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Rittich, Flames come up with potential turning-point performance vs. Leafs – Sportsnet.ca

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Punctuating his 34-save shutout with a primal scream, David Rittich celebrated the kind of win that can turn a season. Exactly the kind the Flames needed.

Facing the NHL’s top team with a winless backup who learned of his start hours earlier, the Flames posted what could serve as a monumental turning point.

Consider some of the streaks the Flames 3-0 win over Toronto ended:

It was the Flames’ first win in four games. Rittich’s first win in nine decisions. Matthew Tkachuk’s first goal in 10 games. Sean Monahan’s first goal in 13 games.

And by blanking the Leafs’ power play on all seven occasions, including a lengthy 5-on-3, the Flames stopped some historic runs:

First time in 17 games Auston Matthews was held off the score sheet. First time in five games he didn’t score the game’s opening goal. First Calgary Flame ever to shut out the Leafs in Toronto.

“Big stage for us,” said Tkachuk, whose power-play tip-in midway through the game was his 100th career goal.

“Little extra motivation right before the game, finding out some things. So we were ready to go from puck drop today. We wanted to try to prove to ourselves especially that we still know we’re a great hockey team.”

He wouldn’t elaborate on the motivators, but whatever they were, the team responded for a start that saw Sam Bennett score four minutes in for the Flames’ first goal in a first period in six outings.

Shortly thereafter Morgan Rielly hit the first of three posts the Leafs would connect with on the night, setting the stage for the most unlikely win by a David at Scotiabank Arena since David Ayres jumped off his Zamboni to make history there exactly one year earlier.

“Obviously it was a huge win – a confidence booster for sure,” said Rittich, who learned of his fourth start Monday morning when team MVP Jacob Markstrom revealed an upper-body injury would shelve him day-to-day.

“We had a couple tough starts when we gave up a couple goals. But we were talking in the locker room about how we have to change it up and I’m really glad they changed it when I’m in net.”

Following a long flight from Alberta Sunday following a 7-1 loss against Edmonton, the Flames put in their most complete effort of the season, blocking shots, finishing checks and paying attention to the defensive details they’d abandoned over their three-game losing skid.

Their power play struck twice, the goaltending was sublime and the team was fully engaged, playing physically at both ends.

Tkachuk figured the game’s turning point came late in the second when the Flames staved off a two-man disadvantage for 1:36 that saw Rittich make several big saves against Toronto’s big guns.

“He was feeling it there,” said Tkachuk of Rittich, who’d lost all three previous starts this year.

“He was confident. He was calm. Just everything you want to see. I was so happy he got rewarded tonight. He’s kept us in every game he’s played so far this year. We just haven’t given him much run support and quite frankly been playing terrible in front of him.”

That changed dramatically Monday, as calls for significant change grew louder over the weekend by a frustrated fan base.

“We’ve got to jump on board and continue this,” said Monahan, who returned to the lineup after missing two games to score a third-period power-play goal.

“It’s a long year and there’s ups and downs and I don’t think we were playing great hockey, so this is a starting point for us. We know what’s at stake here.”

As important as leap-frogging Vancouver for fifth in the division is the much-needed confidence gained for a team that hadn’t won in its previous five games.

“The emotion and the smiles and everything else, there is a certain amount of relief with this,” admitted Flames coach Geoff Ward, who is taking as much heat as anybody of late for the Flames’ .500 season.

“It’s something we can build on. Full marks for the guys to respond.”

How Markstrom responds to treatment will be a tightly kept secret, although it’s almost certain Rittich will be handed the reins for another start Wednesday when they face the Leafs again.

“It’s something where he’s going to be daily for a little bit until we know more,” said Ward of Markstrom’s ailment.

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Toronto Maple Leafs head west with injury issues – TSN

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While Auston Matthews has been busy pumping in a league-leading 18 goals through 20 games this season, the Maple Leafs’ star has also been quietly battling a hand injury that was aggravated again in Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime win over Calgary. 

Matthews still stayed in for Toronto until the very end, and even assisted on both William Nylander‘s game-tying goal and overtime winner.​

“That just speaks to the fact that he’s remained resilient and hasn’t allowed little things like that [hand problem] to disrupt him,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe on a Zoom call following practice on Friday.

“He got banged up there in the second period, and while he had to adapt his game and I had to adapt how we used him a little bit, he still competed his [butt] off right to the very end. That’s a good sign for the fact we feel the injury isn’t something that’s going to slow him down too much here.”

