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Maple Leafs’ offence remains lethal, but play away from puck is improving – Sportsnet.ca

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The sizzling start the Toronto Maple Leafs so badly desired has been built on a lethal power play and the ability to find one more goal every time they need it.

But their commitment at the less enjoyable end of the ice merits some mention as well.

In beating the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 on Thursday night, the Maple Leafs kept another opponent below 30 shots. They are averaging just 27 against per night during the 7-2-0 climb to the top of the North Division, which is a marked improvement from where they were a year ago.

Protecting the net-front was a priority spelled out on the first day of training camp by Sheldon Keefe earlier this month and the head coach is seeing progress. Call it a long-range goal for a roster that can seemingly summon offence at will.

The Leafs were disappointed by squandering 2-0 and 3-2 lead at Rogers Place. Keefe was livid at seeing his players take seven minor penalties in the game, saying “Obviously we have to stay out of the penalty box. The penalties have been crazy. It’s just not good enough.”

But the sting was softened by an Auston Matthews power-play strike with less than seven minutes to play since it delivered another regulation victory and allowed everyone to step back and look at all the good happening for the team at 5-on-5 over the first couple weeks.

“We’ve defended hard,” said Keefe. “The guys are working and we’ve really significantly cut down on the high-danger chances and odd-man rushes and the players have been really committed to that. It’s been far from perfect, we’ve got a lot of areas to grow. We’re not even close to being the team that I think we can be, the team that we would need to be.

“I think the greatest news of all is that none of the games have been perfect and there’s lots of room for growth.”

With that mind, here are some observations from Toronto’s fourth straight victory.

VINTAGE PERFORMANCE

Jason Spezza has already passed through the waiver wire this season and was coming off a healthy scratch Tuesday in Calgary.

As deeply respected as he is within the organization, the 37-year-old is battling to carve out his niche on an extremely fluid fourth line that featured Travis Boyd and Alexander Barabanov on Thursday, but has also included Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks and Joey Anderson in prior games.

This should help.

Spezza had a goal and an assist among his five first-period shifts in Edmonton. After taking a Boyd pass and beating Mikko Koskinen for his first goal since Feb. 7, 2020, he wisely kept the puck in at the line before William Nylander made it 2-0.

Keefe had felt the extra rest would help Spezza in sitting him out in Calgary.

“Obviously he was right,” said the veteran centre. “I felt good tonight and had a little bit of an extra jump. It’s nice when those things work out.”

He also went 5-3 in the faceoff dot and continues to be one of the NHL’s most reliable faceoff men. Despite seeing limited playing time, Spezza has five points to show for his eight games this season but indicated that he hadn’t been feeling any added pressure by a goal drought that stretched back 27 games.

“I’m not judging my play on goals and assists anymore,” he said. “I’m in a different role and I have to make sure I play that role well and be fine with it.”

NYLANDER SHOOTS

You almost had to laugh.

Just hours after acknowledging that he needed to shoot the puck more often, William Nylander found himself on 2-on-1 with Ilya Mikheyev during the opening shift of the game and … passed.

His attempt was broken up by Oilers defenceman Tyson Barrie.

But Nylander ended up rebounding to make good on his intentions, firing a season-high five shots on net with seven attempts. He also scored for the first time since bagging two on opening night against Montreal.

One of the key ingredients to his breakout 31-goal campaign a year ago was more volume, with an average of 2.9 shots on goal per game. He had just 13 over the opening eight games this season.

“Yeah I think we haven’t been getting the solid [offensive] zone time that we have been used to getting and we’re working on that,” said Nylander. “But I know myself I’ve been looking to pass in certain situations where I should definitely get a shot on goal. That’s something that I keep in mind and something that I’ve got to do better and get pucks to the net.”

Among the biggest areas of emphasis for him, Mikheyev and John Tavares are generating better puck retrievals in the offensive zone. That remains a work in progress after Thursday’s game where they spent most of their 5-on-5 time defending while seeing a healthy dose of both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Nylander’s shooting mentality was mostly on display during his power play minutes.

WAYNE TRAIN

Wayne Simmonds won’t want to see this Alberta road trip come to an end.

He’s scored in all three games the Leafs have played out there, getting a stick on Mitch Marner’s shot in the third period Thursday while stationed in his usual spot at the edge of the crease.

