Sheldon Keefe

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Matthews, Pastrnak set up thrilling Maurice Richard race

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For quite some time, it looked like David Pastrnak (32 goals) would run away with the Maurice Richard Trophy. While Pastrnak remains atop that race, Auston Matthews is knocking on that door with 31 goals. If they keep this up, hockey fans are in for one heck of a battle.

Of course, it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if this turned into a three-horse race, or more. Alex Ovechkin demands attention as the most obvious threat, and he currently sits in a three-way tie for third place alongside Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon at 26 goals.

Frankly, someone could alter the landscape with a hot month (or, for all we know, a hot weekend).

Pastrnak vs. Matthews is just too fun, and close, not to pick apart, though.

Before we burrow, consider the simplest facts:

Pastrnak: 32 goals , Bruins have 38 games remaining
Matthews: 31 goals, 37 GR

(Don’t worry, potentially aggrieved other fanbases; we’ll also discuss some of the other frontrunners to end this post.)

Matthews on fire, Pastrnak seemingly shakes slight cold streak

Chalk it up to Sheldon Keefe replacing Mike Babcock or not, the bottom line is Matthews is red-hot. After scoring an already-strong 14 goals during his last 23 games under Babcock, Matthews now has a ludicrous 17 goals in 22 games with Keefe at the helm.

Luck matters just as much as coaching. That’s worth noting considering how many bounces have been going Matthews’ way lately. Matthews has scored 15 goals on just 63 SOG over his last 17 games, a 23.8 shooting percentage since December. In November, he enjoyed a comparatively pedestrian 10.6 shooting percentage.

Pastrnak wandered through dramatic shifts of his own. The Bruins winger managed an absurd 30 percent rate in 10 October games. Pastrnak barely slowed down in November, but he seemed somewhat human in December, though he was still dominant (five goals and 18 points in 15 games, limited by an earthly 9.1 shooting percentage).

Overall, they’re both enjoying some bounces, with Pastrnak at 18.5 percent and Matthews at 18.3. Cold streaks could bring one or both of them back to the pack.

Pastrnak the power play phenom; Matthews’ interesting ice time notes

“Pasta” swiped the power play wizard torch from Ovechkin at some point, it seems. Pastrnak easily leads the NHL with 15 power-play goals, with James Neal being the only other player at double digits with 12.

Not too surprisingly, Pastrnak soaks up a lot of ice time on the power play, averaging 3:39 PP TOI. Time on ice remains an interesting topic with Matthews, actually …

During much of Babcock’s run, the veteran coach was (justifiably) chastised for using Matthews less than he should have. While Babcock did deploy Matthews more in his final season (19:50 TOI in 23 games, versus 18:33 in 2018-19), Keefe is giving Maple Leafs fans more of what they want. Matthews’ average climbed to 20:42 TOI per night under Keefe.

Interestingly, that boost is coming at even strength. After averaging 3:24 PP TOI per night during Babcock’s last run, Matthews’ power play average is actually down under Keefe to 2:38.

Overall, the response is “More Matthews, the merrier.” Matthews averages more time per game than Pastrnak since Keefe took over (20:42 vs. Pastrnak’s 19:29), while Pastrnak receives about an extra minute of power play time lately.

The two might indirectly make for some interesting quality vs. quantity debates if those trends continue. (That’s not a guarantee, mind you, as certain variables can change, but it’s a factor to watch.)

Considering the rest of the field

  • This is somewhat uncharted territory for Matthews and Pastrnak. Their youth and occasional injury issues make their ceilings unclear. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, delivers the goods, and lingers as a huge threat at 26 goals.

Ovechkin might be the greatest sniper ever, already boasting eight Richard trophies, including two in a row, and six of the last seven.

Ovechkin is firing the puck more than usual (210 SOG for 4.67 SOG per game, his highest rate since 2015-16), possibly because his shooting percentage is “just” at 12.4. Ovechkin’s track record and durability make him a strong pick to climb the ranks.

  • Nathan MacKinnon gives Ovechkin competition for trigger-happiness with 204 SOG. He’s right behind Ovechkin in SOG (4.64 per game), improving on what was already a career-high last season (4.45 in 2018-19, his first in the four range).

As spectacular as MacKinnon is, I wonder if his tendency to be a “volume shooter” might doom him in this race. If he maintained his current 12.7 shooting percentage, it would rank as the second-highest mark of MacKinnon’s career.

  • Jack Eichel completes that three-way tie for third, getting his 26 goals on 147 SOG (17.7 percent). Another Sabres swoon might take the wind out of his sails, although who knows?
  • Leon Draisaitl stands alone at sixth place with 25 goals. Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid have 24 apiece, while Sebastian Aho and Artemi Panarin round out the top 10 at 23. There are 16 players at 20+ goals so far in 2019-20.

