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Jets’ emotional weekend ends with hollow feeling as Oilers stymie late rally


WINNIPEG — There’s nothing quite like an unexpected shot to the solar plexus to end an emotional weekend.

With the Winnipeg Jets wrapping up the busiest stretch of the NHL season after the organization completed a blockbuster deal involving a guy who was viewed as a franchise cornerstone, this rollercoaster evening included a stirring rally to take the lead late in the third period but concluded with a buzzer-beater from Leon Draisaitl.

Just like that, the Jets were left to deal with a hard-luck loss as the Oilers snatched defeat from the arms of victory. Oilers 4, Jets 3.

Even earning a single point and getting the game to overtime probably would have palatable, given that this was the fifth game in seven days. Ending up with nothing left a hollow feeling for a group that had won three consecutive games against the Ottawa Senators after a lacklustre showing against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“There’s no excuses,” said Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored in the third period and has four goals during the past four games. “We were behind and we battled our way back and didn’t end up getting the two points. The way we played today, we deserved at least a point. That sucks, but we’ve got a game in two days and we want to get those two points so we’re gonna look forward now.”

Considering the Jets didn’t play with the lead for a single minute until the fourth game of the season, it stands to reason that slamming the door remains a work in progress.

Losing leads is something that is going to happen over the course off a season. That doesn’t take away the sting.

Nor does it take away the importance of closing out games — especially against teams that are quickly approaching in the rearview mirror.

A topsy-turvy third period saw the Jets erase a 2-1 deficit with goals from Ehlers and Blake Wheeler to take the lead with just under five minutes to play.

That ability to rally under tough circumstances is what Jets head coach Paul Maurice is going to focus in on.

Blowing a late lead doesn’t erase the resilience shown, though it’s a reminder of how difficult it is to win — especially when two of the most talented players in the NHL raise their respective level with the game on the line.

“The real positive for the game is our third (period). To come out and find that in the tank, I was really impressed with that,” said Maurice. “So, it’s a brutal way to end the game, for sure. But I will be left with how hard they pushed in the third. I’m really, really pleased with those guys finding that gear. That was just about character in the third and it’s a tough lesson, the way it ended, but I’m really, really proud of them.”

If come-from-behind wins (like the one the Jets had in the season opener or last Tuesday against the Senators, when 3-1 deficits turned into overtime wins) are something that teams use as a springboard for future success, is there any concern about lingering residue when a team suffers a heartbreaking loss?

“You always deal with the hockey part of it. That’s always the easiest part in the NHL, dealing with that,” said Maurice. “We’ll look at this next game with a real strong focus, not real happy with the way it ended and feeling that we could have been in better control of our destiny at times.

“We did an awful lot of good things, but there’s also going to be a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light at the end of the tunnel for the Jets will be closing out this stretch of six games in nine days.

But head coach Dave Tippett of the Edmonton Oilers opted for the nuclear option, tapped Connor McDavid on the shoulder and asked him to go out on the ice with Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto. Folks have seen this movie before and thanks to a strong offensive-zone shift, McDavid was able to thread the needle to Yamamoto for the tying goal.

Then, after the Jets killed off a minor penalty to Dylan DeMelo, Draisaitl find a quiet spot in the slot and ripped home the game-winning goal after taking a pass from McDavid.

Game. Set. Match.

“Yeah, they are good players, and they are going to do damage when given opportunities like that,” said Adam Lowry, who was frustrated by what happened on the game-winner. “So, I think I just get caught on the back-side there and vacate the slot as I’m worried about Nugent-Hopkins, and it goes right to the guy in the middle and he buries it. It’s unfortunate.”

Although the Jets did a great job of neutralizing McDavid and Draisaitl for a good chunk of the game, the late offensive eruption is precisely why the Jets went out and made the blockbuster move for Pierre-Luc Dubois, to give them another two-way weapon down the middle in the matchup game.

One of the most important decisions in this contest came late in the first period on a coach’s challenge by Tippett.

The Jets thought they had taken a 2-0 lead on a goal from Andrew Copp. After Mikko Koskinen stopped a shot from Ehlers, the puck was loose and Copp got a piece of it — but he also caught the glove of the Oilers goalie with his stick.

