The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
MONTREAL — Michael Pezzetta, NHL player.
Those aren’t words I ever thought I’d put together in a sentence, but the possibility first became realistic to me in training camp when Pezzetta appeared to be among the only players with the Montreal Canadiens playing like this opportunity was life and death to him.
The notion of him graduating was easy to dismiss when Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme assessed Pezzetta’s game by saying that for a guy who wasn’t really an option for a roster spot, he was still impressing. But it was harder to ignore the notion of Pezzetta getting a look when the Canadiens shot out to a 2-8 start while he was turned the confidence he showed at camp into an excellent start with the AHL’s Laval Rocket.
Here’s a player who understands exactly what he is and stays true to himself — a six-foot-one, 216-pound crasher; an energy guy who took the long road to arrive at his desired destination.
Pezzetta was drafted by the Canadiens 160th overall in 2016. He racked up more than twice as many penalty minutes as he did points over his OHL career with Sudbury and Sarnia, toiled in the AHL for three full seasons, even did a small stint in the ECHL with Maine and never gave up on the idea he might one day lace ’em up in the best league in the world and in its most notorious arena.
Bienvenue dans la LNH, Michael!
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) November 2, 2021
On Tuesday, in a 3-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings, that dream came true. Pezzetta made a tangible impact on the game over just 8:31 of ice-time in his NHL debut. He registered a couple of shots on net and a team-leading five hits, he forechecked and backchecked with authority, he would’ve have finished with a point or two had Jake Evans or Alex Belzile finished excellent chances he set for them, and he did it all in front of his parents, his girlfriend, 27 other family members and friends and a rink full of Canadiens supporters at the Bell Centre.
Pezzetta brought a few others to the game, too: his doubters, who he kept in mind prior to jumping onto the ice for his solo rookie lap.
The mullet- and mustache-wearing 23-year-old had a word for them after the game.
“There was a lot of times when people would sit there and tell me I wasn’t good enough and tell me that, ‘you’re never going to make it,’” said Pezzetta. “Teammates, coaches, you can hear them talking about your game in practice or this or that, and that pushed me every single day to be better and make sure that skills that I had that weren’t where they needed to be — I made them be good enough to make the jump to this level. So, for all those people that didn’t believe in me and thought I couldn’t do it: well, here I am now.”
So long as the Toronto native keeps doing what brought him here, it’ll be hard to bet against him.
Alex Romanov has boundless energy, and it has served him very well up until this point in his career.
But, as is often the case, his greatest strength can also be his biggest weakness.
Is it so hard for some people to grasp that it’ll take Romanov time to find the proper balance that enables him to turn his energy into more of a strength than a weakness?
Sure, Romanov is in his fourth year as a professional hockey player. He’s a former second-round pick who played two full seasons in the KHL before accumulating 68 games (regular season and playoffs combined) of NHL experience over a shortened 2021 campaign and the early part of this current one.
But he’s only 21 years old. Going through what he did on Tuesday — being scratched from Montreal’s win over Detroit — is part of his development.
I know that, with the Canadiens starting off the season so miserably, people want the keys handed over to the youngsters. They want to see kids like Romanov be given the freedom to make mistakes and keep jumping over the boards.
But scratching him for a game doesn’t mean the Canadiens aren’t allowing him to do that. He’s averaged 18:18 through the first 10 games, and he played over 20 minutes in two of the last three games before he was finally pulled from the lineup.
But there’s a fine line between giving Romanov — or any other young player — the leash to make mistakes and knowing when to enforce discipline, and Ducharme has walked it properly.
Romanov’s energy led him to play what might be considered the best game of his young career in a 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks last Thursday.
But his overexcitement went against him in a 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday and it bled into a 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks Sunday and really bit him.
Sometimes taking a step back is necessary, and it was clearly necessary for Romanov after he made a glaring mistake on Troy Terry’s game-winning goal.
Ducharme may not have made the decision to scratch Romanov solely to ensure his confidence doesn’t slip too much — the coach said he needed a bit more predictability on his blue line — but that was at least part of the reason the young Russian was watching Tuesday’s game instead of playing in it.
“What we wanted tonight was for him to watch the game from up top,” said Ducharme. “We did some video with him, we showed him some things. (The idea was) just to take a step back, watch and see those situations.”
Romanov had to submit to that process much more than he’d hoped during last year’s playoffs, but he’ll be back in with the Canadiens soon enough to rebound this time around.
