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.”
Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Campbell, Spezza, Engvall, Calling Leaders – The Hockey Writers
Where did Saturday’s game come from? In the three seasons that I’ve covered the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was one of the strangest games I watched. The team was overwhelmed. There was every chance to come in and play well against what should have been an under-manned Pittsburgh Penguins’ squad; but, a final score of 7-1 for the Penguins shows it didn’t happen.
The question that remains for the Maple Leafs as a team is whether this current funk is a short one or whether it’s symptomatic of deeper issues. There’s a saying attributed to William Arthur Ward that “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
The question now is what the Maple Leafs will do to adjust the sails. Although there’s great value in optimism, for as optimistic a face as head coach Sheldon Keefe shows the public, having watched him in the Amazon Prime Documentary “All or Nothing,” you have to know Keefe isn’t singing “Kum Ba Yah” behind the scenes when he’s not answering the media’s questions.
Keefe’s a realist and is surrounded by realists. What will happen now? In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at Jack Campbell’s odd night. Second, I’ll look at Jason Spezza’s continuing contributions to the team. Finally, I’ll consider Maple Leafs’ current team leadership.
Item One: Time for a Jack Campbell Mulligan
The stats line shows that Maple Leafs’ starting goalie Jack Campbell let in five goals on 21 shots during Saturday’s 7-1 loss to the Penguins. That isn’t the Campbell we know from either last season or thus far this season. The second period did him in when he let in four goals in 20 minutes.
By the third, coach Keefe had enough and put in Michael Hutchinson to close out the obvious defeat. Given that the 29-year-old Campbell entered the game with a 2-0-1 season’s record, a goals-against-average of 1.18, and a save percentage of .953 in four games, he deserves a mulligan.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to lay a guilt trip on a goalie who had, until Saturday’s game, only given up two or fewer goals in each of his first four starts. Here’s hoping, although Campbell might have fallen in one game, that he can get up quickly.
Item Two: Jason Spezza Continues to Produce
No surprise, the one player whose game seemed unaffected by the circumstances was Jason Spezza. He scored a goal to tie the game early and gave Maple Leafs’ fans early hope that all was not lost. It was the last goal the team would score.
Spezza continues to show up. In six games to start the 2021-22 campaign, he’s scored three goals and added two assists (for five points). Last season, he scored 10 goals and 20 assists (for 30 points) in 54 games. He shows no signs of a let-up.
Item Three: How Did Pierre Engvall Emerge with a Plus-One Rating?
One amazing scoresheet surprise has to be that Pierre Engvall emerged with a plus-one rating on the night. How does a player play 13:21 minutes during a 7-1 loss and come out on the positive side of the ledger? I have no comment on Engvall’s game because I didn’t notice the statistic until I looked at the box score after the game.
Engvall had an assist on Spezza’s goal but was miraculously not on for any Penguins’ goals. That just seems amazing and was perhaps the only positive statistic the Maple Leafs can show for the game.
Item Four: Considering Team Leadership
Each offseason the team’s management gets together to talk about what moves it can make during the offseason to improve the team. Last season, the management decided to bring in outside players to provide leadership. Chief among those players was Joe Thornton. I believe he provided that aspect of leadership and the team was better for his presence. Even if his play was less than expected, he helped the team.
During this offseason, I believe management thought it was time for the team’s internal leadership to take the next leadership step. Specifically, it was time for Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner to take the reins. The team’s management reasoned that group had seasoned enough to do that job. In addition, Wayne Simmonds and Spezza remained to help.
As a result, this season, the team is different because management didn’t bring in outside players for leadership. That leadership now must come from within – starting with Matthews, Marner, and Tavares. The results on the ice suggest that it hasn’t happened yet.
As my sometimes collaborator and long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith emailed me after the game, if these players are to lead they’ll have to do it by example. So far, it isn’t happening – not yet anyway,
If this team is to come out of its current crisis, that leadership must emerge soon.
What’s Next for This Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs must try to shake off this blowout before they meet ex-teammate Frederik Andersen and the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday. You can only imagine that Andersen is waiting to exact some payback against his old team.
Winning in Carolina won’t be easy for the Maple Leafs. The Hurricanes are 4 – 0. Andersen’s only given up seven goals in four games, and he’ll be ready. It might be another disaster, or it could be a chance for redemption. That it’s the Maple Leafs’ third game in four nights, this one might take some lucky bounces or the immediate emergence of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Is it too naive for Maple Leafs’ fans to be optimistic?
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf
Wentz leads Colts to rain soaked road win over 49ers – Sportsnet.ca
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Colts coach Frank Reich wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.
After being burned by a conservative third-down run call late in a loss to Baltimore two weeks ago, Reich put the ball in Carson Wentz’s hands this time — and it paid off.
