TORONTO — They are becoming a team that haunts their opponents.
On their best nights, the Toronto Maple Leafs will embarrass you. And on their worst they still might beat you.
With Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner both settled into their primes, the Leafs have become a different beast than in years gone by. They are now a league-best 10-2-1 and seven of their game-winning goals have come off the sticks of those two players.
The Vancouver Canucks surely deserved better here on Monday night — Matthews said so himself. But he also wasn’t apologizing for delivering the dagger, winning an offensive zone faceoff and executing a set piece designed by Marner before one-timing a shot through Braden Holtby’s legs to completely wipe away the 49 forgettable minutes that came before it for his team.
“I think it just speaks to the confidence our team has,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after the 3-1 victory. “We’ve been finding ways to win these types of games all season. … These are the kind of games that our team, if we want to be a good team that wants to accomplish great things, you need to find a way to be good when things are uncomfortable.
“I really liked our response in the third period.”
They were responding to a meek seven-shot output through 40 minutes that was the result of a desperate Canucks attack. After dropping two games here, Vancouver brought urgency and a fierce forecheck that completely smothered the Leafs’ attempts to execute clean breakouts.
But the game was still there for the taking at 1-1, and of course Marner and Matthews seized the game ball.
They had already connected on a third-period power play goal from Matthews in a 3-2 victory at Ottawa on Jan. 16 and produced Marner’s one-time winner with less than eight minutes to play in Calgary on Jan. 26. Two nights after that, Matthews had the 4-3 winner in Edmonton with under seven minutes to play.
In other words, this was no fluke.
Keefe seemed content to live or die with his top players on a decaf night against Vancouver, playing them 25 minutes apiece. Their line with Zach Hyman was the only one making any real inroads at 5-on-5 — with expected goals (65 per cent) and scoring chances (57 per cent) in the black — and they broke through on an offensive zone shift that featured Rasmus Sandin on the left point.
In a flash, Matthews won the faceoff clean to Sandin, who fed Marner on the wall. He put the puck right in Matthews’s wheelhouse while Zach Hyman provided a screen in front of Holtby.
“Well Mitch just came up to me and just said, ‘Look for me.’ So that’s what I did,” Sandin said. “Then he did the rest together with Auston so it wasn’t too hard. It was great that it worked.”
“It takes some initiative to create a faceoff play there for us and execute and find Auston to help us win the game, so that’s really good and positive,” Keefe added.
That and the strong play of Frederik Andersen were the only reasons Toronto walked away with two points and a three-game sweep of this set against the reeling Canucks.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, with Matthews riding an eight-game goal streak and Marner producing 15 points during his eight-game scoring streak. Zoom out and you now see Matthews with an incredible 58 goals across his last 82 games and Marner with 88 points in his last 72 dating back to the start of last season.
More important than the race for individual awards or entries in the record book, however, is the way the franchise cornerstones have started bending results to their liking. They have proven too much to handle through this initial tour of the North Division, stashing important points in the standings for Toronto in the process.
“Going 1-1 into the third after generating like seven shots, I mean we really didn’t have any business being in that game,” Matthews said after the third straight win over the Canucks.
“I thought Vancouver played an outstanding game here today,” Keefe said. “They certainly came with a renewed focus and energy level. I thought they played with a lot of urgency, it felt like a desperate team over there. They played hard, they deserved more than they got.
“I challenged our guys to find a way to be good in this environment.”
His brightest stars answered the challenge.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone how complete of an effort the Leafs are getting from Marner and Matthews. They more than handle their own on the defensive side of the puck and have taken their special offensive gifts to an even higher level.
They seem to find at least one big goal a night. Heck, Matthews has 11 in 12 games on his own — seven of which have been assisted on by Marner.
“Like it’s hard to even call them hot streaks anymore because it just seems like he’s hot all the time,” teammate Alex Kerfoot said.
Toronto wouldn’t be on top of the NHL standings without them.
Maple Leafs’ Matthews, Senators’ Stützle among NHL’s best in February – Sportsnet.ca
Matthews led the NHL with 12 goals and placed second with 21 points in 11 games to propel the Maple Leafs to a 9-2-1 February and the top of the league standings.