Although the puck appeared to already be behind Koskinen, the referees disallowed the goal because of the contact that was made.

“It’s a goal,” said Maurice. “For me, I think the puck is past his glove. I’m not even sure that there’s contact there. They felt it was close, so there’s no argument.”

Jets centre Lowry didn’t feel like the group sagged after the goal was disallowed.

“Sometimes those, I just feel like you flip a coin and see how it comes out,” said Lowry, who scored his third goal of the season. “I don’t see a whole lot on that, I feel like we’ve had ones where there’s more contact against us… They must have seen something that stopped Koskinen’s ability to make the save, so they make that ruling and we just have to regroup from there. I don’t see that we let that affect us negatively, it’s unfortunate though because (Copp) had a heck of a first period and really deserved that one.”

Tippett wasn’t sure it was goalie interference, but figured the challenge was worth the risk even if it didn’t work out, given how his team was playing.

“I was so frustrated with the way we were playing, I was going to (challenge) it anyhow,” said Tippett.

Instead of being down by a pair of goals and scrambling, the Oilers steadied themselves and then came out stronger in the second period, getting a rebound goal from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins just 21 seconds in.

Jesse Puljujarvi made the most of his promotion to the top line alongside McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins. Aside from his strong net drive and primary assist on the goal from Nugent-Hopkins, Pulujarvi was around the puck, generating scoring chances and engaged physically.

That’s the template for Puljujarvi to remain in that spot — or to get more future looks.

A lack of secondary scoring had been a major storyline for the Oilers in the early stage of the season but Kyle Turris put a dent in that well-deserved narrative with a well-placed shot over the glove of Jets backup Laurent Brossoit.

By the time the buzzer sounded on the period, the Oilers had outshot the Jets 19-6, outscored them 2-0 and had barely given up any scoring chances. The Oilers were fresh, while the Jets looked like a team that was playing for the fifth time in seven nights.

Just when you thought the Oilers had taken full control, the Jets scored twice in the third to pull ahead by a goal.

Instead of rolling over, the Oilers found a way to rally and they’ve now won two of the past three games going into Tuesday’s rematch.



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Maple Leafs attempting to out-sprint competition with condensed schedule


Heavy hearts inside the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Heavy legs in all four corners of the dressing room.

It was a sombre Sunday with news of George Armstrong’s death and a quirky 2 p.m. game to be played under conditions that screamed “schedule loss.” The Leafs landed in Calgary some 20 hours before puck drop and hadn’t had a chance to come up for air since training camp began three weeks ago. The Flames hadn’t played in six days.

“It was our seventh game in 12 days and travelling out here and then having to play a 2 o’clock game, it’s a tough ask. And then you’re playing against a rested team,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “This one we felt would not be pretty.”

The only beauty to be found in a 3-2 victory was the two points it added to their total in the North Division standings and the strong play of backup goalie Jack Campbell, who continues to build a case for giving Frederik Andersen more nights of rest.

But what was even more telling than the game itself was the way Keefe, in particular, approached the circumstances of the day.

He broke from tradition in the typical pre-game meeting to honour Armstrong rather than focusing on finer points of the Flames attack or details of defensive emphasis. Keefe is 40 and never came close to seeing the man known as “Chief” play. Many of his players are a generation younger than that and may not have even realized that Armstrong spent 75 years with the organization, captaining the Leafs during their last Stanley Cup win in 1967 but also serving as a coach, assistant general manager, scout and community ambassador.

The message that came with a video about Armstrong’s life is telling about the mindset of the club in the here and now.

“What we talked about is just how efforts like [those from Armstrong] back in the 60’s in particular — the last time the Leafs won the Cup — that’s the reason why Leaf Nation is as strong as it is,” said Keefe. “That’s why generations of families grow up as Leaf fans, because of those efforts, and we have a role to play to continue to build upon that.”

There was nothing scripted about the way Auston Matthews paid tribute to Armstrong in his post-game availability with reporters. He actually interrupted a member of the team’s public relations staff running the Zoom call to make sure he could get in a few words before the questions started.

