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Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning – First Round, Game 4 – Preview & Projected Lines – Maple Leafs Hot Stove

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Riding high after stealing back home-ice advantage from the Lightning, the Maple Leafs look to put the back-to-back champs on the brink of elimination tonight in Game 4 (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC).

It seemed unlikely for the Leafs to beat the Lightning in a game in which neither of their top two lines was effective, but they found a way to snatch a game in Tampa Bay to retake a series lead thanks to a few key performances.

One of those came from the third line, which started off as Mikheyev-Kampf-Kerfoot but quickly saw Engvall take over for Kerfoot as Keefe juggled the lines. The Leafs‘ third line was able to provide some steady minutes and generate a goal by way of a Kampf snipe on the rush. Mikheyev also added two empty-netters to secure the win.

The other key performance was Jack Campbell, who stole the show in the third period by making multiple enormous saves, including robbing Nick Paul in tight and sliding across to make an incredible pad save on a Steven Stamkos one-timer. Without Campbell, the Leafs simply do not make it out of that game with a win.

At some point in this series, they will need more significant contributions from two of their stars who have been non-factors up to this point: John Tavares and William Nylander.  Through three games in the series so far, they have combined for just one point, a secondary assist from Tavares on Auston Matthews’s power-play goal in Game 1. As the matchup game starts to become established and the series (likely) tightens up as it wears on, the Leafs will need some signs of life from the second line. 

Another key to Game 4 success will be a bounce-back effort from the top line. The Matthews line got caved in by the combination of the Brayden Point line and the Hedman-Cernak defense pair. Michael Bunting was having such a rough go that Keefe put Kerfoot back on the top line, which appears to be how the lines will start tonight. The top line pushing back and winning those tough minutes for the Leafs would be a huge leg up in the game, but the difficulty of those minutes for Matthews-Marner also speaks to how much the second line really needs to be a factor in the cushier matchup situations.

The Leafs should be well versed in what the Lightning are capable of when their backs are against the wall following a loss in the playoffs. Tampa Bay boasts a 15-0 record in such contests in the last three postseasons.

Jon Cooper and his team believe they have started to find the formula for tilting the ice on Leafs in the latter half of Game 3. In the third period especially, the Leafs really struggled on D-zone retrievals and exits, which resulted in too many failed breakouts and turnovers against the Tampa forecheck. If the Leafs let the Lighting start rolling around in their zone, it can be very difficult to break their cycle. There were several instances, particularly in the third period, where Tampa was able to extend offensive zone time thanks to smart and aggressive pinches by their defensemen inside the blue line. 

Despite the struggles in that area of the game, Sheldon Keefe is sticking to the same defensive pairs. In fact, the personnel is staying the exact same throughout the lineup. The lineup will be the same as it was in the third period of game 3, with Kerfoot playing on the top line and Bunting dropping down to the fourth line. However, Keefe did note that just because he is starting on the fourth line, Bunting may be used all over the lineup depending on different situations that may arise in the game. There has been a lot of fluidity to the Leafs’ lines depending on zone starts/the scoreboard/performances, so we can expect more of the same tonight.


Series Stats via NaturalStatTrick

  • The Lightning are winning the xGoals battle at 5-on-5 5.2-4.94 through three games.
  • The Lightning are decisively winning the high-danger chances share at even strength 28-17.
  • Brandon Hagel narrowly holds the lead for ixGoals at 5-on-5 with 0.88. David Kampf is close behind with 0.82.
  • Jack Campbell has a .952 save percentage at even strength through three games compared to Andrei Vasilevsky’s .892.
  • The Leafs-Lightning series is the closest in terms of CF% over all situations in the playoffs, with the Leafs holding a slight edge at 50.14%.
  • Morgan Rielly is tied for the fifth-most blocked shots at 5-on-5 in the playoffs so far with seven.
  • Jack Campbell has faced 19 rush attempts, the most amongst all goalies in the playoffs.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on how the Matthews line can establish more zone time in a difficult matchup:

Part of it is matchup, and part of it is just our team game. If we can get some positive momentum flowing as a team shift over shift, they’re in better spots that way. You look at the first period, and at times where they had really good shifts, it’s because it was a continuation of a good shift prior to them.