Officially, Matthews is listed as day-to-day and did not participate in Friday’s on-ice session before the Leafs head west for a five-game road swing against Edmonton and Vancouver.

Keefe said Matthews is not ruled out for their first of three meetings against the Oilers on Saturday, and will be a game-time decision.

The 23-year-old previously missed one game for Toronto on Jan. 22 – also against Edmonton – when his hand first became an issue. He returned to pocket 16 goals and 26 points in the 15 games since. 

During Wednesday’s tilt against the Flames, Matthews was sent into the boards by defenceman Rasmus Andersson in the second period and had his wrist taped up on the bench before play continued.

The state of his hand kept Matthews from taking many faceoffs for Toronto down the stretch, and he didn’t start in overtime because Keefe said Matthews wasn’t confident taking the defensive-zone draw (the centre did win eight of the 12 faceoffs he took on the night). 

Matthews was out for the Leafs’ second overtime shift though, and created space for Nylander to roof the winner over David Rittich

“He’s a tough customer; we’re lucky to have him on our side,” said goaltender Jack Campbell of Matthews. “Whatever he’s going through, he always gives the team 100 per cent and it’s incredible what he’s able to do, whether he’s 100 per cent or not so. I can’t wait to get back to battle with him, that’s for sure.”

If all goes well, Campbell won’t have to wait long. The backup netminder has been sidelined with a lower-body injury suffered in the waning minutes against Calgary on Jan. 24, but barring any setbacks he will take the cage again on Saturday in Edmonton.

That’s good news for Toronto’s goalie depth, which took a massive hit when starter Frederik Andersen joined Campbell on the injured list Monday.

According to Keefe, Andersen is “progressing well” from a lower-body issue and will join the Leafs on their road trip, although there is no timeline on when he might return. Michael Hutchinson had stepped in for Toronto in its two games this week versus the Flames, going 1-1-0 with a .927 save percentage. 

“It’s [been] a tough process,” Campbell admitted of his road back to full health. “But thankfully we have an amazing staff here and they just had it all laid out for me. I feel really confident in my body and ready to go out and perform whenever called upon.”

Joe Thornton and Jake Muzzin are also expected to be back for Saturday’s game, although Keefe cautions they too will be game-time decisions. Both players were injured during last Saturday’s game in Montreal – lower body for Thornton and a broken facial bone for Muzzin – and missed the Leafs’ two games at home against Calgary, but were able to practise fully on Friday.

Muzzin spent Friday’s practice testing out a new accessory for the first time his career, sporting a full face shield that will be necessary to protect his still-healing face. While there is some debate over how exactly the injury happened, whether it was the follow-through of Canadiens’ forward Tyler Toffoli’s stick that got him or the puck that went flying by as well, Muzzin said the moments after it happened were unpleasant. 

“It was a little bit scary, I’m not going to lie,” Muzzin said. “When you get hit in the face, you kind of black out a little bit and then you see the blood coming, so I was just praying the eye was okay. If [something gets broken], it is what it is, but when you get hit in the eye it can be pretty bad. Shortly after I was able to open my eye a little bit and see, so that settled me down a little bit but we’re good now.”

Knowing what awaits the Leafs in Edmonton, a return to full strength on the back end couldn’t come at a better time.

Since beating Toronto 4-3 in overtime on Jan. 30, the Oilers have collected more points than any team in the NHL, winning 10 of their past 12 and five straight going into Saturday night.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been the catalysts for Edmonton outscoring opponents 49-29 in that stretch, and they now sit one-two as the league’s top scorers (40 points for McDavid, 34 for Draisaitl).

Meanwhile, Toronto’s own offence has gone cold, producing only one goal in six regulation periods against Calgary this week while going 0-for-11 on the power play. The Leafs are still atop the NHL standings though at 15-4-2, and getting some key pieces back and healthy could be just what they need for a reset.

“A team like Edmonton has played as good or better than anybody in the league here the last while,” acknowledged Keefe. “But we feel like we’ve been going pretty well as a team here and it’s still real close. You can’t take any games or any days off and certainly this week that’s going to be the case going head-to-head.” 

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Everybody loves Jesse Puljujarvi right now, even his coach, who says: "I love Jesse" – Edmonton Journal

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It’s an ecstatic time fans of the Edmonton Oilers right now.

The team is on a run of 11 wins in 13 games.

Connor McDavid and Leon Drasaitl are one and two in NHL scoring.

