A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We’re opening the doors so 2,500 fans can be disappointed by this column.
1. William Nylander, Jason Spezza, Jake Muzzin, Joel Armia, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
What do they all have in common?
Each one of those players has scored more goals through five games of this tightening Montreal Canadiens–Toronto Maple Leafs series than Auston Matthews, who ran away laughing with the 2021 Rocket Richard Trophy by an eight-goal margin in a truncated season.
One of those guys has been a healthy scratch. A couple of others skate on fourth lines. Another plays defence.
No one is questioning Matthews’ effort, effectiveness, or engagement in these games. His line, flanked by Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, is tilting the ice as usual.
Toronto has been unconcerned with playing matchup chess to this point and won't have last change at the Bell Centre. Finding ways to get clean looks will be a priority for the big guns Saturday.
“They have the best differential in terms of goals for, goals against (3-0) of any line on our team, any line in the series,” coach Sheldon Keefe noted Friday.
“We're playing without two of our top-six forwards (John Tavares and Nick Foligno), and a lot more is falling onto them. It's been a lot easier for the opposition to focus on them. And I think they've dealt with that very well.”
Still, Matthews and Marner combined for 61 goals in the regular season. They don’t have two goals to rub together through five post-season outings.
Marner co-leads the club with four assists, but he’ll be dragging a 16-game playoff goal drought into Game 6 at Bell Centre on Saturday night.
“I know everybody likes to see the gaudy offensive numbers to justify your play, but those guys have played very well for us all series," Spezza said.
They haven’t been scored on at even-strength and have had their plate full with Carey Price and Phillip Danault and more than a few bruises around the net-front.
Matthews converted at an 18.2 per cent shooting rate in the regular season. He’s been reduced to a four per cent shooter by Price and an alert and angry defence.
"These guys haven't given up anything despite playing the most minutes," Keefe continued, "despite spending a lot of time against really good players and really good matchups and despite having to take faceoffs in their own end, which a lot of top lines don't necessarily do.
“It’s a great challenge. The other team's goaltender has a say in it as well, and that's been a major factor."
Exert enough pressure and the dam will break eventually.
2. Nylander is the most dangerous offensive weapon in this series. Full stop.
He has goals in four of five games, at least a point in each, and a series-leading, career-best seven points in the playoffs.
Yet Nylander ranks fifth among Leafs forwards in average ice time (16:20) and total shifts (119).
Following Thursday’s Game 5 overtime loss, during which Nylander was buzzing again, Keefe was asked to explain why his hottest pistol finished with seven-plus minutes’ less ice time than Matthews and Marner.
“He doesn't play on that (top) line, so that's the first part of it. That line gets a lot of difficult assignments and key faceoffs and coming out of timeouts,” Keefe replied. “Willy got a few extra shifts here today, played with those guys a little bit, but the discrepancy is probably a little more than I'd like it to be here today. It's kind of part of chasing the game a little bit.
“Willy has a tendency to keep the shifts a lot shorter than some other guys and over the course of the game that's going to create some discrepancy.”
No doubt taking his cues from this column, Nylander loves his Quick Shifts™. In these playoffs, he’s been hopping the boards for 41 seconds, a full 10 seconds less than Matthews (52) and Marner (51), who log the longest shifts on the team.
Toss in the fact that Marner kills penalties and both Matthews and Marner are on the top power-play unit, and the gap will widen.
Keefe has been reluctant to throw Nylander (a right shot) on PP1 because he likes the balance of having lefty Joe Thornton. A swap could get Nylander more looks. So could double-shifts with the bottom six.
We bet Keefe finds a way to carve more time for Nylander on Saturday night. You have to ride the hot hand.
3. Toronto has dominated second periods in this series, outscoring Montreal 9-2 and outshooting its foe 74-42.
What’s interesting is that it’s by design.
Keefe says the staff has been stressing the importance of the middle frame to the players.
“There are some advantages there when you start talking about the long change. With the long change, it does change the game a little bit in terms of the flow of it, the structure. There’s a lot more space on the ice because of the line changes, and people generally have to leave structure to get off the ice, which changes it a little bit — and that is an opening for us to really get going,” Keefe explained.
“First and third periods are difficult this time of year, especially with structure generally in place. You’ve got to come through groups of five people quite often. Second period opens up a little bit, and we look at that as a big opportunity for us to take hold of the game. And that’s really what our focus has been on is to have good starts, not let the game get away on us, and then look to pull away each shift as we go along. The second is a big part of that.”