Wentz threw a 28-yard TD pass to Michael Pittman Jr. to finish off the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night in a rain-soaked 30-18 victory.
Instead of playing for a field goal the way he did late against the Ravens that contributed to an overtime loss, Reich stayed aggressive even in the treacherous conditions.
“I felt like something about learning the lesson from the Ravens game,” he said. “We had a third-and-8 and I called a run. I told the guys, `I’m not doing that again. I’m throwing a pass.’ I don’t care what anybody says. It really comes from trusting your quarterback and trusting your receivers.”
Wentz and Pittman earned that trust, delivering numerous big plays during a driving rain storm that could have made throwing deep difficult.
Pittman had four catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He also drew two other pass interference calls as Wentz repeatedly looked his direction as the Colts (3-4) overcame the wet conditions and an early nine-point deficit to win for the third time in four games following an 0-3 start to the season.
“It seems like he just goes into a kind of a beast mode kind of deal,” running back Jonathan Taylor said of Pittman. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s like, `No one is stopping me.’ And if the ball is in the air, he’s like, ‘This ball is mine, or it’s a PI. This is my ball.'”
The 49ers (2-4) dropped their fourth straight game and remained winless at home for more than a year since beating the Rams on Oct. 18, 2020, as the return of starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo failed to provide any spark on a wet night.
Garoppolo threw for 181 yards, lost a fumble, threw two interceptions and struggled to push the ball downfield in his first game back after missing one game with a calf injury.
“The NFL is a crazy thing,” Garoppolo said. “One week, you’re on top. One week, you’re at the bottom of it. Every team has its ups and downs. We’re at the lower point right now. But we can fight back.”
Wentz and the Colts were able to do just enough on offense thanks to three pass interference penalties for 97 yards and a productive game on the ground from Taylor, who ran for 107 yards and a score.
Wentz threw an 11-yard TD pass to Mo Alie-Cox in the first quarter and then led two short TD drives following fumbles by San Francisco, leading to his 1-yard score late in the first half and Taylor’s 5-yard run that made it 20-12 late in the third.
Garoppolo led a TD drive early in the fourth, cutting the deficit to 20-18 on a 14-yard throw to Deebo Samuel. But his 2-point try was batted down at the line.
The Colts then put it away by driving for a field goal and getting the late TD pass from Wentz to Pittman on another short field after Xavier Rhodes intercepted Garoppolo.
“I’ve got to catch them,” Pittman said. “Carson can really throw it out there, so I just got to make sure that I’m the one who comes down with it.”
IN THE SLOP
The driving rain storm had a big impact on the game, especially during a stretch midway through the second quarter.
Colts running back Nyheim Hines got wide open downfield on a third-down pass that slipped right through his hands.
Indianapolis then punted and Brandon Aiyuk muffed the ball before kicking it back nearly 20 yards into the end zone. He recovered it and it was ruled a touchback because he never had possession.
Wentz and Garoppolo both fumbled snaps that they recovered later in the quarter before Samuel lost a fumble for San Francisco at his own 28 on a perfect punchout by Darius Leonard.
That set up a 1-yard run by Wentz that gave the Colts a 13-12 halftime lead.
TAKE IT AWAY
The Niners came in with a league-low two takeaways but doubled that total in the first half.
Taylor fumbled on Indianapolis first play from scrimmage and Fred Warner recovered to set up a field goal by Joey Slye that made it 9-0.
Wentz then made an inexplicable decision early in the second quarter. As he was trying to run away from Nick Bosa, Wentz appeared to flip the ball forward right into Azeez Al-Shaair’s hands. It was ruled a fumble.
Colts: CB BoPete Keyes (hamstring) left in the first half and didn’t return.
49ers: LT Trent Williams was scratched after aggravating an ankle injury last week in practice. Rookie Jaylon Moore made his first career start in his place. … S Jaquiski Tartt (knee), DE Dee Ford (head injury) and CB Emmanuel Moseley (back) all left the game.
Colts: Host Titans on Sunday.
49ers: Visit Chicago on Sunday.
Time For Maple Leafs To Admit The Kyle Dubas Experiment Has Failed – The Hockey Writers
It’s still in early in the season, but based on the reactions from Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans on Sunday, you’d never know the organization has 76 games to pull their season around and get things back on track. No, after a 7-1 loss at the hands of a very depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team, Leafs Nation is freaking out over a terrible start and a lack of production from some key contributors on this Leafs’ roster.
Mitch Marner has one assist in six games. Auston Matthews has played three since returning from injury and has no points. John Tavares has three points in six but is clearly slowing down. Nick Ritchie hasn’t popped up on the scoresheet yet and Ondrej Kase has one goal and no helpers. The team leader in points is the player most fans often talk about trading and everyone on the roster not named Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, and Michael Amadio is either even or a minus player.
