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Toronto among Stanley Cup favourites

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Stanley Cup

Wearing a jersey that resembles the 1970 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are among the best teams in the opening two months of the 2020-21 NHL season, topping the North Division after 18 games.

Sheldon Keefe’s team have a league best 13-3-2 record with a winning head-to-head against all their Canadian opponents so far.

Toronto are the bookmakers’ joint favourites at 7/1, along with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights. If you have a favourite choice among these or any team in the NHL for that matter, you can get great value with a sports Interaction referral code.

With how the NHL has been split into four divisions this year, Toronto are widely-expected to run away with the North Division, with is simply compromised of all seven Canadian franchises.

Among those Canadian teams, the Edmonton Oilers have the second shortest odds to win the Stanley Cup, and they’re as long as 28/1.

Room to Improve

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the Maple Leafs though. None of the three straight victories over the weak Vancouver Canucks were as dominating as expected, whilst shortly afterwards came back-to-back home defeats to the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. The +19-goal difference for a team that has won 10 more times than they have lost isn’t hugely convincing either.

Winning their division won’t prove anything given the state the opponents are currently in. There’s no reason why Toronto shouldn’t be topping the table to head into the playoffs.

Star Quality

A number of attacking players have impressed in the opening weeks of the current campaign. Auston Matthews has 16 goals and nine assists, Mitch Marner leads the team with 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists) – third in the NHL overall. Morgan Rielly has 12 assists along with two goals.

Toronto have one of the best Center’s in the league in John Tavares too, on hand to put the puck in the net as well as setting up teammates.

Frederik Anderson is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and has started the majority of the team’s games as you’d expect.

There’s still room for improved defensive performances, particularly the defencemen on the roster.

Serious Contenders?

Not since 1967 have the Maple Leafs won the big one and it will be hard to judge Toronto against the rest of the league with the playoffs given the unique circumstances teams are playing under this season. Not just with the reduced crowds but with all regular season games being played against their division rivals only.

Defending champions Tampa Bay, and Vegas will have tougher tests during the regular season to prove themselves and adjust their tactics to strengthen their tactics before the playoffs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are deservedly among the Stanley Cup favourites currently given their win-loss record and the star quality on the team. Provided the team keep chalking up victories then who says they can’t go all the way once again?

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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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