The 23-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., native leads the NHL with 18 goals through 20 games this season.
He has 176 career goals in 302 contests since making his NHL debut in 2016-17.
Matthews has missed Toronto’s last two games with a wrist injury. He is listed as day-to-day.
Chicago Blackhawks right-wing Patrick Kane (Central Division) , San Jose Sharks centre Logan Couture (West) and Boston Bruins right-wing David Pastrnak (East) are the NHL’s other stars of the month.
Meanwhile, Ottawa Senators winger Tim Stützle was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for February.
Stutzle led rookies with seven assists and 10 points in 14 February games.
Oilers Alex Chiasson to have hearing over cross check on Maple Leafs Jimmy Vesey – Pension Plan Puppets
Edmonton’s Alex Chiasson will have a hearing today for Cross-checking Toronto’s Jimmy Vesey.
— NHL Player Safety (@NHLPlayerSafety) March 2, 2021
At the 20:00 mark of the Monday, March 1 game between the Oilers and the Leafs, Alex Chiasson was assessed a 5-minute major for cross checking on Jimmy Vesey and a 10-minute game misconduct.
The start of the fracas began late in the third period, when each team bumped the goalie late after a whistle. There was a moment of irate Mike Smith, and then a retaliation bump on Hutchinson.
Which led to this:
And also Zach Bogosian thwarted from a fight with Darnell Nurse. And then there was another scrum at the end of the game. However the television broadcast did not show the incident with Chiasson and Vesey, only this:
We’ll update you with any more news.
That angle we didn’t have:
NHL’s four most surprising teams of 2021 and what makes them tick – Sportsnet.ca
In a 56-game season, everything is moving fast.
Like, can you believe by the time this week is out, the Vancouver Canucks will hit the halfway point of their season? They’ll get there first, but most other teams will follow in the week to come.
This season, 28 games marks the halfway point, which really drives home how important it is to avoid long stretches of losing hockey because just one of those could bury you.
For teams that had lukewarm aspirations this season, a good long run or two could change everything we think about them and put them in a position to surprise. With so many games still to come, there is lots of time to see which of these teams are real and which are a mirage behind a hot start.
Here are four teams who have surprised us this year, and how they’ve accomplished it so far.
The Panthers had some interesting things about them dating back to last season when they brought Sergei Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville aboard. Florida finished with the sixth-best offence in the NHL last season, but were undone by a porous defence and really disappointing goaltending.
This year they still have a top-10 offence and control a considerable amount more of the shots being taken than they did last year.
But Florida hasn’t accomplished this by pouring more offence on the ice. The defence has been tougher in close to the net and at least one goalie has been steady from the start.
(All stats 5-on-5 from Natural Stat Trick)
Chris Driedger has been among the more unexpected stories of this season so far, with a .928 save percentage that ranks among the best in the league. While Bobrovsky has had some blowup starts along the way, Driedger has been pretty stable and allowed the Panthers to accumulate wins and start with a strong record.
The team is taking a hot hand approach to the position right now and between the two of them and this improved defence, the Panthers have the fifth-best 5-on-5 save percentage after ranking 29th there last season.
There is measurable change to what’s going on in front of Florida’s goalies this season and it tightens up what was their biggest weakness last season without having the offence suffer.
They’re fighting atop this year’s Central Division, and not only by taking advantage of soft points on their schedule either — the Panthers are 7-2-2 against Dallas, Tampa, Carolina and Chicago (who, I suppose, we can no longer count among the weaker matchups on the schedule).
The Jets’ inclusion here may be a head-scratcher now, but don’t forget what the outlook was in the Canadian division before the puck dropped in January.
Toronto was one of the favourites. An improved Montreal was a dark horse pick by some, Calgary for others. Even those who had Vancouver taking a step back put them in the running for a playoff spot. And Edmonton, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, was tough to push down anyone’s board. So it was hard to find a spot for Winnipeg, the fifth-best Canadian team last season, and they tended to slide down projections.