Sami Niku and Chris Wideman each played less than 12 minutes against the Red Wings and neither has been particularly consistent since the season started. The door for Romanov’s re-entry to the lineup is open, and perhaps he’ll be more equipped to step through it after this process.
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I was obviously wrong when I suggested that, coming off his best game of the season, Cole Caufield appeared poised for a breakout with the Canadiens.
Four games later, after having not seen his efforts produce goals, Caufield was sent to Laval . And this move, just like the one made with Romanov, was to preserve his confidence.
Watching the 20-year-old’s last two games, it appeared to be a necessary one.
You have to ask yourself: How many times has Caufield gone 10 games at any level of hockey without seeing the puck hit the back of the net off his stick?
The answer is probably never.
Going through it for the first time — in the NHL, and as the prohibitive favourite for the Calder Trophy — can be suffocating. It can’t feel good.
But the good feelings can come back to Caufield quickly in the AHL, with a good Rocket team. He’s there to recapture them, and it should help that he had almost a full week to get acclimated and build up his confidence in practice before appearing in a game on Saturday.
Caufield will play big minutes in Laval, he’ll have the puck on his stick more often and, if he gets back to doing what he’s always done, he’ll be back in Montreal soon enough.
I was wrong about Caufield busting out last week, but I’m confident he’ll do exactly what’s expected of him in Laval and find his way back to the Canadiens in short order.
With Mathieu Perreault down for up to three weeks following a procedure to fix a detached retina — and with Cedric Paquette serving a two-game suspension for an ugly hit on Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras — the Canadiens opted to recall Pezzetta and Belzile over Ryan Poehling.
It was the right move, with Poehling finding the mojo in Laval that was missing from his game at Canadiens training camp. Sources with the team said it was explained to him so he wouldn’t feel slighted, and Ducharme said on Tuesday morning that it was best to keep him in his current rhythm coming off an early-season injury and finally feeling his game.
We’re not sure if that’ll change if Jonathan Drouin can’t play against the New York Islanders on Thursday — Drouin was struck in the face with a puck on Tuesday and has since submitted to tests and been deemed clear of concussion symptoms — but the Canadiens are intent on giving Poehling an opportunity to really build his game and his confidence before testing him out in the NHL again.
Plus, they have Adam Brooks available to them if Drouin can’t go.
The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
That’s changed on this trip, two lopsided wins and the chance for a rare sweep of the Golden State. The Leafs followed up a 6-2 win in Los Angeles with Friday’s 4-1 domination of the San Jose Sharks.
While rookie Joseph Woll finished strong with 30-plus saves for his third win to give Jack Campbell another rest, the other end of the ice belonged to the team’s top guns. William Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares helped drive ex-Leaf James Reimer from the cage.
It was Toronto’s sixth straight road victory and eighth of the past nine allowing two goals or less. Most important for coach Sheldon Keefe, the team didn’t relax in the warm California sun. They weren’t given a day off since arriving from a win on Long Island.
“We made it very clear, it’s very much a business trip coming out here,” Keefe said before the game. “That’s not an easy thing to do, because it is a beautiful place to be and it’s a great time to enjoy that as you start to move on to the winter months. But our guys have been focused. We’ve had a enough time after practice to enjoy a few hours of sunlight.”
Another win Sunday in Anaheim, likely to be the toughest stop, would be their first 3-0 run here in four years with very few before that.
“Certainly the morale of this team right now is the best it has been all season,” said Keefe, who had his 77th win as Toronto coach to pass Paul Maurice for 14th place in team history. “We feel we had a really good camp and pre-season and felt really good about our group and had a few days together (in Gravenhurst, Ont.) where I thought there was a lot of growth inside our team. Then obviously the season didn’t start well, it took us some time to get rolling, get people comfortable in their roles.
“(But) we can’t get too focused on that. It’s a long season, a daily thing (to maintain). The confidence is there right now, but you need that every day. You hope to be 1-0 every day.”
With 15 wins in 22 games, the Leafs are still pressuring division leading Florida. The first five minutes and change produced three of night’s haul of goals. It took just 32 seconds for the Leafs, who survived a scramble around Woll and headed up-ice, Tavares with a nice pass to send Nylander in alone. After a long stretch without a goal, Nylander’s 111th tied him with Ace Bailey for 50th in team history.
A few moments after Nick Bonino took advantage of rookie Kirill Semyonov being caught out too long, Wayne Simmonds chipped a David Kampf shot past Reimer. It was his fourth point in five games, though trapped as the last man back on defence, he was beaten by ex-Leaf Alex Barabanov on a close call. Woll stopped that and then Jonah Gadjovich on a breakaway, but forced his mates to kill a second minor in the period when he came out to clear a puck that eluded Justin Holl, only to fire it over the glass.
