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Big surprises at Maple Leafs annual Blue and White scrimmage – The Globe and Mail

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Toronto Maple Leafs players face off at the beginning of first period Blue versus White scrimmage action as part of training camp in Toronto on Jan. 9, 2021.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

There were plenty of wrinkles, if not huge surprises, that stemmed from the Maple Leafs’ annual Blue and White scrimmage on Saturday.

It served as the only dress rehearsal before Wednesday night’s season-opener, so the team did its best to make it feel more meaningful.

A morning skate was held. Players were separated into home and visitor dressing rooms. The game was televised. Martina Ortiz Luis sang O Canada. Canned crowd noise – perhaps a wee too much – was piped in after hard hits and saves. Hall and Oates reverberated around Scotiabank Arena each time a goal was scored. After all, this was Toronto against Toronto. And in these strange times, even a hockey exhibition is reason to celebrate.

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For the record, the John Tavares-led White team beat Auston Matthews’s Blue squad, 6-3. Joe Thornton made his debut and almost immediately started to feed linemates passes while camped behind the net. Wayne Simmonds, another newbie with a well-known knack for such, buzzed around goalies like a hornet at a picnic.

William Nylander, who is coming off the best season of his career, scored twice for the winning side. Mitch Marner netted a pretty one for the losers, rushing up on Aaron Dell and lifting a puck over his glove. Matthews finished off a nice pass from Marner on one power play. Tavares flipped a backhand past Frederik Andersen to break a 0-0 tie. Nick Robertson rifled a shot past Dell, but as a young forward he is in a battle to make the team. The same is true for Adam Brooks and Pierre Engvall. Jason Spezza also had a goal; the old and reliable will centre the fourth line against the Montreal Canadiens with the commencement of the 56-game regular season.

One of the best performances of all was turned in by a defenceman, Mikko Lehtonen, who could prove to be the most intriguing addition to the team.

The 26-year-old from Finland was the leading scorer among defencemen in the KHL last season with 49 points in 60 games, and received honours as the league’s best defender for three successive months.

Teammates had already taken notice of him during training camp in Toronto, and he skated well Saturday and contributed assists on both of Nylander’s goals, one a deflection of a Lehtonen shot and the other a one-timer after a pass from him.

Lehtonen also scored against Andersen during a shootout exercise after the first period.

“I felt like I could play better, actually,” Lehtonen said afterward. “It wasn’t my best game. There were situations where I could do better and others where I did very well. I’ll just try to learn every day.”

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As highly regarded as the KHL is, there are relatively few skaters that have come from it and became major stars in North America. The biggest without doubt is Artemi Panarin, who made the transition from playing in Russia to become a rookie of the year in the NHL. Alexander Radulov, a right wing, has had a long and successful career in the NHL, as well as long stints in Ufa and Moscow.

Nikita Gusev had 44 points in 66 games for the New Jersey Devils last season as a rookie. Ilya Mikheyev also showed a lot of promise for the Maple Leafs in a 2019-20 season that was interrupted by injury.

Lehtonen, who signed a one-year contract for US$925,000, spent last week at training camp holding down a position in the third defensive pairing with fellow newcomer Zach Bogosian. He also directed the second power-play unit, which includes Simmonds, Thornton, Jimmy Vesey and T.J. Brodie.

His quick development has endangered the roster spots of Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin.

Lehtonen concedes he needs to make the adjustment to playing on the NHL ice surface. It is significantly smaller than the one he is accustomed to in Europe and realizes he will have less time and space to push the puck up the ice.

“I have watched a lot of NHL games, and I talked with guys who have played here, so I kind of learned before I came here what to expect,” said Lehtonen, who has not played outside of Europe previously. “There has not been anything that is a big surprise for me, but there are always smaller things you need to adjust.”

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The Maple Leafs took Sunday off and resume practice on Monday leading up to opening night.

Head coach Sheldon Keefe said he feels the team looks confident and ready, with help especially from recently arrived veterans such as Thornton and Simmonds.

“Challenges will come [during the season] and we have to maintain that spirit,” Keefe said. “That is a priority for us. We feel we are in a much better position with the added experience, and the veterans that have come here and with the personalities they bring.”

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Maple Leafs ‘have to look in the mirror’ after being swept by Canucks – Sportsnet.ca

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We often describe this game we love with rugged adjectives.

Hockey is gritty and requires sandpaper. It’s greasy and gutsy. Hard-nosed. A series of tough battles that will be won by the side triumphing in the dirty areas. Those ugly trenches.

The game can be looked at another way, too.

Fragile.

A disappointed Sheldon Keefe used that adjective twice on Saturday in the aftermath of his Toronto Maple Leafs’ 4-2 defeat by the hand of the 21st-place Vancouver Canucks, who swept this mini-series without top-line centre Elias Pettersson in their lineup.