In the third period, they had their best chances, obviously, and a lot of that came from pace coming out of our end and breakouts and stuff. A lot of is tied into what we need to do better as a team

Keefe on the utility of a positionally-versatile player like Alex Kerfoot:

I’ve gotten the question a lot. It’s important. It’s important all the time. It’s really important this time of year. You need to be able to adjust to what the other team is doing. You need to, at times, fill in because of injuries or performance what have you. You need to give a line a boost.

He’s just always been that guy for us that’s stepped up whenever we needed it. You look at last season’s playoffs with John getting injured, and he steps up and plays in the middle and does a terrific job for us there. He’s a very important player for us.

Keefe on the motivation to take a 3-1 series lead on the defending champs:

You want to win because you want to win. Every game is important and valuable. Of course, you would love an opportunity to go home up 3-1. You come out on the road here — not unlike their mindset I’m sure when they were in Toronto — and you want to win.

You’d like to get a split, but then you come in and you win the first game. Well, let’s get greedy here and win the second one. That’s our mindset today.

I think you know that, when you’re playing against a team like this and their experience, they respond very well after a loss, so we’re expecting their absolute best game of the series here tonight. And I’m expecting our team to play its best game of the series.

When I look back at the three games here so far, I think we’ve done a lot of really good things as a team, but I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey yet, and that’s exciting. 

Keefe on how the Leafs have defended Kucherov and Stamkos at 5-on-5:

We’ve done a good job. It’s early, though. It’s only been three games. But that was a priority for us coming in.

We, of course, know what they can do on the power play, but they are also very dangerous at 5-on-5, and we’ve seen that. We’ve got to continue to be diligent with the puck when they’re out there, be good defensively, and be in good spots.

We can’t get too excited about it because it is early in the series and we’ve got to stay focused on doing the job. 

Lightning coach Jon Cooper on what made his group effective against the Matthews line:

It’s good players vs. good players. What’s the line? “You can only hope to contain them,” and I thought they did a pretty good job containing them. Again, I don’t think anywhere in this series one line has dominated another.

Special teams have shown up, and that’s a whole different animal. But Point-Cirelli-Killorn neutralized those guys pretty well, but it still didn’t translate to a win. That’s unfortunate, but if we keep doing that, it’s good for us. 

Cooper on what he appreciates about what Kucherov can do on the half-wall of the power play:

What isn’t there to appreciate about him? He’s a special player, especially in that area. And that’s why he’s so hard to defend because you can have guys pressure him and he’ll make plays through you. You can not pressure him. He’ll still make plays through you.

That’s an art. Some of it I don’t know if it’s teachable. His instincts are incredible and his feel for where guys are and where they’re going to be is pretty impressive. 

Michael Bunting on what his first playoff experience has been like so far:

It’s been great anytime you’re in the playoffs for any league. When I was in the American League or even here — it’s just obviously an upper scale — it’s a lot of fun. It’s intense. It’s fast hockey, and it’s rough. It’s right up my alley, so I’ve been enjoying it.

Alex Kerfoot on the atmosphere of the playoffs:

It’s really cool. This is my third year here and I haven’t been able to play in front of Leafs fans yet, so stepping out there at home was a pretty special experience. You can’t beat playing in Toronto in front of a home crowd in the playoffs.


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares  – #25 Ondrej Kase
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#58 Michael Bunting – #11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza

Defensemen
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl

Goaltenders
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren

Healthy Scratches: Wayne Simmonds, Timothy Liljegren, Nick Abruzzese, Kyle Clifford
Injured: Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek


Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

Forwards
#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#38 Bradon Hagel – #21 Brayden Point – #71 Anthony Cirelli
#17 Alex Killorn – #79 Ross Colton – #20 Nick Paul
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellmare – #10 Corey Perry

Defensemen
#77 Victor Hedman – #81 Erik Cernak
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #24 Zach Bogosian
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #52 Cal Foote

Goaltenders
Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot

Healthy Scratches: Riley Nash, Jan Rutta
Injured: None

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Maple Leafs show up but bow out: ‘This one hurts more’ – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Better team. Better opponent. Same old devastating finish.