Matthews missed on some good looks in the middle period, then directed blueline traffic for a point shot to give himself an easy rebound on the lip of the crease, making it 3-1. His eighth since Nov. 1 made him one of four NHLers with at least that many this month — Leon Draisaitl (15), Matt Duchene (10) and Alex Ovechkin (9).
While Toronto’s eighth-ranked penalty kill added three more to its total, the No. 1 power play unit stayed out for the duration and didn’t take its foot off the gas until Tavares knocked in a rebound with 20 seconds remaining, his team-high 10th and the 13th time in his career he’s reached double figures.
That was all for Reimer on 17 shots, marking the fifth time he’s not finished a start against his old club, one of those an injury on that crazy night when he and current Leaf Petr Mrazek were hurt and local Zamboni driver David Ayres filled in for a Carolina win. Adin Hill didn’t get much respite from Toronto’s breakaways, born of 11 takeaways through 40 minutes.
Kampf was back in the lineup after missing all but a shift of Wednesday’s win in L.A. with an upper body injury, though linemate Ondrej Kase was scratched for a rest, replaced by Semyonov. The latter was about the only Leaf not to shine, Keefe keeping him on the bench for a spell in the middle period after some rough spots.
The 27-year-old is in his second season with Ottawa after they flipped a second-round pick and prospect Jonathan Gruden to Pittsburgh to get him back at the 2020 draft. At the time, they felt they had their starting goalie of the foreseeable future, quickly inking him to a four-year, $25MM contract; his $6.25MM AAV is the sixth-highest in the league among goaltenders this season.
What have they received in return for that money? Not a whole lot. Murray struggled considerably last season, posting a 3.38 GAA with a .893 SV% in 27 games, the worst numbers of his career. This season, those numbers aren’t any better – a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .890 in six games. Those numbers are below average for a backup let alone a starter.
Ottawa’s decision to dress Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson against the Ducks was a strong message from head coach D.J. Smith that he has lost faith in Murray. At this point, getting him down to Belleville for a stint to try to give him an opportunity to find his game again against lower-level competition certainly makes some sense.
Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch suggests the Sabres and Coyotes could be teams to keep an eye on with regards to a potential claim. Both teams have a need for a goaltender but with two years still left on his contract and both teams operating as lower budget squads, it’s hard to imagine they’d be willing to take him off waivers with how poor he has performed in Ottawa. A trade with retention after he clears and maybe some games in the minors would be a likelier scenario.
Assuming he does indeed clear on Sunday, the Sens will get a small bit of cap relief as $1.125MM of Murray’s AAV will come off their books when he’s sent down. Of course, with Ottawa being a team that’s closer to the Lower Limit of the cap than the Upper Limit, that relief won’t be worth a whole lot to them but they’ll be able to move forward with a Forsberg-Gustavsson tandem for at least the time being while giving Murray an opportunity to get back to form in the minors.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report that Murray would be waived.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket Friday, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament.
Italy will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs to Sweden. Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, it may have to beat Euro 2016 champion Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.
“It’s not a great draw and it could have gone better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini acknowledged. “Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy.”
Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this could be his last attempt at winning international soccer’s biggest trophy. He will turn 37 before next year’s tournament starts.
Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimović netting twice for the Swedes.
“It’s not worth thinking about (Italy),” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “It’s important that we concentrate on beating Turkey.”
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.
Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
Scotland looks to end a 24-year wait to play at the World Cup while Wales’ only appearance was in 1958.
“At the moment, the way the team is playing, the confidence the boys have got, we would be happy to play anyone, anywhere,” said Scotland coach Steve Clarke, whose team has won six straight since September.
However, Ukraine won at Hampden Park in June, in the Euro 2020 round of 16 against Sweden, and went unbeaten through a World Cup qualifying group won by France.
Sweden will not have Ibrahimović for its semifinal against the Czechs. The 40-year-old forward has a one-game ban for getting yellow cards in the qualifying group.
“We already did it last time (in 2018) and we of course (know) that we can do it again,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson.
The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.
The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.
The European playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.
Also, FIFA said Qatar will host the intercontinental playoff in June that will decide the last two qualifiers for the tournament.
The intercontinental draw paired the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania’s representative.
Those qualifying campaigns are still being played.
The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13-14 will complete the 32-team World Cup lineup.
The intercontinental playoff was originally scheduled for March 2022 as two-leg, home and away series. The games were pushed back as the global qualifying program stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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