It marked the first comeback victory of Vancouver’s campaign and the first set of consecutive regulation losses the Maple Leafs have suffered all year. It’s also the first time Toronto superstars Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner have both been held off the scoresheet in back-to-back games.

Much like Game 1 of the series, Toronto ran up against a hot power-play and a razor-sharp goaltender in Thatcher Demko.

Unlike Thursday’s defeat, however, the visitors controlled the run of play for the bulk of the night.

Brock Boeser converted net-front on a beautiful cross-ice J.T. Miller pass on an early rush with Matthews serving a high-sticking minor, but the Leafs responded with a pair of pretty passing plays on their own at even-strength.

John Tavares clapped a blast clean and high by Demko after a nifty one-touch area pass from winger Alexander Kerfoot. Then Jimmy Vesey converted a tic-tac-toe sequence from Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie.

Toting a 2-1 lead into the third, Toronto fired the first nine shots of the final period and looked poised to lock up another ‘W’.

Momentum spun on a dime when an unpressured William Nylander committed a puck-over-glass penalty — “Can’t just give them a freebie like that,” Keefe said — and Bo Horvat promptly tied the game with the man-advantage.

“We’ve got to get a kill. We’ve got to get a blocked shot. These are the kind of things that make a big difference,” Keefe said. “We didn’t really go through that in [sweeping] the Edmonton series. We were in full control. We built big leads for the most part.”

The Canucks’ power-play went a perfect 3-for-3 in the series; Toronto went 0-for-3. There’s the difference.

“The power-play goal really gave them some life,” Tavares said.

A pair of neutral zone giveaways by the Leafs led to odd-man rushes the other way. Bang, bang: A hungry Miller and Nils Hoglander cashed in.

In 42 seconds, a win poofed into a loss and a great road trip got downgraded to a good road trip.

Fragile.

Beat on the Miller strike, fumbling at the puck first with his hands then with his feet, Morgan Rielly pointed to sloppy details: special teams, puck management and D-zone breakouts.

“We have to take responsibility for what happened in terms of two losses,” Rielly said. “I mean, we have to look in the mirror.”

Marner wondered if the top line was trying to force plays that weren’t there.

“Sometimes it slips away. It happened tonight,” said Marner, a minus-2 for the first time all season. “Turnovers were the reason for it, so just make sure we clean that part up. Obviously starting [with] myself.”

The Maple Leafs will fly home Sunday and sharpen their details on Monday in preparation for next week’s three-game series versus their nearest pursuers in the North, the Winnipeg Jets.

“These are really close, very fragile games. You’ve got to be good every single shift and every puck,” Keefe said. “Vancouver plays four lines. They play extremely hard and very competitive. They don’t give you anything for free.

“It just goes to show that, first of all, anybody in our division can beat you on any given night. We’ve got to be good all the time and we’ve got to stay with the process that works for us. Go off script and get the results you get here.”

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Flames start hot, burn out vs. Oilers as new coach Sutter watches from afar – Sportsnet.ca

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The Jolly Rancher didn’t even have to be behind the bench to start Sutterizing his new team.

While Darryl Sutter watched from his farmhouse in Viking, Alta., as part of his COVID-19 protocol, the Calgary Flames responded to his hiring with a first period that exhibited the type of spirited start the veteran taskmaster will be pushing for.

Fully engaged from puck drop, the Flames took it to the Oilers in a rugged fashion befitting the Battle of Alberta and Sutter’s style.

Two first-period fights, 21 shots, a whopping 19 hits and a tenacious forecheck that led to a power play goal and a 1-0 lead.

Clearly they knew the boss was watching.

And then came the predictable drop-off that got Geoff Ward fired.

Failing to record a shot in the first seven minutes of the second, the Flames allowed the Oilers to push back and eventually even the game late in the frame.

From there the see-saw battle continued.

By night’s end it was the Oilers earning kudos for persevering through a tough spell that ended with Connor McDavid’s late goal, ending his club’s three-game losing skid.

While there’s little time in this shortened season to celebrate moral victories, no one could fault the Flames’ effort on this one.

“It’s obviously difficult to lose – I thought we had a really good start,” said Noah Hanifin, whose first goal of the year early in the third put the Flames up 2-1 following the type of grind-em-out shift from Elias Lindholm’s line Sutter would cherish.

“I think if we play that way and compete that way we’ll have success more often than not. The one thing we’re looking to improve on is our compete and work ethic and I think that was there tonight. It was a step in the right direction.”

Perhaps Sutter’s tack will include being furious with the mere suggestion progress was made.

However, it didn’t seem there was much Sutter could fault his new troops on early in the third when Lindholm, Dillon Dube and Matthew Tkachuk put their work boots on for a series of battles down low that led to Hanifin’s goal.

