WINNIPEG — Go ahead and call Connor Hellebuyck the great equalizer.
If the blocker fits, you might as well attach it to the Winnipeg Jets goaltender.
At this stage of the proceedings, the Toronto Maple Leafs have probably muttered more than a few choice words under their collective breath in response to what they’ve seen so far from Connor Hellebuyck through two games of this mid-season series with the Jets.
Whether it’s Hellebuyck casually using the paddle of his stick to thwart a scoring chance off the left skate of William Nylander, or using his glove to snare a slapper off the stick of Joe Thornton, the highlight reel was full of saves like those on Thursday night in Toronto. Never mind the three breakaways Hellebuyck calmly turned aside.
But it wasn’t enough.
Auston Matthews made a lightning-quick move to his backhand 59 seconds into overtime to propel the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 overtime victory after the Jets narrowly missed winning the game at the other end of the ice.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice conceded that it was probably a just result, given how the ice was tilted heavily in the Maple Leafs’ favour in terms of chances created compared to chances allowed.
Sure, the Maple Leafs were able to exhale as they snapped a season-high three-game winning streak, happily putting the extra point into the piggy bank as they widened their cushion over the Jets in the North Division standings to six points (with the Jets holding two games in hand).
But as the Zoom calls were taking place, one of the emerging themes revolved around whether the Jets might actually be showing the Maple Leafs — and perhaps the rest of the North Division — that they could be emerging as a legitimate contender.
Make no mistake, this was not the template teams around the NHL are going to implement as a strategy to try and beat the Maple Leafs, who held a decisive edge in the play, and a wide disparity when it comes to the generation of high-danger scoring chances (21-5, according to Natural Stat Trick).
However, what seems obvious right now is that any team that is going to give the Maple Leafs a run for top spot is going to need to incorporate two critical components: elite-level goaltending and high-end finishing ability.
Let’s start with the former.
Hellebuyck was pulled Saturday in Montreal after surrendering four goals on 19 shots to the Canadiens, marking the first time this season he’d been given the hook.
Since that time, Hellebuyck was the first star in the series opener, then followed that up with another virtuoso performance, giving him 70 saves in the two games.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler channelled the 2.0 version of his “pump the brakes” quote from 2018 as he answered a question about whether a goaltending performance like the ones Hellebuyck’s delivered these past two games might plant a seed of doubt in the Maple Leafs’ minds should they meet when it matters most.
“We have to qualify for the playoffs before we can worry about who we’re playing in the playoffs. We play these guys again in a couple days,” said Wheeler. “Our goalie was outstanding, there’s no question. That should be the storyline. He stood on his head for us. But we also have a locker room full of guys who played their asses off, too.
“I don’t think Toronto is talking in their media that it was a cakewalk playing us tonight. I think we played our tails off. When we needed Helly, he certainly stood up to the task. We’re going to worry about Saturday’s game. I think we play these guys five or six more times in the regular season. If that all shakes out and we so happen to play them in playoff time, I think they’ll know what style of game we play, and we’ll know what style of game they play. And we’ll take it from there.”
Hellebuyck was indeed the story for the Jets, showcasing signs of the form he rode to his first Vezina Trophy win last season.
While the numbers haven’t been quite as tidy so far, Hellebuyck is tasked with handling a remarkably heavy workload when it comes to the type of quality opportunities he faces regularly.
Never mind the numbers, he’s giving his team a chance to win, even on the nights its not operating at an optimal level.
Hellebuyck wasn’t about to throw his teammates under the bus when asked if it felt like he’d been hung out to dry on a number of occasions.
“I’m never going to use those words. I did my job. The guys in front of me got us to OT, so they clearly did their job,” said Hellebuyck. “Not every night is going to be perfect. Not every night is going to be a defensive win, not every night you’re going to get the best goaltending. That’s what I love about this team. We have it all and we can do it all. Even when once, maybe it wasn’t our best defensive game, but we still got to OT. We did some good things and we have some things to improve on. Me, personally, I stole a lot of goals, so I’m happy with my performance and I’m just looking forward to the next one.
“Any time you can take a team to OT, it closes the gap a little bit more. It’s a small victory, but, obviously, in this league, we want to win. We’re not cherishing the point, but it’s better than not getting one.”