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.

More bad Maple Leafs injury news: Jake Muzzin out week-to-week

Muzzin week-to-week
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to pile up wins … and also, unfortunately, injuries. Following bad news for Ilya Mikheyev, the team announced that defenseman Jake Muzzin is week-to-week with a broken foot.

Clearly, beating the Devils 5-4 in OT on Friday now qualifies as a costly win. Muzzin hurt himself blocking a shot, while that scary skate blade injury will cost Mikheyev months.

Muzzin suffered the injury during the first period, but kept playing and walking. Maybe that made things a bit worse?

Maple Leafs injuries accumulate

Again, the list of injuries is starting to climb, especially if you consider the season at large (with Mitch Marner and John Tavares missing substantial time).

Combine Muzzin and Mikheyev with the losses of wingers Trevor Moore (out indefinitely with a concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg, on IR) and things escalate. About the only “perk” is that all of those injuries alleviate short-term salary cap concerns.

Deflecting to that really feels like gallows humor, though.

Maple Leafs might need to keep outscoring their problems

OK, maybe there’s one other indirect perk: still-new head coach Sheldon Keefe gets even more incentive just to let this group loose. However you feel about Muzzin’s effectiveness since joining the Maple Leafs, he’s not really there for elite scoring ability. Theoretically, his replacements may bring more to the table and take more away. Personally, I’d be more than OK with additional games like that 8-6 thrillride against the Hurricanes, but others, are … well, grumpier. Some agree with my high-entertainment preference, though.

At minimum, the Maple Leafs appear refreshed and unleashed under Keefe compared to the dull latter Mike Babcock days.

Even grumbling critics have to agree that they’ve been better in the standings lately. Toronto’s now won six in a row, with a chance to make it seven against the Rangers on Saturday.

Are they messy sometimes? Sure, but personally, I’ll take a messy-fun hockey game over a “perfectly” played snore-fest.

And, frankly, it’s clearly the style of game that behooves Toronto’s bounty of talent. With Muzzin out week-to-week, it might not just be the best choice, but also the only choice.

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 holiday gift thanks to Devils’ own goal in OT

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The Toronto Maple Leafs won again on Friday night, picking up a 5-4 overtime victory in New Jersey to extend their winning streak to six games and improve their overall record to 12-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe.

They have Devils defenseman Damon Severson to thank for the extra point in overtime.

It was there that Severson had the misfortune of accidentally scoring on his own net.

It all happened after he collected a loose puck between the circles and attempted to chip the puck behind the net. None of it went as planned as his chip ended up going on net and beating a stunned Mackenzie Blackwood.

Have a look.

William Nylander, the last Maple Leafs player to touch the puck, gets credit for the winning goal. It is already his 15th goal of the season, putting him on pace for 31 goals this season. He scored just seven goals in 54 games a year ago. His career-high is 22 goals.

Toronto still has its flaws — the play of backup goalie Michael Hutchinson was again an issue on Friday — but they still look like a completely different team under Keefe. They are more aggressive offensively, they are scoring more goals, and they are playing to their strengths.

They have scored at least four goals in all six of their wins on this streak.

The win on Friday keeps them in second place in the Atlantic Division, giving them a four-point lead over Montreal for that spot. They look to extend their winning streak to seven games on Saturday night when they return home to play the New York Rangers.

More Maple Leafs coverage

Ilya Mikheyev taken to hospital with ‘significant’ laceration to wrist
Maple Leafs are better, more dangerous team under Keefe 

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 are better, more dangerous team under Sheldon Keefe

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to put it together.

Even though it was far from perfect, their 8-6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday extended their current winning streak to five games and improved their record to 11-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe.

It was a wildly entertaining game, and while it showed the Maple Leafs still have their flaws (defensive play!), it also showed how much progress they have made over the past month with their new coach.

1. Quick strike offense for everybody

First, let’s take a quick look at the madness during Monday’s game.

This game was all about scoring runs and goals in bunches.

It began with the Maple Leafs racing out to a 3-0 lead in the game’s first five minutes, chasing Hurricanes starter — and former Maple Leafs goalie — Jame Reimer from the game.

The Hurricanes followed by scoring five consecutive goals, including three in 64 seconds midway through the second period, to take a 5-3 lead. After extending that lead to 6-4, the Maple Leafs responded by scoring the game’s final four goals, including three in 59 seconds. Two of those goals — Tyson Barrie‘s game-tying goal and Mitch Marner‘s game-winning goal — came just six seconds apart.

2. Marner’s domination

Marner is always going to have the spotlight on him because of his contract, but you can’t ignore the production.

