Quick Shifts: Why Canadiens must make Maple Leafs series nasty

1 month ago 7

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. There is a disconnect between me and my golf clubs.

1. So many elements are lining up perfectly for the Toronto Maple Leafs playoffs — healthy bodies, an elite top six performing at its best, two rounds (minimum) of home ice, a dialed-in starting goalie — that it feels nitpicky to harp on the contender’s weakness.

But flaws can be more interesting to dissect than strengths, and the ineptitude of the Leafs’ power play is as persistent as it is perplexing.

Through the first 22 games of 2021, Toronto was feasting upon 5-on-4 situations at a 32.4 per cent success rate. In the final 34 games, it has produced power-play goals on an embarrassing 10.3 per cent of its chances.

Coach Sheldon Keefe has jumbled the personnel, dedicated many practice hours, and held countless meetings to remedy this peculiar weakness for a talent-rich group that has no issue lighting the lamp at even strength.

Depending on the day, depending on the Leaf, the sputtering PP is an execution issue or a zone-entry issue or a structural issue or a mental issue or a deployment issue. (Is one stacked unit better than two balanced, competitive units?)

“We had a real high level of concern for a real stretch of time there,” said Keefe, who was encouraged by how the power play performed during the Leafs’ recent Vancouver-Winnipeg road trip. “I thought our power play, at times, looked as dangerous as it’s been all season. We haven’t had a whole lot of opportunities since then.

“We can’t dwell on what’s happened here in the past. We’ve just got to focus on each day that comes ahead here. We want it to go over the line and we want greater production from it, our players want greater production, but we see lots of really positive signs in the process.”

Since March 3, the Maple Leafs have been outscored 22-9 on special teams. At home, power plays have been particularly unfruitful.

Their special teams look worse when you look at net percentages (meaning, once you subtract short-handed goals allowed on their power plays and add shorties scored on the opposition’s chances).

Toronto’s net PK percentage is 80.6, 25th overall and second-worst among all playoff teams.

Toronto’s net PP percentage is 15.5, 24th overall and the worst among all 16 playoff teams.

That’s frightening.

Even more critical than superior goaltending, the route to a Montreal Canadiens upset in Round 1 is to drag this sucker into the gutter.

The Habs threw more hits in 2021 (1,585) than any hockey team. They are nasty around the crease and in the corners.

Conversely, Toronto threw fewer hits (1,003) than any other Canadian club.

Montreal wants these to be low-scoring, hard-checking, greasy affairs.

The dirtier the game, the better their chances.

The less worried they are about the Leafs’ power play, the nastier they’ll be. No?

“One of our greatest challenges with our power play has been earning power-play opportunities. That I’m a little bit concerned about and want to find ways to generate more,” Keefe said.

“It needs to be more dangerous. It needs to be a threat. Even if it’s only going to get one or two chances a game, it needs to build positive momentum for our team. We’re aware of that. It certainly is on our radar.”

2. Playoffs start today.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, no matter what Andy Williams would have you believe.

Here are my picks.

North

Toronto Maple Leafs over Montreal Canadiens 4-1
Yes, for the first time in 17 years, the Toronto Maple Leafs win a playoff round… and it won’t be close.

Edmonton Oilers over Winnipeg Jets 4-2
Since Feb. 11, Edmonton has the most wins (26-11-2) and best points percentage in Canada. Connor McDavid has the Jets’ number.

East

Pittsburgh Penguins over New York Islanders 4-2
The East’s top seed won six of eight regular-season meetings versus New York. Pittsburgh gets its long-awaited revenge for 2019’s Isles sweep.

Boston Bruins over Washington Capitals 4-3
Since the trade deadline — and the acquisition of Taylor Hall — Boston is the hottest team in hockey (12-4-1). The Bruins are healthy, and Washington’s inexperience in net makes me nervous.

Central

Carolina Hurricanes over Nashville Predators 4-0
The Hurricanes are a legitimate Cup contender; the Predators forwards will struggle to score.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Florida Panthers 4-2
Finally! An all-Florida playoff matchup. It only took 27 years. Andrei Vasilevskiy plus the returns of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov prove the difference, even though Victor Hedman’s health is a legitimate concern.

West

Colorado Avalanche over St. Louis Blues 4-1
“We’re going to have some fun, and we’re going to beat them,” Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly claims. All due respect to the ’19 champs, but the ’21 Presidents’ Trophy winners are a legitimate force.

Vegas Golden Knights over Minnesota Wild 4-2
Wonderful regular season for the exciting (?!) Wild; Kirill Kaprizov and Dean Evason should be up for hardware. But with no salary cap to adhere to in the post-season, Vegas can dress more than 15 skaters.

3. Sheldon Keefe warned not to reach much into the full-health Game 1 forward lines he teased during the Maple Leafs’ only full practice this week, but we will anyway:

Hyman-Matthews-Marner
Foligno-Tavares-Nylander
Kerfoot-Nash-Mikheyev
Thornton-Spezza-Simmonds

Notably absent are Alex Galchenyuk and, to a less-surprising extent, Pierre Engvall.