Sixth time’s the harm.

Through lumped throats and hushed voices, while shot-blocking tears and puck-battling pain, one by one the leaders of the Toronto Maple Leafs stood at that familiar podium and tried to describe the opening of an old wound that seared fresh again.

“Hard to fathom,” John Tavares said. “It stings. It hurts. Disappointing…. Such a fine line.”

Auston Matthews: “We’re right there…. We’re right there.”

Mitchell Marner: “We’re getting sick and tired of feeling like this.”

GM Kyle Dubas — the architect of this fabulously talented offensive core forever stuck on three playoff wins — has often noted that success is seldom a straight line.

But on another night like this, with hung heads and sad handshakes, when these great players fall to a ridiculous 0-9 in chances to eliminate an opponent, success feels like a flatline.

“This one hurts more,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Lots of reasons to be proud, yet lots of reasons to be devastated and upset.

“We’re a lot closer than it appears.”

The best version of these Toronto Maple Leafs is stuck with the same result.

They lost a 2-1 heartbreaker on home ice to the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday and once again saw their post-season end in seven games or less.

The difference between this edition, this defeat, is they showed up and threw everything they could muster at the two-time champions. To think, Toronto never trailed in the series until the final buzzer.

The flip side of that fact is the Leafs led the set 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2. Given three cracks, they never seized a stranglehold. They dug a ditch and skated, albeit valiantly, from behind in games 5, 6, and 7. Hardly a smart recipe against the best third-period closeout squad in the NHL.

Look no further than Tampa out-shot-blocking Toronto 26-13 in last-goal-wins Game 7.

The Lightning have been doing everything imaginable to hang on over the past 13 days. The Maple Leafs everything they can to bust through.

And now they’ll show up at training camp less scared but more scarred.

“The Leafs have a helluva team,” said Tampa’s Jon Cooper, who oversees one himself. “And they’ve been knocking at the door for so long. That’s why such a big deal has been made about them not advancing in a series — because they are a really good team.

“I think they’ve grown as a group. I think their stars are stars. And they’ve got a really good team game and coach does a helluva job.”

Indeed, heads should be held high. Or higher, at least.

“They’ve got all the pieces,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “That’s one of the toughest series we’ve played.

“They have everything. It’s just, we have everything, too.”

For this era of Leafs, this sick-and-tired result — Round One and done — tastes familiarly awful.

Unlike series-deciders of the past, these Maple Leafs were fast, engaged and aggressive from the drop of the puck. They looked different. Crisper.

And their long-suffering fans, loud as ever, funneled that energy back. Even when Nick Paul — that former Ottawa Senator who had been snakebit for six games — opened the scoring by banging in a Ross Colton rebound off the rush.

Toronto’s Tavares appeared to tie the game 1-1 in the second period, but his clean shot was waved off due to a Justin Holl pick that gave the captain extra space in the slot.

Rush-jumping defenceman Morgan Rielly finally solved a dialed-in Andrei Vasilevskiy by finishing off a beautiful passing sequence by Marner and Matthews to knot the game for real.

“Both teams have knocked the other on the ass a little bit. Both teams have picked themselves up and continued to go at it,” Keefe said.

“We’ve been right there with the back-to-back champs, and our guys have grown a ton of confidence in knowing they belong in this moment.”

’Twas the Series of the Counterpunch.

The Team That Won’t Die versus the Team That Can’t Kill.

Naturally, Paul struck again, restoring the visitors’ lead with a determined deke through T.J. Brodie.