“It feels really nice, obviously,” said Simmonds, who signed with his hometown team in October. “But without everyone else on the ice that doesn’t happen. The team did a great job tonight. Most importantly we got the two points.”

The Leafs wrap up the trip Saturday night with another game against the Oilers.

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Six years of harsh reality be damned, the Maple Leafs are sticking to their plan – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Stay the course. Stick to the plan.

We’re painfully close. Closer than it appears.

In the wake of their sixth consecutive opening-round postseason defeat, the Toronto Maple Leafs will septuple down on the Shanaplan, the blueprint.

They have seen enough progress within this sad string of playoff disappointments to not only believe in their strategy but believe harder. Six years of harsh reality be damned.

“Certainly, as we look forward to next year, there’s always going to be new faces. That being said, we will not be making changes just simply for the sake of saying that we made changes,” said Brendan Shanahan, entering the eighth year of his reign and still hunting Round 2.

“In spite of the fact that we were not able to finish Tampa off in Game 6 and Game 7, I saw a different team and a different approach.”

There is no whiff that the off-ice approach, at least publicly, will alter.

History will dictate whether Leaf Nation is rewarded for this regime’s loyalty and belief or foiled by stubbornness and hubris — and left with a diminished pool of picks and prospects.

During the club’s locker cleanout Tuesday, Shanahan gave Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe a firm endorsement for 2022-23.

Dubas not only backed Keefe but said the idea of dialing up experienced free agents Barry Trotz and Peter DeBoer hadn’t crossed his mind.

“I only think Sheldon is going to continue to get better,” Dubas said. “And I think when we speak of Sheldon in 10, 15 years from now, it’ll be in the same way that you [speak about] those two great coaches. And I think that’ll be played out here in Toronto.”

On the surface, no one is lighting a fire under anyone.

Maybe that’s just smart PR.

What would be troubling, though, is this: Maybe it’s complacency.

The air of disappointment, the vows to dig deeper, the sombre tones as the Leafs packed their belongings for the summer… it all felt so familiar. Just part of the cycle.

“As much as winning can bring people together,” Shanahan said, “learning how to deal with the heartbreak and devastation of falling short, depending on what kind of relationship you have, can bring you closer as well.”

What if, for these regular-season superstars, Round 2 has become the new Stanley Cup, the way RFA has become the new UFA?

“I don’t think playing in any passionate hockey market will allow for comfort to seep into a group,” Shanahan defended.

Thing is, plenty of supporters seem content with giving this another go, essentially, as is. Run it back. Hope the Maple Leafs are 100 per cent healthy again, that they draw an easier opponent, and that next time they will have learned their lesson for real.

I threw up a Twitter poll Monday to gauge whom the fans would like to see pay for another long golf season, and 66.9 per cent of 27,200 voters are happy to run this core back with minor changes on the fringes.

While his actions this summer will speak louder, Dubas says he is still content with allocating an inordinate percentage of his cap space to four forwards (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander) and an offensively gifted defenceman (Morgan Rielly).

Even after losing multiple do-or-die games to organizations that invested more in goaltending, defence and bottom-six depth.

“The contracts to those players that you’re referencing, I think they’re providing us great value in the way that they’re producing, in the way that they continue to evolve as they go through their contract. So, I don’t regret those at all,” said Dubas, ready to go money-balling for 2023’s David Kämpf and Michael Bunting.

“It’s the reality in the league right now that you’re probably not going to be able to spend as much as you want on those depth pieces. And you’re really going to have to do a great job of finding value, whether that’s someone that’s coming off injury, someone that hasn’t been given great opportunity, [or] someone coming off a bad year that you see something in.”

In a game of goal-line reviews and phantom high-sticks, the Maple Leafs believe they are simply “one shot away,” as captain John Tavares put it.

No need for major surgery.

Just a few more bargain-bin gems, a couple extra hours in the gym. A few less careless penalties, convert on a couple more power-plays.

“We’re slowly understanding the way we need to play,” William Nylander said.

“There’s significant buy-in here, which I don’t think you get everywhere.” Jason Spezza added. “We need more just — that stubbornness of not accepting to lose a game. It’s in the room. It definitely is in the room. These guys, they’re learning how hard it is.”

So are Shanahan and Dubas.