Galchenyuk put up four points in his past six games and has been a jolt of energy on the top six. He’s also one of just two Leafs forwards (Wayne Simmonds is the other) who has been a minus player this season.

Keefe figures he’s had more one-on-one conversations with Galchenyuk lately than any other player. He’s demanding better defensive details from the winger’s game.

“I’m not overly concerned about anything offensively,” Keefe said. “He’s got to really skate both ways, forecheck and returning back to our end and be really responsible defensively. Make a play when it’s his turn, those kind of things. But he hasn’t played poorly by any means.

“We want to just make sure that he’s focused and continues to know that we believe in him, but that we’re looking to see him trying to get back to that level he was at.”

The message to Engvall has been similar.

Keefe hasn’t got too caught up in Engvall’s recent four-goals-in-three-games explosion. For these bubble forwards, scoring isn’t a gateway into the lineup.

“That helps his confidence, of course. But the reality is that’s not why he hasn’t been playing here [regularly] of late. It has nothing to do with production. We need Pierre to be really competitive, physical on the puck, win puck battles, be strong defensively, do little things to help our team win and any production that comes from that would be great,” Keefe said.

“Until he finds that level, he’s going to find himself continuing to search to look to see when his next opportunity might come.”

4. The scene of the neighbourhood children gathering en masse to chuck caps over the backyard fence of Tim Stützle the morning after his first career hat trick even warmed my Grinch heart.

“The community is excited to grow with this team. There is a great relationship growing between the young players and our young fans,” coach D.J. Smith said.

Stützle’s roommate and landlord, Brady Tkachuk, got a heads-up text from their neighbour that they wanted to celebrate Jimmy Stu’s three-goal performance but had no clue so many kids would show up.

“It was awesome,” Tkachuk said. “It says so many things about this community, how much they love their hockey. All the credit goes to our neighbours who came up with that idea.”

Big fan of what they’re building in Ottawa.

5. Beautiful scene in Nashville as Pekka Rinne recorded a 30-save shutout victory over Carolina for his 60th career blank sheet in possibly his final NHL game.

The Finn’s 369th victory moved him into a tie for the 19th-most wins all-time and was acknowledged by a raucous crowd and impromptu thank-you lap by the goaltender.

Coach John Hynes labelled Rinne “the best player to ever wear a Preds jersey,” and it would be fitting to see No. 35 become the first to be raised to the rafters — at some point.

“I told him it’s going to be awkward when he comes back next year, and we do it again in Game 82,” Matt Duchene cracked.

Rinne’s contract is up this summer. He’ll turn 39 in November. More than one reporter or fan could make a case for Rinne as “Classiest Player I Ever Met.”

Two moments resonate for me.

The first was stepping into a sullen Preds room following 2018’s Game 7 loss in Nashville to the Jets. Rinne had given up a backbreaking goal and was standing tall ready to shoulder all the blame. All his teammates went out of their way to defend him. Just heartbreaking.

The second was lighter.

During the 2019 All-Star Weekend in San Jose, I was in a hotel lobby bar socializing with a couple of Finnish reporter friends. Rinne and Kimmo Timonen joined us. (Understand, Finnish reporters are generally way more familiar with the players they cover.)

The stories and laughter poured, and a kind Rinne would sometimes take a moment to translate for the lone non-Finnish-speaking guy at the table.

At some point in the evening, the translation stopped. The group went full-blown Finnish; I could no longer keep up.

At the next morning’s practice, I approached Rinne’s stall to ask some on-the-record questions. He flashed a smile and fired a question first: “You’re still alive?”

The man is a beauty.

6. Mathieu Joseph, Gemel Smith and Daniel Walcott made history this week, forming the first NHL line composed entirely of Black players.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Joseph said. “My goal, and the goal of players of color in this league, obviously want to showcase their sports to your families or other people of color. It’s definitely awesome to be one of the guys who were for that, and it was all from the coaching staff that did that tonight, but it’s a great recognition, for sure.”

Walcott, a 27-year-old farmhand finally realizing his dream, was inspired by seeing Jerome Iginla as an NHL captain when he was younger. He credited coach Jon Cooper for the idea.

“Coop, I think he did something really special. He had the opportunity. And it’s awesome to promote this for the young kids out there, the young minorities,” Walcott said. “It was a great moment for sure.”

Love the sense Cooper had to set his players up for history. (Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone with his character guiding Team Canada at the Olympics?)

“First of all, they’re all in the NHL for a reason,” Cooper said. “They deserve to be here and have worked their tails off. To have them all together, they had a little chemistry. Moving forward in the league, you hope it isn’t a story anymore and will be the norm. It was a pretty cool moment for all those guys.”

Love to see it @MathJoseph7 @gemel_smith @WallyD19 https://t.co/tfbqT5uems

— JT Brown (@JTBrown23) May 11, 2021

“I’m so proud. Just the way that the NHL is moving forward, it’s great to see,” said Florida’s Anthony Duclair, who lined up opposite Joseph-Smith-Walcott. “That was an unbelievable feeling, even for myself, playing against those guys. It was great to see.”