“It might not be the big guy. It might be somebody that you’ve never heard of doing something that takes us to the next level,” a prescient Corey Perry had said on Game 7 morning.

“These are where names are made. You show up for a Game 7, you’re going to be remembered.”

Toronto pushed, shot, got desperate, and came up empty again. The Leafs had no choice but to shake the hand, bend the knee, and tip the cap.

“How they defend as a team and how they prioritize defending and how they block shots and how they commit to give you nothing,” Keefe said. “That’s championship hockey.”

The 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs should be remembered as a group that charged the throne. One that took a step in maturity, aggression and confidence — if not in the bracket.

Tragically, for this starved city, they will also be remembered as yet another skilled bunch who, ultimately, failed to accomplish the thing when it mattered most.

One that must look a little different come training camp.

“We had a lot of respect in that line from that team, which is nice to see. It was a much different tone, much different feeling of respect from the other side than we experienced previously. We’re certainly earning respect,” Keefe said.

“But… we’re not in the respect game. We’re in the winning game.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Brayden Point fell awkwardly into the boards in the first period, twisting his right leg while outracing Mark Giordano to a puck. In terrible pain, the star forward immediately left the game. Point tried bravely to take a shift in Period 2 but could barely skate. Something to keep an eye on for the Battle of Florida.

• The Maple Leafs have scored zero power-play goals in their past seven games when attempting to clinch a playoff series. They had three opportunities to end that drought Saturday and came up empty.

• Matthews never registered more than five hits in a single regular-season game. He threw seven hits in Game 5, nine in Game 6, and six in Game 7. He left it on the line.

• A tidy bit of business by Julien BriseBois picking up rental Paul from the Senators for a fourth-round pick plus pending RFA Mathieu Joseph.

After 14 points in 21 regular-season games for the Bolts, Paul has been noticeable every night in his playoff debut. He had two even-strength assists and 10 shots prior to registering his first two career playoff goals, including the series-winner, Saturday.

• Vasilevskiy’s ridiculous streak of five consecutive shutouts in Tampa closeout games is over. With the series on the line, he was one save better than Campbell in Game 6 overtime and one save better in Game 7. That’s the difference.

Campbell’s series save percentage: .897.

Vasilevskiy’s series save percentage: .897.

“No goalie is immune to giving up goals. [The Rangers’ Igor] Shesterkin is on the MVP ballot, and he’s looked human some of these games,” Cooper said.

“All I know about Vasi is, when the lights are shining the brightest, he seems to play his best.”

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Player grades: "Otherworldly" McDavid leads team effort as Oilers polish off Kings 2-0 in decisive Game 7 – Edmonton Journal

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Kings 0, Oilers 2

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Taut. Tense. Terrific.

These three T-words do as good a job as any to describe Edmonton Oilers’ 2-0 win over Los Angeles Kings that finally turned a topsy-turvy seven game series in Edmonton’s favour. The game was scoreless until well past the midpoint before a relentless Oilers attack was finally rewarded, and hung in the balance at 1-0 until less than four minutes to play. That’s when Connor McDavid scored a Glenn Anderson-calibre clincher that simultaneously blew the roof off the joint while finally providing the home side some welcome breathing room down the stretch.

Make no mistake, the Oilers were the better team in the decisive contest, and at both ends of the sheet. They outshot the Kings 41-29 including a staggering 24-11 margin in a decisive middle period. They held a convincing 14-5 advantage in Grade A shots with a 7-2 edge in 5-alarm shots, those latter two counts logged by David Staples and myself here at the Cult of Hockey (running count).

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Not quite a “perfect” outing by the home side, but tending in that direction. Not only did the Oilers not give up a goal, they didn’t even take a penalty in the hard-fought but generally clean affair that saw just one official penalty called all night. They blocked 21 shots and were credited with 19 takeaways compared to just 9 giveaways.  And in the process, the Oilers’ first Game 7 win since another impressive shutout, 4-0 at Colorado, way back in 1998.