4. Just when you think Jack Campbell had already reached peak blaming-himself-for-everything, you hear his comment on allowing Game 5’s 2-on-0 breakaway overtime goal against Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki.
Campbell was asked post-game if there’s anything a goalie can do in that situation besides hoping the attackers pass once too often and screw it up themselves.
“Yeah. I mean, I just gotta make the save on that,” replied Campbell. “I was a little aggressive. So, I’ll learn from it.”
Caufield, a sniper, figured Campbell believed he’d shoot — and it was a slick play by him to make the extra feed.
Maybe Campbell was going out of his way to shield Alex Galchenyuk from criticism for an ill-advised pass. But I don’t know anyone who faults Campbell for that one.
— NHL (@NHL) May 28, 2021
5. If Bill Zito was the general manager who signed Sergei Bobrovsky to his massive contract, and if head coach Joel Quenneville wasn’t one of the most powerful coaches in the game, no way $70-million investment the two-time Vezina winner is a healthy scratch for back-to-back elimination games.
This is an embarrassing situation. And in a flat-cap world with cost-effective Spencer Knight here, it’s difficult to see a way out.
Yes, GMs can buy players out or attach incentive and trade bad contracts.
For example, Toronto’s Kyle Dubas gave Carolina a first-round pick to take one year of Patrick Marleau’s paperwork off his hands.
What’s the going rate to take five years and $46.5 million in real dollars owed ($19.5 million of which is signing bonuses) for a goalie with a .906 save percentage?
6. Just because Jim Rutherford is 72 does not mean he’s ready to retire.
The three-time Stanley Cup champion and former Pittsburgh Penguins GM has signed a deal with PBI Sports’ Neil Glasberg, an agent who plans to get him back in the game.
7. Whoever runs the Carolina Hurricanes’ Twitter account is savage:
8. Rod Brind’Amour has my Jack Adams vote. Also, I don’t have a Jack Adams vote. But still, watch this clip and try not to run through a wall for this man:
9. My boyhood hero was Wayne Gretzky. He’s still my favourite player of all time.
So why am I skeptical about how his TV analyst deal with TNT (for a reported ballpark of $3 million per season) will work out?
Well, typically Gretzky has been quite diplomatic when it comes to public commentary. He’s not one to rock the boat.
Meanwhile, his good friend Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal have thrived on Inside the NBA, in part, because they are unapologetic and off-the-cuff.
That said, Gretzky’s recollection of games is uncanny. He’s dialled in to today’s game, he’s down to have fun (see: Gretzky trash-talking Alex Ovechkin playing video games or dressing as a caddie to celebrate son-in-law Dustin Johnson’s Masters victory), plus he’s got stories for days.
Also: If TNT wants an interview or access, who’s going to say no if the Great One is on the other end of the line?
Surely, 99 doesn’t need the money. So, I like that he’s willing to throw himself into this arena and help grow the game in the States. Again.
It’s a risk he doesn’t need to take at age 60, but as
Michael Scott Gretzky himself tweeted: “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take...”
10. Camera phones have the power to change policy.
A fan recorded two members of Tampa Bay Lightning security asking an 11-year-old and his father to remove their rival Florida Panthers sweaters in the lower bowl.
Apparently, this has been ticket policy in select seats since 2015. (Whoa.) The employees were simply enforcing the fine print.
Well, the viral video caused enough of a stink that the Lightning will no longer enforce the policy, reports ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski.
11. Because we can’t help but care about what those below the border think of “our” sport, here’s some news on U.S. NHL TV ratings.
Overall, total NHL local ratings increased 15 per cent in 2020-21, with 15 of the American markets seeing an increase in viewership. Seven saw a dip.
According to Sports Business Journal, the top NHL local markets this season, in order, were Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and St. Louis.
Shocking, not shocking: This marks the first time in well over a decade that Buffalo Sabres games didn’t rank among the top two.
The Sabres' 35 per cent ratings drop is the steepest in the NHL.
We can’t help but hear GM Kevyn Adams’ end-of-season comments echoing in our ear.
"The disconnect in mind my right now is from our team to our fanbase and our city in making the people of this community proud,” he said.
12. Bravo, Ethan Bear.