Darnell Nurse is one of the NHL’s top scoring d-men.

Mike Smith has the best save percentage of any regular NHL goalie.

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And, perhaps most surprising, all kinds of bit players, role players and unsung Oilers are coming through with strong play, from  grinders Jujhar Khaira, Tyler Ennis and Josh Archibald on the team’s hard-checking Nitty Gritty Dirt Line to Gaetan Haas on the penalty kill to Jesse Puljujarvi, who suddenly looks every bit the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft.

He’s playing strong two-way hockey on Edmonton’s top line with Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Puljujarvi has six goals in his last 10 games. He’s taking care of business both in his own zone and as a grinder in front of the opposition net.

He’s playing so well that he’s even won over his coach, something Puljujarvi never came close to doing with Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock in the young forward’s first stint with the Oilers.

“I love Jesse,” said coach Dave Tippett when asked about Puljujarvi. “He’s always having fun. You love to see a guy, when he scores he’s having so much fun, he’s like a kid in a candy store out there. He’s playing really well. He plays hard. He’s around it. He plays hard all the time. He’s come in and he’s really given us a boost. He’s a Top 6 forward that can play in a lot of different situations and I think there’s huge upside on him going forward but he’s been real good for us so far.”

This summer I argued it would be a good idea to try Puljujarvi with McDavid based on their past success together. I became more convinced that Puljujarvi would have some NHL success after watching him in Finland in the fall. He was just so big, fast, skilled and confident, like an aircraft carrier cruising up and down the ice, dominating the battle theatre. At that time I wrote that the 22-year-old Puljujarvi was fairly swaggering with confidence on the ice,  glowing with purpose, shining like a well-cut diamond, a most welcome sight.

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But could he translate that to the NHL? No one could be certain until he actually did it.

Puljujarvi was inconsistent in his early games in Edmonton this winter. He wasn’t helped by playing with a struggling Kyle Turris, but he’s put together a run of solid games on the top line.

His linemates McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins now look to pass to Puljujarvi, something that didn’t happen so much in his previous stint with the Oilers. Nugent-Hopkins even came to Puljujarvi’s defence after Antoine Roussel of Vancouver cheap shotted him with a punch, a sure sign this Oilers team is coming together.

When it comes to the heart and the guts of the NHL game — making major contributions to Grade A scoring chances at even strength, as well as not making major mistakes on Grade A chances against — Puljujarvi is the Oilers best winger.

He’s made 41 such major contributions to Grade A chances in 272 even strength minutes, 2.2 per game.

Next best for Oilers wingers is Nugent Hopkins and Zack Kassian, 1.97 per game, then Dominik Kahun, 1.87 per game. Connor McDavid leads the team overall with 3.1 per game.

Can Puljujarvi keep up the scoring? We’re all starting to believe, most importantly, his coach.

At the Cult

STAPLES: Player grades: Brilliant goaltending at both ends as Oilers beat Canucks

McCURDY: Oilers have depth scoring! Oilers have depth scoring!

STAPLES: How to ramp up Yamamoto’s even-strength scoring

LEAVINS: Player grades in comeback win over the Canucks

McCURDY: Caleb Jones get an opportunity to draw back in

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Raptors coach Nick Nurse will miss Friday's game due to COVID-19 protocols – CBC.ca

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Nick Nurse, head coach of the Toronto Raptors, and five other members of the coaching staff will not be part of Friday night’s game against the Houston Rockets, because of health and safety protocols, the team announced.

“Due to health and safety protocols, six members of the Raptors’ coaching staff, including head coach Nick Nurse, will not be on the bench beginning with Friday’s game vs. Houston. They will continue to work remotely, and details on their return will be communicated when appropriate,” the team said in a statement. 

General manager Bobby Webster will speak to the media Friday at 5:45 p.m. ET, during the head coach’s pregame availability window.

It’s uncertain who will take over on the bench for what was already a shorthanded staff. Chris Finch left the team earlier this week to become head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Adrian Griffin, Sergio Scariolo, Jama Mahlalela, Jim Sann and Jon Goodwillie make up the remainder of Nurse’s coaching staff.

It’s also uncertain how many games the coaching staff will miss. The Raptors host Chicago on Sunday.

The Raptors have been lucky amid the global pandemic with no games postponed or rescheduled. Because of Canada’s border restrictions, they’re playing the season at Tampa’s Amalie Arena.

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