He finished Monday’s game with five points and is now riding an eight-game point streak. He has multiple points in six of those games and is now on pace for 92 points in 71 games this season. That is also a 105-point pace over 82 games.

He scored two goals on Tuesday, the first of which came on an absurd spin-o-rama pass from Auston Matthews to bring the Maple Leafs within one goal.

His second goal came just six seconds after Barrie tie the game later in the third period.

3. The Keefe impact

This is never going to be a great defensive team as currently constructed. That is not where their strength is. It is not what they do best. It is not what they should be trying to do. That is where things went wrong for Mike Babcock as he kept trying to grind out 1-0 wins every night. Sometimes you just have to turn your talent loose a little bit. That is exactly what has happened in the first 15 games under Keefe.

The Maple Leafs are not only winning games and collecting points at a far higher rate, they also look like a team that has all-star level players. You could not always say that in the first part of the season.

The table below shows just how much things have changed since the coaching switch, looking at the team’s points percentage, as well as scoring chances (SC/60 and SCA/60), expected goals (xGF/60 and xGA/60), and actual goals during 5-on-5 play. They still give up some chances, but they are FAR more dangerous offensively. All data via Natural Stat Trick.

These numbers do not include Monday’s game.

They still have their flaws defensively, but they are at least letting their talent shine. All of the offensive numbers are not only higher, they are significantly higher.

One of the biggest changes has been with the freedom they have in the offensive zone, especially among their defense.

No one has benefited from that more than Barrie, the team’s key offseason addition. This is what he said five days ago on what Keefe wants from him:

You will never guess where he scored Monday’s tying goal from.

Right here…

After scoring zero goals and only seven assists in 23 games under Babcock, he has four goals and six assists in 15 games under Keefe.

No, they can’t expect to win every game 8-6. But this game was kind of fluky and should not take away from the improvement they have shown. This is a talented team that is starting to play to its strength.

Whether or not that is enough to get them over their playoff hurdles or closer to a Stanley Cup remains to be seen But they are definitely on a far better path than they were one month ago.

Related: Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Sabres, Maple Leafs heating up

Jack Eichel John Tavares
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Not every player, or every team, can be as hot as Jack Eichel is right now, what with his 16-game point streak.

Instead, both Eichel’s Buffalo Sabres and Tuesday’s opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are aiming to survive before they can thrive. Each team has generated three wins in its last four games, staying on course while navigating bumps in the road.

Perhaps Tuesday’s game will serve as an opportunity for the Sabres or Maple Leafs to really accelerate?

Sabres staying scrappy

Buffalo saw a three-game winning streak end when the Islanders beat them 3-2 in OT on Saturday, but coach Ralph Krueger praised his team for carving out eight points in six games from Dec. 5-14.

“It was a big task in a very short period of time where the guys have shown energy right to the end and really just played a consistent game irrelevant of scores,” Krueger said via the Sabres website. “You can see the maturity of the group is evolving in a way we can take a lot of confidence out of this week.”

Naturally, it doesn’t hurt to get Rasmus Dahlin back. The splendid sophomore generated an assist in each of his first two games back, logging 24:02 time on ice during Saturday’s overtime loss. Eichel believes that Dahlin is already “finding his groove again,” which could be a serious boost for Buffalo, particularly on the power play.

[COVERAGE OF LEAFS-SABRES BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Seeing a young player such as Dahlin make a seemingly triumphant return takes some of the sting off of Casey Mittelstadt’s AHL demotion.

Maple Leafs making gains

Few are going to be blown away by the Maple Leafs’ 7-4-0 record under Sheldon Keefe, but Toronto still shows signs of being a sleeper.

It’s been very much a trial by fire for the first-time NHL head coach. The Maple Leafs were in the middle of a six-game road trip when Keefe stepped in, and Toronto won three games in a row, ending that stretch with a loss in Buffalo.

Overall, the Maple Leafs have only played two out of Keefe’s 11 games at home. With that in mind, it would be tough to knock this group for feeling mightier than their 16-14-4 record might indicate.

In particular, captain John Tavares sees positives in earning three wins during a four-game road trip.

“This (trip) should give us some confidence,” Tavares said via Field Level Media. “It should have been even better, but it is what it is. Now we have to follow it up, turn the page. Heading into the Christmas break, we want to make the most of the games we have.”

The Maple Leafs have shown signs of life by quite a few measures, and the upcoming schedule hints at opportunities to grow. That said, the 16-11-7 Sabres serve as a considerable hurdle, especially when Eichel and Dahlin are on the ice.

Tuesday night’s studio coverage will be hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call Sabres-Maple Leafs from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

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.