Odd facts of the series: 1) There was never a lead change in any game. The team that scored first would occasionally be tied but never trail in any of the 7 games. 2) The series itself featured the maximum possible THREE lead changes, as the arrow flipped from 1-0 LAK to 2-1 EDM to 3-2 LAK to 4-3 EDM. Thankfully, they stop playing games once one team gets to 4.

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The formula for success in the last 2 wins was a nifty wrinkle by Jay Woodcroft on the 11F / 7D line-up, in which it was effectively the second line that had no centre. Instead, Evander Kane and Zach Hyman played with a rotating group of pivots from the first, third, and fourth lines. (Must be an absolute bear to match up against.) Meanwhile, all 7 d-men saw meaningful action and made meaningful contributions. Some pretty slick coaching going on, from where I sit.

And some excellent hockey. Plus grades all around after this beauty.

Player grades

#2 Duncan Keith, 7. Played a solid, safe game on the back end. While no goals were scored during his 19 minutes at even strength, the Oilers dominated all shot shares including 68% of shots on goal and expected goals of 76%.

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#5 Cody Ceci, 8. Had a coming out party in this series with major contributions at both ends of the ice. Scored his first goal of the playoffs at an excellent time, finally beating the stalwart Jonathan Quick 13 minutes into the middle frame by jumping into the high slot to take McDavid’s feed and fire a well-placed shot past Mikey Anderson’s accidental screen on the short side. It would stand up as the series-winning goal. 3 shots at one end, 3 blocks at the other, 1 very solid hit, and his usual sound defensive positioning. Finished the series 1-5-6, +8..

#6 Kris Russell, 7. Kept in the line-up as the seventh defenceman and more than covered that bet. His defensive effort is best encapsulated by this pair of stats: during his 8:44 of ice time, all at 5v5, Russell blocked 3 shots, while his goaltender only had to stop 1.

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#10 Derek Ryan, 6. Consistently chipped the puck to good places to keep the cycle alive or at minimum leave the opposition with 200 feet to travel. So-so shot shares but made mistakes on precisely zero Grade A shots against. 5/11=45% on the dot.

#13 Jesse Puljujarvi, 6. Solid two-way play in limited action (6:50). 1 shot, 2 hits, excellent cycling and positive shot shares. Playing left wing for the first time in memory, and adjusting pretty well.

#15 Josh Archibald, 7. The Corsi Police wouldn’t like his on-ice stats, but Archibald was a tenacious physical force in a series where the Oilers needed a little pushback against the likes of L.A. grinders Mikey Anderson, Matt Roy, Brendan Lemieux, Carl Grundstrom, and the freshly-retired Dustin Brown. Despite missing Game 1, Archibald led both teams with 33 hits in the series including 6 in the finale. He also had a couple of shots on net including a terrific breakaway attempt that was foiled by an outstanding stop.

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#18 Zach Hyman, 7. A buzzsaw on the puck, Hyman won battles in all 3 zones. Led both teams with 7 shots on goal, many of them jam plays, while chipping in on 4 Grade A shots by the Oilers, none against. Numbers like 3 hits, 1 takeaway, 1 block speak to his involvement when the other guys had the puck.

#22 Tyson Barrie, 6. Game 6 scoring hero had no such moments in the spotlight this time, just a dependable game on the back end with positive shot shares and zero defensive issues.

#25 Darnell Nurse, 7. Repaid the teammates who bailed him out for his suspension in Game 6 with a solid effort. Looked a little more refreshed than when last we saw him, and played a far more proactive, Nurse-style game with 7 shot attempts, 2 hits and 4 blocks while posting solid shot shares primarily against the Anze Kopitar line. Made a great block of a dangerous Adrian Kempe shot in the early going. His own best shot was similarly blocked by Blake Lizotte. Did have a couple of defensive issues, notably on a powerful rush by Kempe that looked eerily similar to the overtime winner in Game 5. Fortunately Smith had the answer this time.

