When it comes to the most competitive steps of the NHL’s annual playoff dance, the Maple Leafs and Dallas Stars turn into wallflowers, muttering “woulda, shoulda, coulda” in the darkness.
Toronto and its fans know all about watching other teams excel as the floor space shrinks, beating the Leafs and surviving until later rounds. Four clubs that knocked them off — Boston (2019), Montreal (2021), Tampa Bay (2022) and Florida (2023) — all made the Cup final, albeit none of them winning.
It’s been as bad, if not worse, to witness in Dallas, a team also built to win now that lost to eventual champion St. Louis in 2019 (in double overtime of Game 7), Tampa in the final of the COVID Cup year and last June to Vegas in six in the conference final, setting the Golden Knights up for their eventual parade.
Coach Peter DeBoer wanted little discussion during the summer about how close the Stars have come as opposed to showing they mean to get serious ASAP in October. They had not lost in regulation in five games (4-0-1) before losing 4-1 to the Leafs at home on Thursday.
“I think a lot of times when you when you have a deep playoff run like we did last year going to the conference finals, you’re always worried about how you’re going to come out of the gate the next year,” DeBoer told the Dallas media this week. “And our guys had a great camp, came in great shape and our goaltender (Jake Oettinger) has been our best player to date.”
DeBoer thought Thursday’s non-conference game was a good time to give Oettinger a rest, opting for Scott Wedgewood to start against Toronto.
Wedgewood has played only once behind the league’s goals-against average leader (for players with at least five games) and his stingy 1.44 mark.
SAMSONOV SHELVED TILL SATURDAY
Sheldon Keefe wants to give Ilya Samsonov some space to get back in a good place.
And with Joseph Woll providing the coach no reason to change goaltenders after rescuing one start that Samsonov bungled on this trip and making 35 saves in another victory, it was easy to keep Samsonov sidelined in Dallas.
“Joe has played extremely well and the other part, probably equally as significant, is that it gives us more time for Sammy,” Keefe said in explaining the decision after the morning skate. “Coming off a (team) day off, Sammy gets a good workout today, a good practice tomorrow and gets ready for Nashville. I think it worked out well for both guys.”
A win Thursday guaranteed the Leafs come home from a five-day trip in the black points-wise.
Though Woll and Auston Matthews would’ve liked to have faced their old U.S. national development teammate Oettinger, it was to be a significant game for the 31-year-old, Brampton-born Wedgewood — his 100th NHL appearance.
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PLUG IT IN
Plenty of ice time has not yet yielded the kind of numbers Matthews and Mitch Marner want to see in goals and assists. Matthews opened the season with back-to-back hat tricks, but had one goal and one assist since then. Marner was just under a point a game before facing Dallas after nearly hitting 100 last season.
“I wouldn’t say it’s executing at the level we’ve come to expect from them,” Keefe said of their 5-on-5 chemistry. “It’s early, obviously, but some of the passing in particular hasn’t been crisp and sharp and execution hasn’t been happening.
“We focus a lot on the left-winger who has been with them (high hopes for newcomer Tyler Bertuzzi gave way the past few games to the return of Calle Jarnkrok), but if we just focus on those two, it hasn’t been executing.
“They’re both working hard and doing good things defensively, but right now, passes that were connecting are getting broken up.
“They’re still very good, there’s just another level they haven’t quite gotten to yet.”
Matthews agreed with the coach’s assessment, but he and Marner are not perturbed by missed chances.
“We’ve had looks, they just haven’t gone in,” Marner said. “We can’t get frustrated because that’s where stuff goes wrong with turnovers and mistakes happen. We haven’t been forcing it too much, just play the game we always play.”
DRAFTY IN HERE
Keefe said he could see both sides to the case of decentralizing the NHL Draft in coming years in favour of the 32 teams conducting business in their own cities. A league vote of executives favoured looking at changing the tradition of holding the draft in a new city each year.
Keefe likes to meet the kids the Leafs pick face-to-face and enjoys the theatre of being amongst the draft tables, the crowd and player families. But he did concede the hockey office might benefit from more privacy and less distractions if they can run the draft from Toronto and have more detailed conversations about player moves headed toward the start of free agency.