7. The Capitals open playoffs Saturday, and Evgeny Kuznetsov is still on the COVID list — his second stint. The centre has missed 13 games due to exposure and/or breaking protocol, and the team is less than overjoyed.

The 28-year-old’s production (nine goals, 29 points) has declined for a third consecutive season.

Kuznetsov has four more seasons on his contract at a $7.8-million cap hit and is due his last whopping signing bonus ($5 million) this summer.

Playmaking centremen with the all-world flash Kuznetsov flexed in 2017-18 are hard to come by. But is there a market in a flat-cap world for such an unpredictable talent?

8. We’re not saying it’s strictly cause and effect, but there is a correlation between John Tavares changing the Drury curve of his stick for the first time since minor hockey and his production increasing.

The Leafs captain said Tuesday that he started borrowing Pierre Engvall’s sticks during Toronto’s second trip to Edmonton because he wanted to test-drive a new curve for a month before making the commitment to a switch.

Prior to the equipment change, Tavares averaged 0.81 points per game through his first 21 games. Since then, he spiked to 33 points in 34 games (0.97).

Winger William Nylander tipped reporters off to the adjustment, and Tavares says it’s been on his mind for a couple years.

“I guess Willy is letting out some of my secrets,” Tavares said. “I just felt it was time to play around with some things, try something out, and I’d like something new. I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with it.”

Jason Spezza, the club’s most noted stick stickler, says Tavares approached him multiple times for recommendations.

“I was reluctant to really help him or suggest anything because that stick’s worked pretty well for him over the years,” Spezza said. “But he seemed pretty set on making a little change.”

Tavares liked the feel of Engvall’s pattern, so he made one little tweak to it and ordered a custom batch for himself.

“Sticks just don’t come that quick right now with challenges that we face [due to shipping during the pandemic], and I wasn’t even sure I was really going to want something made if I didn’t like kind of the pattern and the curve that he was using,” Tavares explained. “So, that was the one I was using there for about a month.

“At the end of the day, a stick can only do so much. The guy that’s using it has to go out there and play the game and make the plays. I was playing around, looking for something different. Found something I liked, and I just continued to play.”

9. Fun fact from Sportsnet’s stat czar Steve Fellin: Today marks the first day in National Hockey League history that a playoff game and a regular-season game will be played on the same day.

Another fun fact: Auston Matthews will win the Rocket with 41 goals — none of which were potted into an empty net.

The last player to win the goal race outright without an empty-netter was Washington’s Peter Bondra in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.

How many goals did Bondra score? 34.

10. If you ask Nick Foligno, we have not seen the last appearance of John Tortorella behind an NHL bench.

“One thing I know about Torts is, he has a fire — and I don’t think that’s extinguished yet,” the former Columbus Blue Jackets captain said. “He still wants to be around the game, and I think he’s still has a lot to offer the game. It’s obviously hard to see him leaving that team, because if you think about the Blue Jackets for the past five, six years, you obviously thought about John Tortorella and what he’s meant to that franchise.”

Foligno echoed the chorus of Jackets players who expressed gratitude for Tortorella — who guided the only post-season series victories in Columbus’s history.

“He really helped put us on the map and gave us an identity. I think the room eventually took hold of it, but I have nothing but great things to say about him and my time with him,” Foligno continued.

“He’s taught me to be a better person, a better player. I think I was able to teach him some things as well. And I think that’s where our relationship grew, and we’re friends now. Who woulda thought? From the guy that told me he didn’t think I could be a captain to now. So, we have a good chuckle about that. But that’s the type of man he is. He’s always trying to push you for more. And I hope that he’s still going to try and coach.”

Thanks Torts! https://t.co/3PuSPRcq23

— Nick Foligno (@NickFoligno) May 11, 2021

11. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe will be awarded with an honorary degree from Algonquin College in recognition of his on-ice and community accomplishments at its June 23 convocation ceremony.

The announcement marked the 10th anniversary of Keefe’s leading the Pembroke Lumber Kings to the franchise’s only national Junior A championship — and coincided with the coach’s youngest son Wyatt’s ninth birthday.

“My connection to the city of Pembroke and the Lumber Kings and the Ottawa Valley, in general, is a very strong one,” Keefe said. “I certainly wouldn’t be here today without the support of that community. Algonquin College is a real pillar in the community itself and represents a lot of things that the Ottawa Valley stands for. For them to offer this to me is a great thing. I’m incredibly grateful for it.

“Whether it’s the nine years of my son or the 10 years of the national championship, it’s gone very quickly. A lot has happened since then. But, of course, I look back on it with just incredible memories of what that team was able to accomplish and how great a group it was and what it meant to the community in Pembroke.”

12. Happy Gilmour… get it?

I’m not sure which I loved more: One of the best tracks on Khaled Khaled tributing Happy Gilmore in its video, or seeing Justin Bieber representing with the Dougie throwback sweater.

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