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#27 Brett Kulak, 7. The new dad responded to his changing life circumstances with another impressive outing in Game 7. Fast on the puck and quick to move it in the right direction. His signature shift may have been when he won a race to a 50/50 puck at his own blueline to nullify a dangerous looking rush, then seconds later made a terrific keep-in at the offensive blueline. Earned a secondary assist on the clincher after winning a post-faceoff puck battle in his own end that contributed to McDavid and Yamamoto heading up-ice with speed.

#29 Leon Draisaitl, 7. Clearly labouring physically, he nonetheless found ways to contribute, his well-honed ability to feed the puck to McDavid high among them. Earned an assist on the first goal with an early touch of the puck, but his greater contribution was away from the disc when he engaged Anderson, causing a screen of Quick while opening a narrow shooting lane which Ceci hit perfectly. Minded his p’s and q’s on the defensive side, highlighted by a superb sequence where he chased Lizotte all the way across the Oilers blueline before eventually forcing the disc to safety. 0-1-1, +2 in an astonishing 22½ minutes.

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#41 Mike Smith, 9. A pillar of strength between the pipes. Didn’t face a lot of glorious chances, but stopped all that he did face and scads of outside shots through traffic. Tracked the puck extremely well and controlled his rebounds expertly on those few occasions there were any rebounds at all. Did sprawl like a beached whale a couple of times but got some help from his mates on those occasions. On a night where he easily could have been the second best goalie on the ice  (Jonathan Quick was outstanding at the other end), he slammed the door.  29 shots, 29 saves, 1.000 save percentage. Indeed, the shutout in his first career Game 7 earns Smith +1 on his grade. Ended the series with excellent stats including a 2.29 goals against average, .938 save percentage, and most importantly, 4 wins.

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#44 Zack Kassian, 7. He like Archibald brought a consistent physical element, especially in the early going. Had a game high 7 hits including a couple of real doozies. Mashed Grundstrom and Anderson with heavy darts. Solid shot shares buttressed by 3 shots off his own stick. Sound on the defensive side of the puck.

#56 Kailer Yamamoto, 8. All over the ice, and the puck. Made a leaping play at the offensive blueline to keep the play alive in the build-up to the 1-0. Nearly scored the 2-0 himself when he found iron on a quick shot through traffic, but did set it up later with a good cross-ice pass that found a streaking McDavid hitting the line. His celebration of the goal that followed was a highlight in its own right. 2 shots, 2 blocks, 2 takeaways, 3 hits, and a pristine 4-0 in contributions to Grade A shots.

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#71 Ryan McLeod, 8. Totally engaged and invested in Edmonton’s biggest game of the year. Skated miles. Cleaned up a few situations in his own end, and got the puck moving north with an impressive 5 takeaways. Split his time almost evenly between two very different pairs of wingers — Kassian / Puljujarvi and Kane / Hyman — and held his own with both. 2 hits, 1 block. Made a mistake on a Kings Grade A shot, but contributed to 2 of those at the good end. Broke even (4/8=50%) on the dot, always an acceptable outcome for a rookie in a black art dominated by crafty veterans.

#75 Evan Bouchard, 7. The puck was moving north on his shift, with the Oilers posting a 70% share of expected goals during his nearly 20 minutes at even strength. Alas, one of the reasons none of those expected goals didn’t materialize on the scoresheet was his inability to hit the net with any of his own shot attempts, of which there were 10 — 7 were blocked and 3 missed the target, even as 1 of those rang the iron. (Man, this guy hits a lot of posts and cross bars.) On this night did his best work in the d-zone, boxing guys out, breaking up passes, winning puck battles, moving the disc efficiently and using his partner to best advantage. His best sequence may have come defending a 2-on-2 rush by the skilled duo of Philip Danault and Trevor Moore midway in the third; Bouchard held his lane as they did a criss-cross drop pass attacking his side, then stuck with Moore to first block his shot, then finish the check hard in the corner before chipping the puck quickly up the boards towards puck support.

