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NHL’s four most surprising teams of 2021 and what makes them tick – Sportsnet.ca

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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.

Florida Panthers
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).

Winnipeg Jets
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.

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.

Chicago Blackhawks
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.

Minnesota Wild
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.

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Drouin must return to mentality that’s led to success this season – Sportsnet.ca

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It was something Dominique Ducharme said after his Montreal Canadiens played an abysmal game against the Ottawa Senators last week, something that only truly resonated after they lost 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday — a game that emboldened the struggle Jonathan Drouin’s currently enduring.

“Ninety per cent of the mistakes we made were mental, and the rest of it was above our shoulders.” the coach said after the 6-3 loss to Ottawa last Saturday, somewhat channelling New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra with this bit of wit and wisdom.

It was hard not to think of those words watching Drouin play the way he did on Wednesday. For much of this season, the talented left winger has played a primary role in Montreal’s success. He’s led them with 19 assists, been tenacious on the forecheck, physically engaged all over the ice, cerebral as always in his execution and, as he’s said on several occasions, relatively unconcerned by whether or not his name has been featured on the scoresheet.

But it seemed clear, after watching Drouin dump a breakaway into Jack Campbell’s chest with one of 32 shots the Maple Leafs goaltender turned aside to set a franchise record with his 10th consecutive win, he had diverted from that. And that affected the way he played the rest of the game.

It was Drouin’s fifth in a row without a point, his 18th without a goal, and he’d have to be a robot not to be suffering the mental wear of not seeing the puck go in more than twice since the season started, the torment of seeing only three per cent of his shots hit the back of the net through 36 games after 10 per cent of them resulted in goals through the first 348 games of his career.

“It is weighing on me where, when I have a chance and miss the goal, I might be trying to score too much,” Drouin said. “It’s something I obviously think about — every player would — and I’ve just gotta put it past me and just keep shooting pucks.”

Ideally, the 26-year-old wouldn’t be thinking about any of this. These are thoughts that weigh a player down and right now the Canadiens are in tough without Brendan Gallagher for the rest of the season and Drouin needs to be light and free to help account for that loss. And in order for him to do that, he needs to focus on what he does best.

Because the reality is that even though Drouin can score more, scoring isn’t what he needs to do in order to be at his best and really help this team.

“When his feet are moving and he’s making plays, Drou’s a pass-first guy,” explained Jake Allen, who made 29 saves in Carey Price’s absence. “When his feet are moving, his head’s always in it. When his feet are moving, he’s controlling the play, controlling the puck. He’s a guy who really can control the play for a whole line. You want the puck on that guy’s stick and let the other guys do the dirty work and he’ll find them.”

But when Drouin’s feet aren’t moving, there just isn’t enough of that other stuff happening.

When Drouin’s feet weren’t moving, he lost a battle for the puck in the offensive zone and allowed the NHL’s leading goal scorer to start the rush that resulted in the winning play of Wednesday’s game.

Auston Matthews to Mitch Marner, back to Matthews, off Allen and slammed into Montreal’s net by Zach Hyman with 9:39 remaining in the third period, with Drouin watching from just inside his own blue line.

“You give a 3-on-2 to the Matthews line and it’s the kind of play they’re going to make you pay on,” said Ducharme.

Was Drouin still thinking about that shot he didn’t bury in the second period?

It’s understandable if he was, but those are the kind of thoughts he needs to shake right now.

“He wants to do well, and I’m sure it’s getting a little bit in his head,” said Ducharme. “I think the best remedy for him is to be scoring that goal or making that big play, and I think he’s going to be energized by that and less thinking, more acting.

“It is a fine line. Those kind of thoughts is not something that you want to happen. But when you receive that puck and you see the opening and stuff, (the slump) comes back to (your mind). That’s why the mental part of the game is something that’s very tricky. It’s not his will to be thinking that way. Every player who’s going through a time like that will have that thought and scoring that goal will take him to a different level. At those kind of times you need to make it even simpler and being even more inside going at the net and finding a garbage (goal) right there and you put it in and sometimes you go on a little run. It might be that kind of goal that he needs to get that monkey off his back.”

It’s the kind of goal Corey Perry scored twice to give the Canadiens a chance in this game.

But Drouin isn’t Perry, who rightly pointed out after the game he’s made a career of scoring goals that way. And even if Drouin can borrow from what Perry does next time he has a chance like the one Brett Kulak set him up with for that breakaway, there are other ways he can positively impact the game.

You can appreciate that Drouin said he’s putting pressure on himself to score more and help make up for the goals the team will be missing with Gallagher sidelined, but that might not get him to where he needs to be mentally to contribute as much as he already has this season.

What would, though, is a sharp turn towards the mentality he described just days ago. The one that’s enabled him to be a much more consistent player this season than he has in seasons past.

“When I was younger, I’d stay on one game or stay on one play for too long and wouldn’t be able to let it go for a bit or a couple of days,” Drouin said. “But I think for me now it’s can I look at myself in the mirror after a game and did I give my good effort? Was I a part of this game? Was I doing something right in a lot of areas?

“That’s what I do now. I think points are there, goals are there, assists are there, but it’s just about playing that real game and playing to help your team win.”

Drouin’s done a lot of that this season and has a chance to get right back to it when the Winnipeg Jets visit the Bell Centre Thursday.

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Scioscia to lead U.S. baseball bid for spot at Tokyo Olympics

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(Reuters) – Mike Scioscia, who won World Series both as a player and manager, was named manager of the U.S. men’s national baseball team on Tuesday, as they seek a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.

After 19 seasons as manager of the Anaheim Angels, guiding them to their only World Series win in 2002, Scioscia will make his international coaching debut in June when the United States hosts the Baseball Americas Qualifier in Florida.

For the tournament the U.S. will be grouped with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua in Pool A while Canada, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela will make up Pool B.

The top two teams from each pool will advance to the Super Round, where the country with the best overall record will earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympic tournament.

Second and third-place finishers will advance to a final qualifier, joining Australia, China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands.

“Mike’s tenure with the Angels’ franchise was nothing short of spectacular, creating and celebrating a culture of success with six division titles, an American League pennant, and its first-ever World Series title,” said USA Baseball Executive Director/CEO Paul Seiler in a statement. “More impactfully, his leadership, integrity, and character are unparalleled in our game, making him the perfect fit for the USA Baseball family.”

The Olympic tournament will take place from July 28-Aug. 7 in Fukushima City and Yokohama.

Hosts Japan, Israel, South Korea, and Mexico have already secured a berth in the six-team field.

 

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)

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Masters 2021: Tiger Woods says he'll miss Champions Dinner, running up DJ's bill – Golf Channel

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Dustin Johnson will host his first Champions Dinner on Tuesday night in the Augusta National clubhouse, and he’ll be joined by several past Masters champions.

One former winner who won’t be there is five-time champ Tiger Woods, who is still home in South Florida recovering from a serious car accident in February near Los Angeles. Justin Thomas, who is still working toward his invite to the prestigious dinner, said Woods texted him Friday night and was “bummed” to not be at the Masters this year.

Woods then tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he’ll miss one of his favorite nights of the year.

“I’ll miss running up @DJohnsonPGA’s bill at the Champions Dinner tonight,” Woods said. “It’s still one of my favorite nights of the year.”

Johnson responded to Woods’ tweet, saying: “Will miss having you here. This week isn’t the same without you.”

The PGA Tour announced that the club would leave a seat open for Woods at the dinner, though the tweet has since been taken down.

Johnson will serve a menu including filet mignon, sea bass and peach cobbler.

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