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Inside the NHL

When it comes to the Maple Leafs, there won't be any dull moments this season

The preseason view from here is that the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally going to figure it out come spring and have a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in which they haven't won a single series since 2004.

But what a long and winding road it figures to be.

Implosion from within is always going to be a danger in media-crazy Toronto, where the Leafs have already endured plenty of controversy to start their season but still rolled to nine goals and victories in their first two games.

Auston Matthews' foolish summer incident with a female security guard in Arizona came to light last week as the team was ready to name a captain, and the months-long captain discussion really blew up when it was determined the club found out about the incident when it broke on Twitter and not from Matthews himself.

John Tavares was given the "C" at the opener in a decision the club insists was already made before the revelations. And while that might be true, there's always going to be a what-if segment of the fan base wondering if last year's captain-less season was supposed to be a grooming of Matthews that was derailed when he ran off the straight-and-narrow path.

Then came opening night, when coach Mike Babcock sent a message to GM Kyle Dubas by scratching veteran Jason Spezza, a signing he didn't like, for the opener in Spezza's hometown of Toronto. Dubas and Babcock insist their relationship is fine, despite what's painfully obvious to any observer. Babcock didn't appreciate getting backup goalie Garret Sparks shoved down his throat by Dubas last season after Sparks led the Toronto Marlies to a Calder Cup, and veteran Curtis McElhinney was claimed on waivers and thrived in Carolina.

Bad move by the Boy Wonder GM. Still, power plays by the coach are never a good idea when a ready-made candidate such as Sheldon Keefe waits in the wings in the AHL. As for Spezza, Babcock came up with the lame excuse that the 36-year-old needed more work on the penalty kill. That's an area Spezza hasn't been involved in much the last five years, but I'm sure he'd pick it up fine.

Tweeted NHL veteran and Babcock adversary Mike Commodore: "Folks ... Spezza is a very well-respected longtime NHL veteran ... he signs with his hometown team, has a good camp ... playing in Leafs home opener against his former team is a big deal for him ... Babcock scratches Spezza. Textbook scumbag move from the biggest fraud in the game."

Ouch. Of course, it didn't matter on the ice as the Leafs won their first two games by a combined 9-4 and looked every bit as good as people figure they'll be this season. And that included Spezza's performance Friday in Columbus that drew raves from Babcock – who promptly scratched Spezza again for Saturday's visit by Montreal while he continues to sort through his fourth-line options.

So through all the sideshows, the Leafs have been killing it so far on the ice and on social media. When Tavares came on the ice as the last player and wearing the "C," the team tweeted a video showing how he found out the news – with the letter on a jersey of his infant son, Jace, who had clandestinely been brought downtown by Tavares' wife in a plot hatched by the team.

The team also revealed a new player of the game tradition, as Babcock walked into the dressing room after the opening night win over Ottawa with a basketball used by the Toronto Raptors during their victory over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

"We want to own the ball," Babcock said. "We think it's our time. We want to go out and dominate."

Babcock bounced the ball over to Matthews, and Matthews responded with a few between-the-legs dribbles, to the delight of his teammates.

After Saturday night's game against Montreal, the Leafs have the NHL's two monster showdowns of the week ahead as well.

There's only two games on the schedule Monday and while the Sabres will be in Columbus, the rest of the hockey world will be paying attention to the Stanley Cup champion Blues' visit to Toronto, which will be televised on NHL Network. And on Thursday, the Leafs host their first meeting of the season against Tampa Bay.

Think a few storylines will emerge from those games? In Toronto these days, it doesn't take much for that to happen.

Hatfield-McCoy Report

In the wake of last year's seven-game playoff series, the Sharks and Golden Knights absolutely despise each other to a level that normally doesn't exist anymore. Vegas got the upper hand this time, winning both meetings to start the season by a combined 9-2 –- but lost defenseman Nate Schmidt on a week-to-week injury in the opener after taking a hit to the knee from San Jose captain Logan Couture.

