A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Is it Sunday yet?
1. “Today is a new day,” Sheldon Keefe announced in those few hours between the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 3-0 implosion and their 0-3 explosion.
That, in a nutshell, is the beauty and agony of sport and this one in particular.
Each game is a clean page.
Each ending packs potential for a The Usual Suspects-level twist.
When Auston Matthews was stuck quarantined on his Arizona compound, keeping company with the team’s goalie and a pool basketball set, the superstar thought about that.
“Since our first year, it’s no secret — three years, kind of the same result,” Matthews said. “You’d love to get to that point again and change up the narrative, and we’ve been working our way to get to that point.”
They’re at that point now, boy.
Big home game. A shame the crowd will be too scattered for the Maple Leafs to hear.
“The difference is going to be the team that wants it more,” Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said Saturday.
Game 4 felt like it could be the franchise’s defibrillator moment.
“We were getting CPR for a little bit there, and we found our way back,” Keefe said post-game.
The coach was talking about the last 73 minutes, but he could’ve been talking about the last, what, 16 years? Twenty-seven years? Fifty-three years?
“To develop mental toughness, you need to go through experiences. Do you fall in fetal position or do you handle it head on? Do you succeed? Do you fail?” John Tortorella said.
The coach was talking about his own team, but he could’ve been talking about the 2019 Blues, the 2018 Capitals, or even his immediate opponent.
“It’s not from coaching; it’s from players experiencing certain situations. The mental part of the game, to me, far outweighs the Xs and Os of the game right now. We do try to coach it quite a bit, a lot more than Xs and Os. But then it falls on the players how they handle it.”
How the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets turn the page in this newfangled qualification round’s only Game 5 will reveal much.
Blank canvas. Buckets of paint. What can you come up with?
“Pretty crazy 24 hours,” Keefe said. “What we’ve been through as coaches and players and staff and I’m sure fans, media, everything all the way around, it’s been a very interesting and unprecedented 24 hours.
“We’re really, really excited to play on Sunday.”
As sports fans, we’re excited to watch.
2. Curious if Canadiens fans are truly overjoyed they upset Pittsburgh or if they’d rather a 12.5 per cent shot at Alexis Lafreniere Monday might.
In the strangest of years, Pittsburgh — which finished with the NHL’s seventh-best points percentage (.623) and one win behind a bye team (Philadelphia) — now holds one-in-eight odds of landing a franchise forward.
The worst team in Monday’s lottery, Minnesota (.558) finished 21st. From both a competitive and image standpoint, the Wild is most in need of Lafreniere.
The Rangers’ left-wing depth would instantly become incredible if they won.
Nashville might finally generate elite-level scoring from someone who doesn’t also play defence.
Winnipeg — the original Team E — might be the most justifiable winner.
And if Edmonton or Toronto wins, Twitter might just explode into a zillion pixels.
3. It was hard not to swallow the lump in my throat watching Henrik Lundqvist go out the way he did, two playoff losses and a seat on the bench to see his incumbent, Igor Shesterkin, lose one more.
Longtime teammate Chris Kreider spoke with emotion after Game 3’s loss.
“He wants to win more than anyone,” Kreider said. “He battled his ass off like he always does.
“He deserved better from us.”
4. If you’re not following the Carolina Hurricanes on social media, you’re doing it wrong.
I feel like running through a wall for Rod Brind’Amour after his post-game speeches, and I’m not even on the team.
The Hurricanes fans saw the club off to the airport when they flew to Toronto, and the team has surprised their players with videos recorded by their loved ones. Wholesome stuff.
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) August 5, 2020
The Canes repaid their supporters with a decisive sweep of the Rangers. I wouldn’t want to face these guys next round.
“It’s obviously a crazy time, but we’re just really grateful to be able to do this and try to bring some happiness and joy to our fans,” Brind’Amour says. “They deserve some smiles, so hopefully we’re bringing that.”
Being the first team to clear the qualification round, Carolina has bought itself precious extra time to heal. The hope is to get Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton back in uniform.
Brind’Amour was asked if he’d watch some of the other series while he waits.
“Well, there’s not much else to do, so…” he replied.
“This is going to be tricky. I’ll be quite honest. We could have a week off. That’s probably the worst thing you could have when there’s not really anything to do. We’re gonna have to get creative and find things to keep the guys mentally sharp. The downtime is what kills you in this kind of setting.”
5. Players and coaches have been asked if they’d like the 24-team playoff format to stick, and the vast majority are in favour of the traditional 16-team bracket.
Yes, this has been a highly entertaining week.
But! Not only does allowing 75 per cent of the league to qualify for the post-season devalue the 82-game regular season, a five-round playoff results in more injuries and could weaken the calibre of hockey at the tail end. Sixteen wins is already a war of attrition.
Further, allowing weak teams to enjoy a hot week means running the risk of trying to promote the sport for two months without Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin after worthy seasons.
One prominent voice in favour of keeping the 24-team format is Islanders coach Barry Trotz, arguing that best serves the parity in the league.
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer prefers a Sweet 16 but could see a silver lining if the NHL widened its doors.
“If 24 teams made the playoffs every year,” DeBoer says, “a lot more coaches would keep their jobs.”