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#91 Evander Kane, 7. Another night at the office with 5 shots, 3 hits, and 91% (!) expected goals. Actual goals were hard to come by, with his best chance pulled off the goal line by Andreas Athanasiou of all people. Nonetheless, 18 sawed-off minutes with just 4 shots against helped the cause on this night. Power forward finished the series with crooked numbers across the spectrum: 7-2-9, +5, 16 PiM and 32 hits.

#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 7. Severely limited in his usual feature roles on special teams, he delivered a sound defensive game at even strength. Won more than his share of battles along the way, one of which sprang Archibald on his breakaway. His regular line spent plenty of time behind their own blueline but with little damage; Nuge’s shot shares soared when playing with the two “extra” wingers Kane and Hyman, including 6-0 shots in just 3½ minutes with Kane. A team best 7/13=54% on the faceoff dot.

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#97 Connor McDavid, 10. A third consecutive scintillating performance, over which time he was on the ice for (wait for it) 10 out of 10 Oilers goals, so why fight it. Playing like a man possessed just now, spinning out of checks like the Tasmanian Devil on Red Bull. Started his night by running over Sean Durzi with a massive open ice hit and took charge from there. Played a monstrous 27:23, with 12 shot attempts, 6 of them on net, 4 hits, 2 takeaways, and of yeah, 1-1-2, +2 in a 2-0 game. Earned a primary assist with a fine feed to Ceci. Easily could have had a couple more with a pair of brilliant setups of Yamamoto. Was all over the defensive zone, including a couple of key clears. With 4 minutes to go he put the game away at 2-0 with a brilliant sequence in which he first drew a (delayed) penalty by Durzi; while the King stopped to argue the call, McD carried on to jam a wraparound try that barely failed, then somehow recovered the pinball rebound in his skates and roofed a backhand from the slot. That set off a frenzied celebration by the player himself, his teammates, the packed house, and the thousands more watching on the big screen outside. What a moment, and what a game.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

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Oilers player grades vs. Kings

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Penguins Game 7 Thoughts: Malkin & Letang Finale? Crosby, Sullivan to Rescue? – Pittsburgh Hockey Now

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NEW YORK — Like the great westerns, Sidney Crosby might ride to the rescue just in time to save the Pittsburgh Penguins. Game 7s are unpredictable, but the cavalry might be coming with Crosby and No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry.

Just in the nick of time.

The thought didn’t register until close to the puck drop for Game 6 of the Round One series with the Penguins and New York Rangers. It struck me as I did my customary handshakes with several PPG Paints Arena ushers, some of whom are close to 90-years-old. Was Game 6 the final Penguins home game for Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang? Is Game 7 their final Penguins game?

After years of stability, the Penguins have new ownership. New management.

It’s a sobering thought. The Penguins were most likely headed for victory in Game 5 until their fellow core member was taken out by something just short of a flying elbow from Jacob Trouba. The league didn’t see a problem with it or Malkin’s teeth-bruising cross-check later in the third period.

Despite a barrage of colorful language from Rangers fans who generously contributed to PHN’s ballooning profits and Dave Molinari’s new position, their assault on the English language, heavy with misogyny, left my opinion unchanged. Trouba should have received a multi-game suspension, and it is just the latest joke from the NHL DoPS, which has enough comedy gold for an hour-long Netflix special.

However, Sidney Crosby sent electricity through the UPMC Lemieux Complex on Saturday when he showed up at practice–as a full participant. He could play in Game 7.

It’s been 16 years since Evgeni Malkin looked at future captain Sidney Crosby, who was waiting to follow the Russian rookie to the ice for warmups and demanded to go on the ice last, “three years, Super League.

Malkin asserted himself as the senior hockey sibling, despite Crosby’s eye-popping rookie season the year before, and the boys have held the order for 16 years.

Letang was the steal of the 2005 NHL Draft held at a hotel in Ottawa because of the preceding year-long lockout and a new CBA signed too recently to allow the league to prepare an arena for the draft. The young Letang had boy-band frosted tips and spent another year in the QMJHL before filtering to the Penguins organization.