Today, they have the second-best points percentage in the group.
While the Panthers’ improvement can at least in part be directed at the better defence and goaltending, the same can’t be said for the Jets. The sixth-worst team in 5-on-5 shots against per 60 minutes, and the worst team in high danger chances against last season, Winnipeg is ranked exactly the same in both categories so far in 2021.
This team just does not let a bad start get to it, with a league-leading six wins when trailing after the first period.
— Ken Wiebe (@WiebesWorld) February 28, 2021
In fact, the change between their offence and defence splits aren’t all that much between this year and last. They shoot about as often and allow about as much against, both inside and outside of the most desirable areas. They were even one of the better teams when trailing after one period a year ago.
Interestingly, the Jets may just have found a better fit for their style within the North Division. Five teams from this division rank in the bottom nine in shots against at 5-on-5, so they’re not giving a great advantage to any of their competitors by giving up lots there. On offence five North Division teams, including Winnipeg, rank in the top 11 for 5-on-5 goals per game.
But what really makes them stand out is Hellebuyck, who washes away any defensive issues anyway. He can be relied upon for a really heavy workload and, at 27, isn’t at an age where injury or fatigue becomes any more of a concern.
The Jets’ offence is dangerous and can hang with the best the North Division has to offer and, unlike the other top offences in this group, they also have an elite goalie who’s going to steal some games.
The only team in this list that has been outscored at 5-on-5, the Blackhawks might be the surprise team of the season so far.
Finishing 23rd last year and only getting games beyond the regular season because of a unique playoff set up, Chicago was still charting towards a top draft pick and becoming a trade deadline seller this year. Jonathan Toews missed the start of the season and is still out with an unknown illness. After letting Corey Crawford walk, the goaltending appeared to be a mess.
And then Kevin Lankinen appeared and all was well.
Just like last year the Blackhawks allow a ton of shots, though they have somewhat cut down on the most dangerous ones. Lankinen, the undrafted 25-year-old rookie out of Finland, is in the running for the Calder Trophy this season — and we have to wonder if he might end in the Vezina discussion if he keeps this up.
Measuring goals saved above average in all situations from Natural Stat Trick, Lankinen ranks third in the league behind a couple notable names.
On top of this totally unexpected performance, the Hawks are getting others we knew were possible. Alex DeBrincat is back on a full season 40-goal pace after tallying just 19 a year ago, and Patrick Kane is second in league scoring, nine points clear of the next highest-scoring non-North Division player.
They make up for being outscored at 5-on-5 with the league’s best power play, which was 28th and converted just over 15 per cent of the time in 2019-20.
It’s mostly about Kirill Kaprizov, a superstar rookie who, unlike Lankinen, arrived with plenty of fanfare and expectation. He has breathed new life into the Wild and, when he’s on the ice, they play at a pace and with a style we’re not used to in this uniform.
But it’s not just Kaprizov who is changing the face and outlook in Minnesota. For a team that looked to have gone stale in all aspects for some time, it’s refreshing to see a rookie leading them in scoring, and three other players under 25 slotting into the team’s top five scorers.
And now here comes Kaapo Kahkonen, a hyped fourth-round prospect who had a few NHL starts a year ago but spent most of it in the minors, where he won the AHL’s best goalie award. He’s taking over in Minnesota’s net, has strung five wins in a row and had a .923 save percentage in February.
The Wild are a fun story this season and lots is changing there, but it is still being turned over to a young group. We should anticipate some hiccups along the way. While they sit 12-6-1 and third in the West Division (second by points percentage), the Wild haven’t played St. Louis yet, and only saw Vegas for the first time on Tuesday, losing in extra time. So, bigger tests on Minnesota’s staying power are to come.
But the best news from Minnesota this year is a new core is starting to blow in and the early returns are encouraging.
United States should send vaccines to Canada and Mexico next, U.S. lawmaker urges – CBC.ca
Why You Shouldn't Put Your Social Media On Autopilot – Forbes
Maple Leafs’ Matthews, Senators’ Stützle among NHL’s best in February – Sportsnet.ca
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