“When we have big, heavy shifts like that it’s going to help us wear down teams and have success,” the defenceman said.

“That’s the game we want to play.”

McDavid spoiled Ryan Huska’s coaching debut by setting up a Kailer Yamamoto goal five minutes later, before picking up his third point of the night with a snipe from the face-off dot that bounced in off the far post with four minutes left.

“I think we played the whole game — I thought we played great,” said Jacob Markstrom, who made 30 saves in his return from injury, yet still tried to fall on his sword post-game.

“The biggest difference tonight was goaltending. I think Smitty (Mike Smith) made a couple saves and I didn’t when I needed to. It sucks feeling like you didn’t bail out your teammates.

“I thought we played a great game over 60 minutes. There are obviously things to improve, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. It sucks getting the loss out of this game when the guys played so well in front of me.”

The highly entertaining display of big boy hockey saw the Oilers finish the night with two more hits than the Flames (42-40), and they deserve plenty of credit for the moxie they displayed throughout.

Darnell Nurse did his best to stop the Flames’ early momentum by dropping the gloves with his former teammate and pal Milan Lucic, earning the latter the distinction of being the only player ever to earn a fighting major while playing on either side of the provincial punch-up.

James Neal fought Tkachuk later in the period with what would have brought the house down had there been fans at Rogers Place.

“I think (the emotion) was where it needs to be and that’s the challenge moving forward,” said Huska, whose NHL head coaching experience now matches the number of games he played in the show – one.

“The effort in the first period was really good. There was an emotional attachment to the game, which was important for us. That’s something we have to work on maintaining for 60 minutes, not just the first period. I thought we gave up a little too much room as the game went on and we allowed them to get into our zone too easily, which is really how they got their three goals.”

Huska will be behind the bench again Sunday night when the Flames host Ottawa.

Sutter expects to complete his COVID-19 protocol before joining the team for practice Tuesday and will make his return to the Flames’ bench Thursday at home against Montreal.

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Four-goal explosion in second period powers Canadiens 7-1 over Jets – Montreal Gazette

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It was Montreal’s first win over Winnipeg in four games this season, moving them three points behind the second-place Jets in the Canadian division.

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Carey Price made 28 saves and all four lines contributed at least one goal as the Canadiens defeated the Winnipeg Jets 7-1 Saturday at the Bell Centre.

It was Montreal’s first win over Winnipeg in four games this season and the Canadiens moved three points behind the second-place Jets in the Canadian division. Montreal also enjoys a game in hand.

The Canadiens blew this game open with four goals in the second period.

After Tyler Toffoli scored his 15th goal of the season, Brendan Gallagher scored twice. Both of Gallagher’s goals — his eighth and ninth of the season — were scored from the slot after taking a couple of no-look passes from long-time linemate Phil Danault.

The Gallagher goals brought an end to Connor Hellebuyck’s evening. The 2020 Vézina Trophy winner gave up four goals on 19 shots.

Laurent Brossoit replaced Hellebuyck, but he received a rude welcome when he was beaten by Joel Armia on the first shot he faced.

The game got off to a slow start, but opened up after Mathieu Perreault was sent off for high-sticking Shea Weber midway through the first period. The much-improved Montreal power play didn’t look much-improved as it managed only one shot on goal, but it did provide the Canadiens with some momentum.

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Hellebuyck made a blocker save on Jonathan Drouin, who was sent off on a breakaway by Gallagher’s stretch pass, but Hellebuyck was out of the picture when Josh Anderson opened the scoring at 15:29.

Anderson, who returned to to the lineup after missing three games with a lower-body injury, took advantage of a lucky bounce to give Montreal the lead. Jesperi Kotkaniemi attempted to rim the puck and Hellebuyck went behind his net to cut off the pass. But the puck never got there because it hit a stanchion in the glass and came out to Anderson, who put the puck into an empty net for his 10th goal of the season.

Fourth-liner Paul Byron and defenceman Jeff Petry added goals for Montreal in the third period, while Perreault scored a power-play goal to spoil Price’ shutout bid.

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Dominique Ducharme did some line juggling and put his two top goal-scorers, Toffoli and Anderson on a line with Kotkaniemi. The young Finn responded with what might have been his best game of the season as he distributed the puck well and was a dominant player in the faceoff circle. He won 13 of 15 draws for an 87-per-cent success rate. Danault won seven of his 12 faceoffs and Jake Evans won four of six. The Canadiens as a team won 57 per cent.

The Canadiens flew Sunday to Vancouver, where they face the Canucks to open a six-game Western Canada trip. The schedule maker has done a favour for fans in Montreal because none of the games start later than 8 p.m. ET.

phickey@postmedia.com

twitter.com/zababes1

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