It’s been a wild ride for all involved. Remember Letang’s early playoff struggles. Crosby’s concussion saga of 2011-12 included the best hockey of Evgeni Malkin’s life. It ended when a specialist figured out that Crosby didn’t have a concussion but a soft-tissue neck injury only after Crosby missed a year of his hockey life.

There were the parties on the South Side. The boys, including Jordan Staal and Max Talbot, held court in Mario’s on the South Side.

And there were Stanley Cups.

Those kids are gone, replaced with men in their mid-30s. A few gray hairs on the beard. Contracts measuring in the tens of millions. They have families and homes of their own instead of living in spare rooms of veteran players like Sergei Gonchar and Mario Lemieux.

“Passion,” their first head coach, Michel Therrien, told PHN in 2019. “I remember, they were teenagers almost. I had to keep them out of the rink because they’d spend their days at the rink. This was all they knew.”

With some irony, the crew might have played their final game as Pittsburgh Penguins because an opponent took away Crosby, though it looks like the Penguins will have a fighting chance in Game 7. Crosby could return, and the trio will get one more crack at it.

Evgeni Malkin turned in a vintage performance in Game 6. The team sure could use another.

But Game 6 could have been the final ride in Pittsburgh.

Penguins Penalty Kill & Power Play Coaches

How much offseason heat will be applied to assistant coaches Mike Vellucci and Todd Rierden?

Vellucci was seen as Jim Rutherford’s guy when he was hired as the WBS Penguins coach. This season, the PK was ranked first or second in the NHL for much of the season, but there were dips and hiccups, especially late in the season.

The PK has been unacceptable in this series. It’s assumed the Rangers will score.

The PK also stumbled greatly after the NHL trade deadline. GM Ron Hextall dealt light scoring forward Zach Aston-Reese to Anaheim in the Rickard Rakell deal. Bryan Rust joined the PK. It shouldn’t have created that much of a disparity.

The Penguins had only a few shorthanded goals this season. And Tristan Jarry was a big reason the PK was stellar.

The Penguins’ power play never got on track this season. It languished in the mid-teens, at best, before falling back near 20th at the end of the regular season.

It seems too easy to dump that on Kris Letang. Or Evgeni Malkin. Those guys were part of the great Penguins power plays, too. For some reason, it didn’t work this season.

The Penguins’ special teams have let the team down and been a deciding factor in every loss. If they stink on both sides in Game 7, that’s probably going to be how the story, and maybe the final chapter of this team, is written.

Pittsburgh Penguins Game 7s

I’ve covered the Game 7s since 2016. The 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final remains one of if not the best game the Penguins have played under Sullivan. The 2017 Game 7 in Washington was so intense that a couple of team personnel had to leave the arena to take a walk before the game, but it became a comfortable 2-0 win. The 2017 Eastern Conference Final double OT thriller against Ottawa was a master class in patience–the Penguins dominated for what seemed like hours.

In each of those wins, the Penguins–specifically Sullivan–did a little something different. Sullivan added a wrinkle, a tweak, a surprise for the opponent, which worked magic. 

I wonder if there’s anything Sullivan can do with this team. The Rangers are a bit quicker. The crowd feeds them like gasoline feeds a fire. And aren’t we all getting a bit softer in our old age?

I also know that one Penguins player chuckled after the Game 7 win over Washington in 2017, “we knew they’d be tight.”

Jeff Carter won the 2014 Stanley Cup after the LA Kings won three–yes, THREE–Game 7s.

I wonder how much experience will play a role in this game? How will Igor Shesterkin, who has been leaky all series, handle the increased pressure? I wonder how Tristan Jarry (I expect him to play) will handle it and the rust of not playing for a month? Or Louis Domingue?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are never short on drama, but this one especially has more plots, subplots, and secondary characters than any Western. This one could be the end of much we’ve taken for granted.

The puck drops just after 7 p.m.

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