The other thing that any team that wants to try and beat the Maple Leafs in a seven-game series is going to have to do is find ways to score.
Enter Nikolaj Ehlers, whose dynamic play is finally gaining him some of the recognition he deserves while spending a bit more time under the microscope in this all-Canadian division.
His high-end shooting talent was once again on display, rifling a perfect shot off the post and in to open the scoring late in the first period.
Ehlers followed that up by banging home a one-timer after a perfect feed from linemate Kyle Connor.
If scoring twice to regain the team goal lead with 13 markers wasn’t enough, Ehlers set up Paul Stastny for a redirection that allowed the Jets to score with the extra attacker on the ice to send the game to overtime and secure a point.
This was easily the best offensive game for the Jets’ second line, which features Pierre-Luc Dubois between Ehlers and Connor.
But on a night they created plenty, they were also on the ice for three even-strength goals against — and that didn’t sit well with Ehlers.
“Yeah, you know what, I think our line was great offensively. We got chances, we scored on them,” said Ehlers. “And defensively we weren’t strong enough. We were on the ice for all three of those goals and that sucks. That doesn’t feel good. And that’s something that I’ve got to change.”
That level of accountability was music to the ears of Maurice.
“That’s growth, right? That’s major growth for a young player,” said Maurice. “He scores two, on the ice for a bunch, and that’s what he takes home with him. He didn’t like the way that went. That’s a good thing. He’s not in a bad mental state. He’s putting pucks in the net, but at the same time, he knows that he was on the ice when they were, so that doesn’t make him very happy.
“We’re not going to individualize blame on those goals, so he’s on the ice and that’s the way he takes that. He takes it as a line. Nikolaj really this year, we saw it in the bubble where he took a step forward for us. You look at his play in terms of his compete and his battle and being hard on pucks and obviously the skill that comes out on those two goals that he scored. But this guy’s playing some great, great hockey for us. That’s the maturity there. He wants the win more than the stats. That’s a great thing.”
The Jets were quick to downplay the measuring-stick element of this series going into it — and that hasn’t changed with two more head-to-head games already in the books.
“We don’t judge ourselves by the other team. We’re focused on our game,” said Wheeler. “Obviously, Toronto has had a great season and they’re a really good team, they play really hard. There’s not a lot of free ice out there for either side, as you can see. Pretty good, hard-fought battles, both of these games.
“I think we’re a glass-half-full type of team. We’re down a goal with a couple minutes left. Anytime you’re down a goal, you pull your goaltender and you tie the game up, you feel like you stole a point.”
With seven games still to play in this 10-game season series, there’s plenty of time to see whether or not the Jets can provide a true push for the Maple Leafs.
What’s become abundantly clear is that the entertainment value is high when these teams get together and the intensity level figures to once again be on the rise with the rubber match of this series set for Saturday night.
“It’s definitely going to be a high-flying game. These are two really good teams,” said Hellebuyck. “You can feel it, you can feel the energy, you can just see in everyone’s eyes that everyone knows that this isn’t going to be an easy one. We can’t just walk through this team and we have to fight for every inch of ice. They might have got it (Thursday), but the next one, it’s going to be on.”
Boston Bruins Add Offense With Solid Taylor Hall Trade – Boston Hockey Now
The Boston Bruins clearly understood they had serious deficiencies on their NHL roster this season and credit them for going and doing something about it.
The B’s finished off their Sunday night fireworks ahead of the NHL trade deadline by sending a second round pick and Anders Bjork to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for top-6 winger Taylor Hall and bottom-6 forward Curtis Lazar. TSN’s Darren Dreger, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and ESPN’s John Buccigross were the first to report about the completed deal between the Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in the hours following the B’s getting stomped by the Washington Capitals, 8-1, at TD Garden.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) April 12, 2021
The Buffalo Sabres retained half of the $8 million salary that Hall signed for prior to the start of the 2021 hockey season.
After acquiring Hall @ 50% & Lazar for Bjork, the #NHLBruins added $772K Cap Hit for remainder of year.