The brass will do their best to sell steady veteran Mark Giordano on the Spezza salary program. They’ll explore a Jack Campbell extension but also alternatives in the goalie market. The fringe forwards will be juggled and a few let loose.

But to hear the decision-makers tell it, mostly what the Maple Leafs need is a seventh playoff shot.

That should do the trick.

And they’ve done a shrewd enough of a sell job to get one.

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This Battle of Alberta won’t be like the past, but the emotion will be unmatched – Sportsnet.ca

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EDMONTON  — It’s been 31 years, so long that a generation really only knows the Battle of Alberta in snap shots from Hockey Night in Canada videos. 

Gretzky down the wing on Vernon. Smith, in off of Fuhr. Fleury break dancing across the Northlands Coliseum logo. Dave Brown, startin’ the lawn mower on Jim Kyte. 

Glen Sather, alternately cheering an OT goal in Calgary and issuing a hand gesture to Flames fans that would have garnered him a healthy fine today. 

We’re here to tell you: societal norms dictate that the old Battle of Alberta will never be re-lived. This can not be that. 

But although we might know what we’re NOT going to see when the Calgary Flames hook up with the Edmonton Oilers starting on Wednesday night, you never know what you might see in a matchup set to consume this prairie province for the first time since 1991. A grudge match that — in its best days — was as good a rivalry as the National Hockey League has seen in all its many years. 

“You always knew going into it that there was going to be bloodshed, and it was going to be some of your own,” former Oilers (and Flames) defenceman Steve Smith said in my book, The Battle of Alberta. “It was real then. There were going to be fights and you were expected to be part of fights and physical hockey.” 

“They were big, strong, physical,” added Edmonton defenceman Jeff Beukeboom. “They were dirty. Just like us,”  

The sheer violence does not exist anymore, and for that the NHL is a better place. But the emotion that has gone missing with that violence? 

That, we’d like to surgically implant back into the game, like a ligament from a cadaver that could put the hop back in the step of a league where too many players are buddy-buddy, asking how the wife and kids are rather than putting a glove in their opponent’s face. 

It was that emotion that fuelled the high-octane dragster that was The Battle. 

Emotion that would drive Doug Risebrough to slink into the penalty box with an Oilers jersey purloined from the latest Pier 6 brawl, and slice it into ribbons with his skates. Emotion injected into a practice from Flames head coach Bob Johnson, who dressed a Junior A goalie in an Oilers jersey so his players could feel the thrill of blowing pucks past a Grant Fuhr lookalike. 

“That’s the thing we’re missing in the game today. Emotion,” said former Flames goalie Mike Vernon. “Those games had so much emotion, and there was a price that had to be paid. Like the time Dave Brown fought Stu Grimson. Grimmer sat in the penalty box for 10 minutes with a broken face. 

“You want to see real? That’s real.” 

Emotion from players who knew, this wasn’t going to be a normal game. And if I play like it is, I won’t survive it. 

“I had no problem [expletive] cuttin’ your eye out. Wouldn’t have bothered me a bit,” said Theoren Fleury, a small man who cut a big swath through the Battle. “Hey – you’re trying to [expletive] kill me? This was survival. It was that unpredictability that allowed me to have the room that I had.”

On a macro level, Edmonton and Calgary have always been contesting each other.

They fought over who would get the first Canadian Pacific Railway terminal (Calgary), way back in the 1800s. They argued over who would be designated the provincial capital, or lay claim to the University of Alberta in the early 1900s (Edmonton, and Edmonton). 

Today the contest has been mostly won by the city that is simply 300 kilometres closer to the rest of the world than its rival. Calgary is the Dallas to Edmonton’s Houston, where the oil patch is concerned, an industry orchestrated by the white collars in the South, but serviced and operated by blue collars up North. 

But where all this has impacted the sports scene is this: Anecdotally, more people born in Edmonton continue to live in Edmonton, while Calgary has become a city more rich in people from elsewhere; Edmonton is a city you leave, whereas Calgary has become somewhere people come to, with allegiances to other teams in tow.

That assessment is subjective, sure, but it’s backed up by the fact the Oilers tend to post better media numbers than the Flames do, whether it’s radio, TV or print. There is simply more local interest in Edmonton’s team than Calgary’s, a phenomenon that will be invisible to the naked eye these next two weeks. 