6. Matt Dumba continues to raise a fist. Ryan Reaves, Robin Lehner, Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson took a knee.
If one NHL team was to do it as whole, my money was on the Maple Leafs due to their player-driven initiative to wear BLACK LIVES MATTER T-shirts on the first day of camp and their tight organizational ties to the Toronto Raptors, doing the movement proud in Orlando.
Several Leafs, including alternate captain Morgan Rielly, have been effusive in their praise for Dumba’s courage and say they, too, believe change is imperative.
Yes, the Leafs players “definitely” discussed kneeling for anthems, Rielly says, but he believes action against systemic racism can take many forms.
Reading between the lines: some Leafs wanted to kneel. Others didn’t. They decided to act as one unit. So, they stand.
“It’s important that you try to respect that. You want to respect people’s opinion on things,” Rielly said. “In terms of what we’re going to do moving forward, we have to continue to talk about that as a team and as a group. We’re only going to move forward with certain things if we have everyone on board, and I think that’s important.”
When Sportsnet posted Dumba’s anti-racism speech on YouTube, significantly more viewers gave it a thumbs-down than a thumbs-up.
NASCAR walked with Bubba Wallace. Hockey isn’t there yet.
7. Several players are saying that the questionable August ice at Scotiabank Arena has actually improved as the triple-headers have gone on. Much better than those early exhibition contests.
A dip in humidity no doubt helps. So has keeping the building temperature cold enough that reporters are wearing parkas and camera guys can be spotted in toques. I stayed for all three games once and began losing feeling in my typing fingers.
“The ice has gotten better the longer we’ve been here,” says Tampa’s Alex Killorn. “When there’s so many games being played in the same day — we know playing in Tampa the ice does get bad just because of the weather outside — you do have to keep things simple.
“You have to realize that sometimes when a puck’s coming your way you do have to be ready for it to bounce, because that could [result in] a chance against. You’re cognizant of it, but in playoff hockey you’re always trying to make smart plays on the ice.”
8. My little brother Jake is full of interesting thoughts and ideas. He started a blog that has nothing to do with sports, but this week he wrote something that fits:
During the return-to-play exhibition games, they weren’t funneling the canned EA Sports fan noise live into Scotiabank Arena; they added it in the studio for the TV audience only.
Since the games started counting, they switched it up. Now, that same hum of phony cheers and gasps is played loud enough for the players to hear.
I’m spoiled, of course, but I liked it better au naturel.
9. Despite the fake fan noise, one could clearly hear John Tortorella scream, “Are you [bleeping] kidding me?” from Section 307, Row 24 when Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno was called for this tripping penalty on Morgan Rielly:
Of course, the man-advantage helped complete the crazy comeback, resulted in Auston Matthews’ game-winning power-play strike.
Foligno never watched the replay and won’t complain. At least publicly.
“You just never want to be in that position to put your team in a bad spot. That’s on me,” Foligno said Saturday. “I’m not going to worry about what’s gone on in the past. I can’t change any of that. Take ownership of it, and you move past it.”
Perfect attitude less than 12 hours after an epic collapse.
“Our group’s resilient. If you’ve watched us at all this year, you’ve seen the things we’ve gone through. This isn’t going to faze us,” Foligno asserted. “It was an upbeat group at breakfast today, and we know we have a great opportunity in front of us.”
10. It’s only round robin and all that, but the Presidents’ Trophy champs — suddenly a No. 3 or 4 seed — are having issues exiting their own zone.
When most coaches don’t have interest in delving into their tactical details at this time of year, Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is happy to give a thoughtful, detailed response as to what he’s looking for in a breakout.
“That usually starts with creating some time and space for yourself. Second part of it is support. Who’s nearby? How long a pass is it? You have to thread the needle, or do you have good options? When there’s a breakdown with puck movement, the first thing you look at is, did the player just fail to execute, right? That one is pretty easy to analyze,” Cassidy said Friday.
“Other times it’s, OK, what happened? Why didn’t we make a play? Why did it take so long to develop? Where are the other four guys on the ice? Everybody should be an option. Obviously, option A and B are probably the ones you’re looking to first, but the other guys should be looking to their spots to get available.”
Interesting to me is that Cassidy believes the officials are calling more hold-ups than in most playoffs. To defend a strong forecheck, back-checkers will skate opponents out of forecheck angles, pushing the boundaries of an interference call. More whistles favours the team chasing the puck into the O-zone.
“They’re calling that tighter, so the puck carrier is a little more on his own [trying to break out],” Cassidy explained. “It’s not just us. I’m watching, seeing that a lot in games. Heavy forechecks are a little more successful right now.”
“Ask our forwards to work a little harder. Or, maybe just punt it out. Try not to force anything, keep it a little safer,” Cassidy said. “It’s not as pretty to watch, but sometimes it can be as effective if you chase the puck down in the neutral zone.”
11. Shout out to Kevin Bieksa, whose analysis on Hockey Night in Canada has been a fantastic addition. Bordering on Tony Romo-esque.
Huge benefit having a guy who was so fresh from the league and has behind-the-doors knowledge that fans crave.
12. A little something for those wondering why it was worth all that effort to bring hockey back in the midst of a global pandemic…