These six games are being seen as a microcosm of a much larger problem, one that has plagued this franchise for a few seasons now. The window to win is rapidly closing and the prospects for the roster being productive while together are dwindling. The exodus started this past offseason and it will only continue.
Dubas Hasn’t Come as Advertised
Two people are responsible for this and one more than the other. You can’t blame the GM without pointing a finger at the person who hired him, but the GM has been the one pulling the trigger on a series of poor decisions that have clearly caught up to this team.
When Brendan Shanahan hired Kyle Dubas to be his new general manager in July of 2014, the decision was seen as progressive and astute. Dubas was young, he had a strong handle on analytics and he was bringing in a fresh perspective. The thought was he’d crunch the numbers, look at this team in a different way and make changes accordingly.
While much of the number-crunching speculation turned out to be true, one of the first big moves Dubas made was signing John Tavares to a massive contract in free agency. Tavares was a player the Leafs didn’t need, but he wanted to come home to Toronto and Dubas wanted to make a splash. Both the GM and the player got what they wanted.
Immediately the team transitioned into salary cap crisis mode. Giving Tavares $11 million over the course of seven seasons meant the Leafs were inevitably going to run into issues re-signing Nylander, Matthews and Marner. All contracts got done, but all negotiations were a bit contentious with the exception of Matthews who was pretty much going to get whatever he wanted.
Dubas went to work trying to plug holes in goal and on the blue line and while he was successful in some regard, he had to make sacrifices when he came to a number of crossroads. Essentially, Dubas has been lauded for his ability to work the salary cap with his numbers guy Brandon Pridham. The reality is, the two men are being applauded for barely being able to keep the team above water based on their cap restrictions.
Series of Wrong Decisions
Starting with the Tavares signing — Tavares is a great player but he wasn’t a necessity for the Maple Leafs — Dubas fell down a rabbit hole of transactions that haven’t panned out for Toronto. He moved Nazem Kadri for Tyson Barrie (who left in free agency then led the NHL in points for a defenseman), he traded a number of players to create cap flexibility, he made trades and signed free agents that barely moved the needle, and he lost big names to free agency, simply because he couldn’t afford to keep them.
The latest losses might be among the team’s most painful. Zach Hyman reportedly left the Maple Leafs over a no-trade clause. While there was talk the money was a big issue, Elliotte Friedman has reported that Hyman simply wanted security. Dubas wasn’t in a position to give it to him and the Edmonton Oilers were. Meanwhile, Frederik Andersen left for the Carolina Hurricanes (for a reasonable $4.5 million over two seasons) leaving the Maple Leafs without a proven starter. Jack Campbell might be the real deal, but he’s going to cost a pretty penny to keep as he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Nick Foligno was a disaster of a trade. Joe Thornton didn’t pan out. The grit is essentially all but gone and the future isn’t looking as bright as it should for a GM who was going to find gems in the draft others couldn’t find.
What Has Dubas Left This Team With?
What’s perhaps more concerning than what Dubas has done with the roster is what he can do moving forward. As the prospect of going deep in the playoffs dwindle, some important pieces will likely be moving on.
Few expect Rielly to remain with the club after this season. He’s going to get paid on the open market and the Leafs simply can’t afford him. Meanwhile, even though he seems to love this team, Campbell could dart in free agency if the right offer comes along and Dubas can’t match. There’s always talk Auston Matthews might want to head home to Arizona and the best players on the team are taking all sorts of heat from the fan base as they band together in the face of unscrupulous critcism.
Right or wrong, Dubas has committed to his core four guys: Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander. He seems unwilling to trade any of them, even though almost everyone knows that’s the one thing that can help him balance out his roster. His formula for winning hasn’t worked and Dubas seems relentless in his need to beat a dead horse.
What might be the most troubling is that if he makes a move, it will likely be the wrong one. The player with the most tradeable contract is Nylander, yet he leads the team in scoring and might be the most naturally skilled player of the four. Tavares isn’t going anywhere thanks to a full no-move clause and the fans seems to be chasing Marner out of town, which will inevitably bite the Maple Leafs in the a– if and when he’s traded.
As Corey Landberg accurately wrote on Twitter, “Imagine being Kyle Dubas and walking into Matthews, Marner, Nylander entering their prime, Rielly and Kadri on great contracts, a solid goalie, depth all over the roster and then you turn them into this crap 4 years later.”
Fans are losing their minds over the rough start to the 2021-22 season and many are blaming Dubas. What’s crazy is that this downward trend started a while ago. The 7-1 loss to the Penguins only shined a light on something most fans should have been aware of.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”
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