Connor McDavid is the best hockey player on earth. He’s having a monstrous season, putting the Oilers on his back and willing them into a playoff position. He leads the league in points, is sixth in goals and is the biggest reason the Oilers have the best power play in the NHL right now.
The Canucks hard-matched 20-year-old Quinn Hughes against him on Monday night. It wasn’t even the first time.
In the first game of the season, the player that led the Canucks in ice time against McDavid at even-strength was Hughes, who was 19 at the time. Head coach Travis Green and defence coach Nolan Baumgartner placed a tremendous amount of trust in Hughes right from day one. But that was in a game where the Canucks were trying to mount a comeback; this was a game where they were defending a lead late in the third period.
Let’s just take a step back and recognize how remarkable that is. The Canucks’ rookie defenceman, who had played just 41 NHL games — half a season — heading into this game, was tasked with shutting down the best player in the world. More than that, Hughes is undersized by NHL standards and known primarily as an offensive defenceman and power play quarterback.
Old-school hockey men would either jump to the conclusion that he can’t play defence or refuse to put him in a position where he might prove that he could.
Instead, the Canucks threw him into the fire and it turned out Hughes was fireproof, which was a huge relief to everyone. Hughes played over 11 minutes against McDavid at even strength, including 1:32 of the final two minutes of the game, defending a one-goal lead. He and defence partner Chris Tanev — can’t forget about Tanev — played McDavid to a standstill, which is remarkably impressive when you consider how fast McDavid skates.
“I knew he was a great skater coming in, I mean, you can tell that from day one,” said Jay Beagle after the game. “But his play away from the park and his reads…it takes a long time for some guys to get that and he has it right away.”
Perhaps it’s that skating ability itself that made the matchup work. Few players in the league can skate with McDavid, but Hughes might be one of those few.
Then, to top it off, Hughes scored the game-winning goal on the power play. I hope you know how lucky you are to have Quinn Hughes, Vancouver. I took a moment to thank the Arizona Coyotes for drafting Barrett Hayton while I watched this game.
- Alex Edler was on the ice against Connor McDavid for just over two minutes at even-strength in this game; in that time, the Canucks out-scored the Oilers 3-0. Edler was like John Wick declaring, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.”
- Okay, so Edler didn’t have much to do with any of those three goals apart from the empty net goal at the end of the game, but it was still nice to see him back in the lineup. He didn’t skip a beat, leading the Canucks in ice time in the first period, though they eased off on the minutes as the game progressed.
- Troy Stecher, who was paired with Edler, was certainly happy to see Edler back. “I’ve watched him my whole life,” said Stecher after the game, a disconcerting reminder that Stecher was just 12 years old when Edler made his Canucks debut.
- The Canucks’ fourth line split the shutdown duties with the Horvat line and played several shifts against McDavid entirely in the Oilers zone. In fact, the Oilers didn’t get a single shot attempt when Jay Beagle was on the ice against McDavid, which is pretty much ideal.
- “We just enjoy doing what we do,” said Tyler Motte. “Shutting down other teams top lines, playing hard minutes. It’s a little bit of an ugly game at times, but we just enjoy doing it and we enjoy doing it together. We just try to have fun with it.”
- Better than shutting down McDavid, the fourth line even chipped in a goal. On an ever-rare offensive zone faceoff, Motte came into the circle when Beagle was tossed out. The puck ended up in skates off the faceoff and Motte dug it out and sent a quick shot on goal. Mikko Koskinen, who had drifted back in his crease after puck drop, left room on the glove side for Motte’s Clamato Caesar shot.
- “I’m probably going to hear about it now from them that they should get out there [for offensive zone faceoffs] more often,” joked Green after the game, though they were mainly out there in a defensive role: Horvat had just been on the power play and he knew the McDavid line would come out after the penalty was over.
- Seriously, Motte was fantastic in this game. He had a great forechecking sequence during a 4-on-4 late in the second, creating a turnover with pressure on Oscar Klefbom in the neutral zone, then battling with Adam “1-for-1” Larsson on the end boards and unceremoniously throwing him to the ice.
- It didn’t take long for the Oilers to respond to the 1-0 goal, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins blazed past Brock Boeser in the neutral zone, took advantage of a loose gap from Oscar Fantenberg, then caught Tyler Myers playing too deep in the zone. Nugent-Hopkins cut across the slot and all Myers could do was attempt a pokecheck, but Nugent-Hopkins was unpokeable, keeping the puck and beating Jacob Markstrom past his blocker.