“First off, I just want to extend my condolences to the Armstrong family,” said Matthews. “Obviously George was an incredible ambassador for the city of Toronto and the Maple Leafs. He paved the way for guys like us that are obviously trying to accomplish something big here.”

This is not a group hiding from its aspirations.

When it was revealed recently that their season is being documented by behind-the-scenes cameras for an upcoming series on Amazon Prime, a couple players mentioned that they welcomed it because of where they expect to go.

Keefe is pushing hard, too.

The Leafs expect to have a great regular season and are putting the pedal down during this 5-2-0 start. Under different circumstances, Matthews may have been given another precautionary game off after sitting out Friday’s win over Edmonton because of a hand injury and not having skated with any purpose since Wednesday.

Instead he logged 21:42 against the Flames despite both he and the coach acknowledging that he was missing some explosiveness in his stride.

“I think that first period I just tried to get my legs going and then I kind of felt a little bit better towards the second half of the game,” said Matthews.

A trend is developing here. No NHL forward is averaging more minutes than Mitch Marner (24:03) so far and beyond that only Anze Kopitar (23:52) and Mark Scheifele (23:32) are getting more playing time than Matthews (23:07).

With a Cup on their minds and a compacted 56-game schedule inside their agendas, the Leafs are attempting to sprint ahead of the competition.

They needed some good bounces to beat Calgary on Sunday, seeing all three pucks that got behind Jacob Markstrom go in off a piece of equipment other than a stick. Campbell took care of the rest with 31 saves.

“Soup was an absolute rockstar for us,” said Matthews.

The Leafs have now beaten every team in the division except Vancouver and won’t see the struggling Canucks for the first time until Feb. 4. Given the binary nature of results in a season featuring only intra-division play, that’s a fantastic start.

There are process-related objectives they’ll need to improve upon, including finding ways to more consistently generate quality chances from their time in the offensive zone and ideally creating a mix on the fourth line that can be trusted to play.

But you won’t find them chopping apart their victories right now, particularly with the challenging pace of the schedule.

Results are what matter when your goal is to hang another banner beside the one Armstrong and Co. put up 54 years ago. The standard needs to be set high. That’s why Keefe made sure not to allow Armstrong’s death to pass without special mention on Sunday afternoon.

“When you’re in this every single day, you’re in the moment, you’re taking care of what you can control,” he said. “I do think it’s important to stop and pause every now and again just to look at the bigger picture and recognize that what we’re doing here every day is for a greater purpose beyond ourselves.

“And we have a role to play within how we prepare and how we play and people like George showed the way.”



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Hatton outplays McIlroy to claim Abu Dhabi Championship


ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Englishman Tyrrell Hatton shot a sparkling 6-under par in the final round on Sunday to win the season-opening Abu Dhabi Championship by four strokes after overnight leader Rory McIlroy faded with an uninspired even-par 72 to drop into third.

Hatton carded a closing 66 to finish 18 under par and secure a sixth European Tour title, a victory that will go a long way towards securing a second Ryder Cup appearance in September.

Australia’s Jason Scrivener recorded an eagle and five birdies in a back nine 29 to claim second place on 14 under, with McIlroy a shot further back following a disappointing final round.

McIlroy held a one-shot advantage at the start on Sunday and doubled his lead thanks to birdies on the second and third, but three-putted the fourth and also dropped a shot on the par-five eighth following a poor drive.

Playing partner Hatton matched McIlroy’s birdie on the second and also picked up shots on the seventh and ninth to reach the turn with a two-shot lead.

McIlroy looked certain to close the gap when he found the par-five 10th in two, inches closer to the hole than Hatton was in three, but Hatton holed from 35 feet for an unlikely birdie and McIlroy two-putted for his.

A bogey on the 11th dropped McIlroy further off the pace and Hatton made certain of victory with birdies on the 13th and 16th.

McIlroy now has four second-place finishes, four thirds and a fifth in his last 10 starts in Abu Dhabi, but will be disappointed at failing to claim his first win since November 2019, especially after starting with a superb 64.

The Abu Dhabi Championship begins a run of three events in the “Gulf Swing” — the Dubai Desert Classic and the Saudi International come next.





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