They have $24K of Projected Cap Space; $100K Annual Cap Hit that can be added, w/ 24 Active on Roster. Sending players to taxi would create more room.https://t.co/2o0hsHzUIy https://t.co/rXiRKKk3lt pic.twitter.com/I7ZRUSmSQp
— PuckPedia (@PuckPedia) April 12, 2021
The 29-year-old Hall is having a terrible season in Buffalo with just two goals and 19 points in 37 games along with a minus-21 rating after he chose to sign a one-year deal with the Sabres during the offseason. But he brings legitimate offensive talent as a former No. 1 overall pick and Hart Trophy winner to a Boston Bruins team that’s ranked in the bottom third of the NHL offensively all season.
The Bruins were one of the suitors for Hall prior to him choosing the Sabres months ago, and now they get him for a deep discount while keeping their own first round picks after making their deadline deals.
Holding onto their own first round pick was a priority for Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney after spending first rounders at the deadline in two of the last three deadlines in trades for damaged goods Rick Nash and Ondrej Kase.
The 26-year-old Lazar has five goals and 11 points in 33 games as a bottom-6 forward for the Sabres this season and is signed for $800,000 for next season. It seemed clear that something was going on with the 24-year-old Anders Bjork over the last couple of weeks as he was a healthy scratch for five straight games, including Sunday night against Washington, and heads to Buffalo hoping to further develop a game built on speed and skill level that hasn’t translated into offense as of yet.
Hall should fit right into the top-6 with the Bruins as a skilled winger for playmaking center David Krejci, but it remains to be seen how he’s going to fit as another left winger on a team with Nick Ritchie and Jake DeBrusk.
Either Ritchie or DeBrusk is going to have to play the off wing with a Krejci/Hall combo, but that’s a problem that Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy will gladly figure out after being forced to piece together lineups all season due to injuries and offensive inconsistency. With the acquisition of Hall, Lazar and left-handed defenseman Mike Reilly on Sunday night, it would appear the Boston Bruins are largely done with deals ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Interestingly enough, the Boston Bruins are set to play the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night at TD Garden.
Drouin must return to mentality that’s led to success this season – Sportsnet.ca
It was something Dominique Ducharme said after his Montreal Canadiens played an abysmal game against the Ottawa Senators last week, something that only truly resonated after they lost 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday — a game that emboldened the struggle Jonathan Drouin’s currently enduring.
“Ninety per cent of the mistakes we made were mental, and the rest of it was above our shoulders.” the coach said after the 6-3 loss to Ottawa last Saturday, somewhat channelling New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra with this bit of wit and wisdom.
It was hard not to think of those words watching Drouin play the way he did on Wednesday. For much of this season, the talented left winger has played a primary role in Montreal’s success. He’s led them with 19 assists, been tenacious on the forecheck, physically engaged all over the ice, cerebral as always in his execution and, as he’s said on several occasions, relatively unconcerned by whether or not his name has been featured on the scoresheet.
But it seemed clear, after watching Drouin dump a breakaway into Jack Campbell’s chest with one of 32 shots the Maple Leafs goaltender turned aside to set a franchise record with his 10th consecutive win, he had diverted from that. And that affected the way he played the rest of the game.
It was Drouin’s fifth in a row without a point, his 18th without a goal, and he’d have to be a robot not to be suffering the mental wear of not seeing the puck go in more than twice since the season started, the torment of seeing only three per cent of his shots hit the back of the net through 36 games after 10 per cent of them resulted in goals through the first 348 games of his career.
“It is weighing on me where, when I have a chance and miss the goal, I might be trying to score too much,” Drouin said. “It’s something I obviously think about — every player would — and I’ve just gotta put it past me and just keep shooting pucks.”
Ideally, the 26-year-old wouldn’t be thinking about any of this. These are thoughts that weigh a player down and right now the Canadiens are in tough without Brendan Gallagher for the rest of the season and Drouin needs to be light and free to help account for that loss. And in order for him to do that, he needs to focus on what he does best.
Because the reality is that even though Drouin can score more, scoring isn’t what he needs to do in order to be at his best and really help this team.