- You can’t give the Edmonton Oilers any time on the power play. They put on a free power play clinic early in the second period, which was awfully nice of them, except it resulted in the 2-1 goal, which means it wasn’t as “free” as advertised and was actually pretty costly. We should’ve known from the quotes around the word “free” on the poster.
- The Canucks were confident heading into the third period despite being down 2-1; they felt they were out-playing the Oilers and that a bounce would go their way. When that bounce came, it was for a player that was due a bounce, particularly on home ice: Bo Horvat. He went hard to the net as Tanner Pearson took a shot off the right wing and the rebound just happened to hit Horvat’s skate and go into the net.
- Was it a kick? “That’s not a kicking motion, absolutely not, I was just stopping,” declared Horvat. “I’m a terrible soccer player, so I wouldn’t have been able to kick that.”
- That was Horvat’s first goal on home ice all season and it seemed appropriate that it was a deflection. “I knew one was going to go off my ass or off some part of my body,” said Horvat, before joking that his ass would have been better, because then he could have celebrated the goal instead of being stuck waiting to find out if the goal would be overturned.
- This was my favourite moment of the game. It’s a little hard to see here, but from my vantage point it was clear as day: Hughes put his stick in Tanev’s back and tried to push him to the puck carrier. The sheer chutzpah for a rookie like Hughes to think, “I know where Tanev needs to be defensively and I’m going to literally push him into position,” is incredible.
- Tanev was having none of it. He didn’t budge. Heck, he probably thought it was an Oilers player trying to get position on him in front of the net.
- The Oilers may have the best power play in the league, but the Canucks aren’t far behind, and they showed why midway through the third period. The Oilers’ penalty kill seemed to underrate the threat of Hughes’ shot from the point, which is understandable when Elias Pettersson is lurking around the PetterZone, but Hughes showed why that was a mistake, unleashing a one-timer bomb that ripped past a Horvat screen to give the Canucks the 3-2 lead.
- The Canucks had a couple good chances to seal the game away late in the third: Jake Virtanen got robbed on a backdoor feed by J.T. Miller, while Jay Beagle lofted a breakaway chance over the net on a rolling puck. Finally, with the net empty, it was an unlikely hero who finished off the Oilers: Loui Eriksson.
- Edler made a nice play down low to pick up a loose puck and feed Pearson on the boards, then jumped up in the play to take Pearson’s return pass. He could have gone for the empty net himself, but Edler is as unselfish as they come. He instead gave the puck to Eriksson, who gently guided the puck in with a big grin on his face. Merry Christmas, Loui Eriksson. Merry Christmas.
- Finally, I had to ask Stecher about an odd moment in his stellar mic’d up video from earlier in December. At one point, he said from the bench, ““Nice pencil, Leivs!” which isn’t hockey slang that I’m familiar with. Stecher smirked and all he would say is, “A pencil is more of a chirp than anything, so I’ll keep that one quiet.”
Lightning cherishing every moment of opportunity for Cup Final redemption – Sportsnet.ca
EDMONTON — What I’ll remember most was the pure guttural scream.
It echoed up through Rogers Place when the Tampa Bay Lightning gathered 48 of the 52 members of their travelling party on the ice with the Prince of Wales Trophy to take a photo here Thursday night.
You’d never know that a celebration could be so emotional in an empty building because, until three days ago with the Dallas Stars, this was completely unprecedented.
The Lightning left their hearts out there. This was a moment six years in the making, or more, for so many members of this organization. And it was clear that booking a trip to the Stanley Cup Final was no less rewarding under these circumstances than it would have been before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19.
“It is so hard to explain, because regardless if there’s fans in the building or not, the exuberance and relief, it’s unparalleled how you feel inside,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “When you look back at this — and it’s not over — but we’ve been in a hotel for 54 straight days. And when people said this might be one of the hardest Cups to win, it might be one of the hardest Cups ever to win. There’s two of us left standing, they’re going through the exact same thing we are.
“You want your fans there, but it’s not about the fans, it’s about the players and the effort and dedication and perseverance they’ve put into this. And they’re the ones that deserve this, because they’ve done all the work.”