When the original Battle began however, there was no question who was the big brother, and who was the little one. 

Edmonton had joined the NHL from the old World Hockey Association in 1979, and the Flames arrived from Atlanta a year later. Soon, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey et al. were clearly a group the Flames could not match, or catch up to via the draft. So the Flames, with former University of Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson behind their bench, built a team using older college grads like Joe Nieuwendyk, Joe Mullen, Joel Otto, Jamie Macoun and Gary Suter.

In the end, the Flames only won one of five playoff meetings between the two, but they played the Boston Red Sox to Edmonton’s New York Yankees, or Don Cherry’s Boston Bruins to the 70’s Habs that were Edmonton. 

“Ali needed Frazier,” Messier once said. “That top opponent that pushes, and challenges, and makes you better.” 

As the two teams ready for a meeting beginning Wednesday night in Calgary, that old Saddledome is perhaps the only visual that will provide a similar look, outside the familiar jerseys of each team. The landscape is unfamiliar, with teams full of players who have never faced each other in a post-season series. 

Two teams who once combined for 780 goals in a season settled for 576 this season. And penalty minutes? 

Forget about it… 

In 2022 however, there are some similarities. Connor McDavid will play the part of Wayne Gretzky, while the Elias Lindholm line will lend depth and execution the way Johnson’s old Flames would attack Edmonton using his oft-referenced — but never actually seen — “Seven Point Plan” to beat the Oilers. 

Today Matthew Tkachuk is the spoon that stirs the emotional bouillabaisse, whereas before it was Esa Tikkanen or Neil Sheehy, the Flames defenceman and Gretzky-pesterer whose refusal to fight anyone on Edmonton wound the Oilers up like a top. 

When it’s done, all we can hope for is some lasting memories, some players who might not tee it up together the way they may have a summer ago, and two organizations that see each other as they once did — as the in-division hurdle that had to be jumped on the way to a Stanley Cup. 

“All the most important, most memorable team meetings we ever had were held in that dressing room in Calgary,” Craig MacTavish once said. “We were the best two teams in the NHL of that day, and we would meet very early in the playoffs. 

“They were absolute wars,” he added. “A pleasure to be a part of, in hindsight.” 

We leave you with this anecdote, from Beukeboom. 

“I think it was a pre-season game,” he began. “I was going up ice and got two-handed on the back of the legs by Fleury. Whack! I remember a pile-up in the corner one day, after Simmer (Craig Simpson) had taken out their goalie, and Fleury was running his mouth. ‘You guys suck. You can’t skate, you big [expletive].’ So now we’re in the pile in the corner, and he’s on top of me. But, we come out of it together, and now he’s saying, ‘It’s OK. I’ve got you. No problem.’ Like, now he’s being a nice guy.” 

So, what did Beukeboom do? Exactly what Fleury would have done, had the shoe been on the other foot 

“I suckered him. Cut him open for stitches,” he said. “It was one of the few times [head coach] John Muckler paid me a compliment.” 

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Barkov, Bergeron, Lindholm named as Selke Trophy finalists – Sportsnet.ca

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The Calgary FlamesElias Lindholm joined fellow centres Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins as one of three finalists named for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, the NHL announced Tuesday.

The award, which is given “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of
the game,” is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, with the top three vote-getters listed as finalists.

Lindholm, 27, has never won the award, but posted a plus-61 rating that was second only in the league to teammate Johnny Gaudreau’s plus-64. The Swedish centre was the fifth-best in the league at faceoffs, with a 52.9 per cent success rate in 1,592 attempts.

Barkov, who won the Selke last year, led the Panthers to the Presidents’ Trophy this season with the league’s best record. The 26-year-old from Finland posted a career-best 57 per cent success rate in faceoffs and led his team’s forwards in average ice time (20:18) for the fifth straight year. His plus-36 was fourth best in the league amongst forwards.

Bergeron, who may retire this off-season, has won the Selke four times in his 19-year career, which is tied with former Montreal Canadiens great Bob Gainey for the most in NHL history. The 36-year-old from L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que., has been a finalist for the Selke 11 times and led the league this season for the seventh time in his career in faceoff wins, with a success rate of 61.9 per cent.

The NHL plans on revealing its 2022 award winners during the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final.

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