Didn't matter in the rematch as Vegas blew out San Jose in the Shark Tank, 5-1, on Friday night. Said Couture: "I’m disappointed for the fans to show up and waste their time and money to watch that.”

The San Jose fans, of course, didn't get to see Evander Kane because he was sitting his three-game suspension for abuse of officials after his meltdown in the preseason finale. It was perhaps a harsh penalty, given the odd behavior of linesman Kiel Murchison in tackling Kane, but what's Kane doing in the last period of the preseason hacking away at Deryk Engelland? (And, frankly, not a great move by the front offices to have these teams play twice in the preseason).

The mic drop, however, came from Vegas' Ryan Reaves, who upped the ante on his personal feud with Kane when he said, "Poor Evander. So tragic. I wish he was on the ice. It’s always more fun when he’s on the ice. He’s weak. He gets taken down by a ref. It happens. Gotta get in the gym, no?”

Malkin ponders Pens' problems

Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, after the punking his team took Thursday from the Sabres: “Not good enough. They (were) hungry. They played so much faster. I think we like played only 30 minutes. It’s young guys, a young league right now. We need to play faster, we need to play hungry. How we played tonight, we need to change."

Before the game, Sidney Crosby was asked how far away the Pens were from a Stanley Cup. Said the captain: "We're just as far as everybody else. Every team has to go through that process throughout the year, face different challenges. Ultimately, it's how you compete in the playoffs. If you forge the right habits, you get yourself there and that's how you start. You're not thinking about the Stanley Cup final but that's the goal for everyone. There's little things you have to do to get there."

At least against the Sabres, the Pens looked like they were short a lot of things. Both big and small. And that starts with an immobile defense.  There's a lot of mileage on the legs of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, for starters.

Stempniak calls it a career

West Seneca native Lee Stempniak announced his retirement Tuesday after playing 911 games for 10 teams since 2006. Stempniak, who is planning to settle in Boston with his wife and three children, finished with 203 goals, 266 assists and 469 points. His best season was a 28-goal campaign in 2009-10, split with 14 apiece in Toronto and Phoenix.

Stempniak, 36, was St. Louis' fifth-round pick in 2003 out of Dartmouth. He played two games last year in Boston and 20 with Providence of the AHL. Stempniak only played 28 playoff games in his career, and 13 of them came with Pittsburgh in the 2013-14 season, when the Penguins blew a 3-1 lead in the second round and lost to the New York Rangers in seven games.

Around the boards

* Why are the Sabres planning to shelve lots of game day morning skates early in the season? Sure, there's sport science input involved but mostly it's because of a schedule that's compacted early on to accommodate next month's trip to Sweden.

Thursday's season opener in Pittsburgh marked a run of 12 games for Buffalo over the season's first 23 days. That's nearly 15% of the schedule down in just more than three weeks.

Sabres' 2019-20 schedule has long break to accommodate Sweden trip

* Another bridge deal was signed this week, with the Blackhawks getting Alex DeBrincat on a three-year contract with a $6.4 million cap hit. GM Stan Bowman is putting together a big chance for himself in the spring of 2023, when DeBrincat, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will all be on expiring deals.

That's if Bowman still has his job by then, certainly no sure proposition. At that point, he can be looking to extend his franchise legends or make the major pivot away from them and more to younger players like DeBrincat.

* With his three-point game in Friday's loss to Philadelphia in Prague, Kane became the first Chicago player with at least one point in games played in four countries.

In addition to the United States, Canada and the Czech Republic, Kane had four points against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 2-3, 2009, in Helsinki, Finland.

* Teams really need to be more careful where they place their rugs and stretch their camera wires on the ice during pregame introductions. Rangers forward Lias Andersson completely bought it Thursday in Madison Square Garden, tripping over a wire foolishly placed across the darkened ice prior to the Blueshirts' home opener against Winnipeg.

 

 

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