For the Lightning, it was also about Steven Stamkos, even though the captain hasn’t played a game since late February. He’s been rehabbing an undisclosed injury inside the NHL bubble without playing a game and was called out to join Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Alex Killorn for the trophy presentation with deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
The pride on Stamkos’s face was unmistakable. He let Hedman and the others who played in the six-game series victory over the New York Islanders touch the trophy — at least until Hedman skated it over to him with instructions to carry it into the team’s dressing room.
“It was obviously a great feeling,” said Hedman. “Even though Stammer’s not playing, he’s still the leader of this team and he’s such a good influence on the room. During practices and morning skates. He’s still a big reason that he’s here where we are.
“I’m just so happy for the whole group obviously to once again — you know, a few of us went there in 2015. To go back in the Final with the Lightning again is an unreal experience.”
They had good reason to believe this would have happened sooner. It was a young team that lost the 2015 Stanley Cup Final to Chicago in six games.
Tampa has been the NHL’s top team in basically every measurable category since that happened but they’ve experienced nothing but heartbreak. A Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018, and then a record-breaking 62-win season last year followed by a sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Losing this would have been the ultimate gut punch.
The Lightning were the better team against New York, but there’s a price to be paid against the Islanders. Brayden Point was in and out of the series, Ondrej Palat took a shot off the foot during Thursday’s series-clinching 2-1 victory and Anthony Cirelli left for a time after an accidental knee-on-knee collision with Anders Lee.
It was Cirelli who finally froze the clock in overtime with his first goal and first point of the season.
The celebration was incredible. These guys understood on a fundamental level what this meant.
“You have to cherish these moments and try your best to take advantage of them,” said Cooper. “We’ve been knocking at the door and it can get frustrating. It can make the summers, time-wise they’re so short, but mentality-wise they’re long. You just have to believe in your process and you have to believe in what you’re doing and you have to have players that jump on board.
“In the end, it’s a player’s game.”
The players celebrated this one together. The Lightning brought every extra skater they have here on the ice for this Eastern Conference Championships photo. There was Mathieu Joseph and his wonderful hair, Braydon Coburn and his thick playoff beard, Stamkos and his ever-present smile.
“Definitely a special moment for that group and then to get the whole team involved,” said veteran defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “Great moment.”
Hedman is always the last player on the ice after a Tampa victory and had to wait out a four-question Killorn interview with NBC after they eliminated the Islanders. You could hear him banging his stick while Killorn spoke with Pierre McGuire inside this empty building.
He knew his teammates were celebrating without them but still wouldn’t skate off.
What a cool scene, all of it.
The Lightning will be back out here against the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night and they didn’t shy away from the fact they may have emptied a couple veins just to get the opportunity.
“As for gas in the tank, I guess we’ll see,” said Cooper. “This is unlike any other Stanley Cup Final where we’d get days rest. If you don’t go seven, you usually get days rest. We’re not here, but if you were going to tell me, ‘Hey Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup Final.
“You’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game but you’re going to get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day.”
Toronto Maple Leafs add Manny Malhotra to coaching staff – TSN
It’s been a whirlwind few days for Manny Malhotra, who on Thursday officially left the Vancouver Canucks organization to become the Maple Leafs’ newest assistant coach.
“I had a lot of conversations with [Canucks’ head coach Travis Green] here and then after talking with [Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe], I was left with about two days to make the decision,” Malhotra told TSN on Thursday.
“For me, it came down to [the fact] this is an opportunity to advance my coaching career and be a part of a really good organization with a lot of good talent to work with. So I’m very happy at the conclusion of this whole process, but it was a very hectic four or five days.”
Malhotra comes to the Leafs after a three-year stint as an assistant coach in Vancouver, joining Dave Hakstol in rounding out Keefe’s staff. A native of Mississauga, Ont., Malhotra’s French-Canadian and South Asian background make him one of the few visible minority coaches in the NHL.
He replaces the recently departed Paul McFarland, who became general manager and head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs in August.
TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun reported that the Leafs also spoke with Rocky Thompson and Bruce Boudreau about the job before landing on Malhotra. Thompson had been the head coach of the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves and is now joining the San Jose Sharks’ staff for next season, while Boudreau has been a free agent since the Minnesota Wild relieved him of head coaching duties in February.
Malhotra, 40, will bring plenty of experience with him to the Leafs’ post, having segued into roles behind the bench after his 16-year playing career ended in 2016.