“When his feet are moving and he’s making plays, Drou’s a pass-first guy,” explained Jake Allen, who made 29 saves in Carey Price’s absence. “When his feet are moving, his head’s always in it. When his feet are moving, he’s controlling the play, controlling the puck. He’s a guy who really can control the play for a whole line. You want the puck on that guy’s stick and let the other guys do the dirty work and he’ll find them.”
But when Drouin’s feet aren’t moving, there just isn’t enough of that other stuff happening.
When Drouin’s feet weren’t moving, he lost a battle for the puck in the offensive zone and allowed the NHL’s leading goal scorer to start the rush that resulted in the winning play of Wednesday’s game.
Auston Matthews to Mitch Marner, back to Matthews, off Allen and slammed into Montreal’s net by Zach Hyman with 9:39 remaining in the third period, with Drouin watching from just inside his own blue line.
“You give a 3-on-2 to the Matthews line and it’s the kind of play they’re going to make you pay on,” said Ducharme.
Was Drouin still thinking about that shot he didn’t bury in the second period?
It’s understandable if he was, but those are the kind of thoughts he needs to shake right now.
“He wants to do well, and I’m sure it’s getting a little bit in his head,” said Ducharme. “I think the best remedy for him is to be scoring that goal or making that big play, and I think he’s going to be energized by that and less thinking, more acting.
“It is a fine line. Those kind of thoughts is not something that you want to happen. But when you receive that puck and you see the opening and stuff, (the slump) comes back to (your mind). That’s why the mental part of the game is something that’s very tricky. It’s not his will to be thinking that way. Every player who’s going through a time like that will have that thought and scoring that goal will take him to a different level. At those kind of times you need to make it even simpler and being even more inside going at the net and finding a garbage (goal) right there and you put it in and sometimes you go on a little run. It might be that kind of goal that he needs to get that monkey off his back.”
It’s the kind of goal Corey Perry scored twice to give the Canadiens a chance in this game.
But Drouin isn’t Perry, who rightly pointed out after the game he’s made a career of scoring goals that way. And even if Drouin can borrow from what Perry does next time he has a chance like the one Brett Kulak set him up with for that breakaway, there are other ways he can positively impact the game.
You can appreciate that Drouin said he’s putting pressure on himself to score more and help make up for the goals the team will be missing with Gallagher sidelined, but that might not get him to where he needs to be mentally to contribute as much as he already has this season.
What would, though, is a sharp turn towards the mentality he described just days ago. The one that’s enabled him to be a much more consistent player this season than he has in seasons past.
“When I was younger, I’d stay on one game or stay on one play for too long and wouldn’t be able to let it go for a bit or a couple of days,” Drouin said. “But I think for me now it’s can I look at myself in the mirror after a game and did I give my good effort? Was I a part of this game? Was I doing something right in a lot of areas?
“That’s what I do now. I think points are there, goals are there, assists are there, but it’s just about playing that real game and playing to help your team win.”
Drouin’s done a lot of that this season and has a chance to get right back to it when the Winnipeg Jets visit the Bell Centre Thursday.
Scioscia to lead U.S. baseball bid for spot at Tokyo Olympics
(Reuters) – Mike Scioscia, who won World Series both as a player and manager, was named manager of the U.S. men’s national baseball team on Tuesday, as they seek a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.
After 19 seasons as manager of the Anaheim Angels, guiding them to their only World Series win in 2002, Scioscia will make his international coaching debut in June when the United States hosts the Baseball Americas Qualifier in Florida.
For the tournament the U.S. will be grouped with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua in Pool A while Canada, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela will make up Pool B.
The top two teams from each pool will advance to the Super Round, where the country with the best overall record will earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympic tournament.
Second and third-place finishers will advance to a final qualifier, joining Australia, China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands.
“Mike’s tenure with the Angels’ franchise was nothing short of spectacular, creating and celebrating a culture of success with six division titles, an American League pennant, and its first-ever World Series title,” said USA Baseball Executive Director/CEO Paul Seiler in a statement. “More impactfully, his leadership, integrity, and character are unparalleled in our game, making him the perfect fit for the USA Baseball family.”
The Olympic tournament will take place from July 28-Aug. 7 in Fukushima City and Yokohama.
Hosts Japan, Israel, South Korea, and Mexico have already secured a berth in the six-team field.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)
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