can fix a lot of these early problems.

Whether that is enough to get by the Boston Bruins or to actually do something in the playoffs remains to be seen. But they will be there and have the chance.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Confidence in a turnaround: High, but with some caution

Always bet on talent, and the Lightning are still the most talented team in the league on paper. That is the good news.

Here is my concern: Do you remember about a decade ago when the Washington Capitals were the best regular season team in the league every year, won the Presidents’ Trophy with 54 wins, and then got bounced in Round 1 by a No. 8 seed Montreal team that would have had no chance in beating them if not for a super-human goaltending performance from Jaroslav Halak? And then the Capitals responded by trying to fix themselves by changing what they did and the way they played only to self-sabotage themselves and take about two steps backwards?

I fear the Lightning have hit that phase.

It is not just the fact that they are not winning as regularly as they have that is concerning. It is the way they are playing. They are getting out-shot, out-attempted, out-chanced, and out-everything during 5-on-5 play. They have one of the worst shot attempt differentials in the league through 12 games and are simply not generating as much as they did a year ago. They are still scoring goals, but they are relying heavily on the power play to do it and not carrying play at even-strength. No one seems to be afraid of the team that put the fear of god into every opponent for 82 games just one year ago.

Is it a matter of simply working through some new ideas? A slow start with some needed adversity? Or a concerning trend that is maybe an overreaction to (an admittedly horrible) postseason defeat?

[Related: Lightning fighting through some early season adversity]

San Jose Sharks

Confidence in a turnaround: Not without a major change or two. 

The goaltending is still a major issue, but we already knew that. They also do not seem to have any interest in trying to fix it, something else that should have been obvious after the way last year unfolded.

But that is not the only thing broken here. The whole system seems broken. This has been, quite simply, the worst 5-on-5 team in the league this season by pretty much any objective measure you want to look at it. You want to look at underlying numbers like shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, or expected goals? All among the worst in the league and down near the potential lottery teams.

You want to look at something more basic like simply goals for and against? Worst in the NHL at 5-on-5, getting outscored by a 37-19 margin. That is goals-for percentage of just 33 percent. The next worst team in the league in that category is Detroit at 40 percent (20 for, 29 against). There is no way to sugarcoat that, it is just bad with a capital B-A-D.

There was a point last year where the Blues were playing the right way, doing everything well defensively, and still losing because they couldn’t get a goalie to make a save. All they needed was somebody to solidify that position to turn things around. The Sharks still need that, too. But what’s even worse is that they also need the rest of the team to get its act straightened out as well.

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.