Originally selected seventh overall by the New York Rangers in the 1998 draft, Malhotra developed into a strong two-way centre over his 991-game tenure with seven different teams. He retired with 295 points (116 goals, 179 assists) and an impressive winning percentage in the faceoff circle (56.4), making a quick transition from there to a one-season development coach role with the Canucks. Malhotra became a full-fledged assistant in 2017.
“The work ethic, character, intelligence and attention to detail that made Manny the ultimate teammate when he played are all assets that have translated to his coaching. That, combined with his charisma and communication skills, make us really excited to have him join the organization,” said Keefe in a press release.
Malhotra hopes to help Toronto’s top offensive players, like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, become stronger two-way players.
“First and foremost I’m really looking to just get to know those guys and try to understand their make-up and what makes them tick, what motivates them,” Malhotra said. “I think it’s most important to find out who they are as a player, and then find out their mindset and where they are in their career, and then just try to relay some of those messages on the details of your game and sharpening up the small, finer points that everybody always harps on from a young age. It’s a matter of putting those into play on a regular basis that separates guys and allows guys to grow in your career.”
Malhotra learned the benefits of focusing on those little things from Green – not just with individual players, but in coaching as a whole.
“He really likes to analyze things, overanalyze, overcook,” Malhotra said. “And initially you think it’s probably a little bit of overkill, but you realize when you put that type of thought into decisions, into systems, into lineups, that it shows you care. It shows that you’re putting the proper time in to make those key decisions.”
Malhotra can apply all that while taking over the duties vacated by McFarland, who spent one season in Toronto primarily running the Leafs’ power play.
McFarland and Hakstol were hired under former head coach Mike Babcock in May 2019, but remained on with Keefe after Babcock’s firing in mid-November and Keefe’s subsequent promotion into the role.
Malhotra is now the second coaching appointment Toronto has made under Keefe’s direction. The club had parted ways with another of Babcock’s hires – video coach Andrew Brewer – in August, and brought in Samuel Kim as his replacement on Sept. 1.
Malhotra said the opportunity to work with Keefe was a driving force behind his choice to change coasts.
“His credentials and his accomplishments as a coach speak for themselves,” he said of Keefe. “There’s nothing but complimentary things said about him and his character and his personality and his knowledge of the game, so I’m excited to work with [Keefe and Hakstol].”
Mickelson struggles Thursday at Winged Foot – pgatour.com
For a few brief moments Phil Mickelson’s dream of conquering Winged Foot to complete a career grand slam was on track at the U.S. Open, but inaccuracy off the tee once again gave him nightmares.
A week after hitting just 12 of 56 fairways at the Safeway Open, Mickelson managed to find the short grass off the tee just twice in Thursday’s opening round on the way to a dismal 9-over 79.
The 50-year-old’s chance at redemption from 2006 looked a chance after he rolled in back-to-back birdies out of the gate. Perhaps he truly had let go of the infamous 72nd hole double bogey that helped Geoff Ogilvy claim the trophy over 14 years ago.
Mickelson’s early birdies came despite missing both fairways left into deep rough and the fairytale writers lifted their eyebrows and dared to think something special might be on its way.
However, the inaccuracy quickly caught up. From the moment a four-foot par putt on the third hole lipped out, Mickelson found himself in a deep spiral not even his 44-time PGA TOUR winning experience could fight.
Bogeys on the fourth, fifth and eighth followed with Mickelson not chalking up his first fairway until the par-5 ninth hole. It didn’t help as he would go on to make par after another missed putt.
Bogey at 10 and another at 13 came soon after the turn with the latter the start of a six-hole finishing stretch that the six-time U.S. Open runner-up played in six over. Ultimately, he would finish 14 shots off the pace and all but officially be eliminated from contention. Only U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Lukas Michel (80) was behind him on the leaderboard.
The words he said as he left Napa must have been ringing in his ears throughout the round.
“The last couple of months I’ve been missing it more to the right and not worried about the left and the left crept in again,” Mickelson had said after the Safeway Open. “For years I missed it left. I haven’t been fearing that at all lately, but this week I missed it left, which is not good. I can deal with missing it right now, but not left.”
He went on to say he was confident of being able to turn it around before the opening round in New York but sadly that was not the case. Prior to the Safeway Open he had won his debut start at PGA TOUR Champions.
“I actually have had some nice breakthroughs in the last year and I feel like I’m on the precipice of playing really well, but I’ve got to get it to click,” he said.
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