Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares has been discharged from hospital following a head injury suffered on Thursday that will see him out indefinitely.

Off balance following a collision, a prone Tavares was caught by the knee of passing Montreal Canadiens winger Corey Perry during the opening game of the playoff series.

Tavares initially rose to his knees before then slipping back down to the ice. He was taken from the rink on a stretcher, though did offer a thumbs-up upon his departure midway through the first period.

The Leafs announced on Friday that, following thorough checks, the 30-year-old was cleared to return home and rest. There is no timetable for his return to action, though.

"Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares has been discharged from hospital this morning," read a statement released by the team via social media.

"He was thoroughly examined and assessed by the neurosurgical team at St Michael’s Hospital and the club's medical director.

"He was kept overnight for observation and is now resting at home under the care and supervision of team physicians.

"Tavares will be out indefinitely."

The Maple Leafs lost 2-1 at the start of the best-of-seven series in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Game two takes place in Toronto on Saturday.

Tavares had 19 goals and 31 assists in the regular season, helping his team finish top of the North Division. He has 819 points in his NHL career, having previously played for the New York Islanders.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not got their hands on the Stanley Cup since 1967.

A member of the "Original Six", Punch Imlach's Maple Leafs conquered their Canadian rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, for their 13th Stanley Cup 54 years ago.

It was Toronto's fourth championship in the 1960s, which formed the second of two recognised dynasties from 1947 to 1951 and from 1962 to 1967.

The celebrations then stopped for the Leafs, leading to the longest active title drought in the NHL – 52 consecutive seasons (not including the 2004-05 lockout).

But, after years of pain and false hope, are Sheldon Keefe's Leafs – spearheaded by Auston Matthews and a supporting cast that includes Mitch Marner – finally on the cusp of ending their long-standing drought?

It has been more than four decades since the Leafs and Canadiens faced off in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As the Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004, prepare for the mouth-watering first-round showdown, we look at the team's rise from pretenders to genuine contenders, using Stats Perform data.

 

Leafs find their way under Keefe

There were high hopes when the Leafs and Ontario native Mike Babcock came together in 2015. Toronto made the Stanley Cup-winning head coach the highest paid in NHL history following his success with the Detroit Red Wings.

One of the most coveted coaches at the time, the championship-chasing Leafs viewed Babcock as the perfect man to oversee the culmination of rebuild in pursuit of the ultimate prize. Despite a talented roster, the franchise's vision did not materialise – Toronto never made it out of the first round of the playoffs following three consecutive postseason appearances. Babcock's style did not go down well at Scotiabank Arena.

The Leafs eventually fired Babcock in November 2019 and Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe was promoted to the top job.

At the time of Babcock's departure, the Leafs led a league-low 21.1 per cent of the time. This season, Toronto rank second for the highest percentage of time leading (45.4), just behind the Colorado Avalanche (45.5).

This season's percentage of time leading is the highest mark in Leafs history, eclipsing the 43.1 per cent recorded in 1924-25.

The Leafs have long been judged by the Babcock era, but the 40-year-old Keefe is finally utilising this highly skilled squad, while helping John Tavares rediscover his best form.  

Toronto also appear to finally have the kind of physicality it needs for the demands of playoff hockey. Complementing their exciting roster with the experience of premier top-line center and former San Jose Sharks All-Star Joe Thornton also bodes well as the Leafs enter the postseason as one of the heaviest teams in the league – 201.1 pounds, only behind the Vegas Golden Knights (207), Dallas Stars (203.1), Washington Capitals (202.9), Anaheim Ducks (202.6) and Tampa Bay Lightning (202.4).

 

Matthews in a league of his own

The Leafs wasted no time selecting Matthews in 2016 when he was widely considered the top prospect of the NHL draft.

Matthews hit the ground running, becoming the first player in modern NHL history to score four goals in his debut. He also set a Leafs record with 40 goals in his first season, while becoming just the second rookie since the 2004-05 lockout to achieve the milestone.

The centerpiece of the franchise has taken his game to another level this season.

Matthews, who has developed into arguably the best goal-scorer of his generation, tallied a remarkable league-high 41 goals in just 52 games in 2020-21. He managed 47 in 70 regular-season appearances last year. The last Leafs player to lead the NHL in goals was Gaye Stewart in 1945-46.

Matthews' performance led to the best goals-per-game average (0.79) in franchise history, topping Charlie Conacher's record of 0.77 that had stood since 1931-32. The 23-year-old Matthews already has 199 goals and 351 points in his career.

He ranks 14th all time for the most goals before age 24, but he finds himself in good company on a list that is topped by Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky (405) and includes Mario Lemieux (300), Steven Stamkos (222), Alex Ovechkin (219), Sidney Crosby (215) and Jaromir Jagr (202).

 

Toronto's dynamic duo

While Matthews is the star, Marner is the other half of Toronto's terrific duo.

A much-loved figure in Toronto, Marner has always been a great young player with loads of potential. The 24-year-old right wing took a step forward this season as a model of consistency for the North Division champions.

Marner, who was a fourth-round pick a year before the Leafs brought in Matthews, ranks fourth in the NHL in points (67) and assists this season (47). And with the Ontario-born winger on ice, the Leafs have scored 89 goals and conceded 57 this season – a differential of plus-32. That differential shrinks to just plus-6.0 without him.

Keefe paired Matthews and Marner together midway through last season and it is a move that continues to pay dividends. Marner has assisted on 25 Matthews goals this year, ahead of Edmonton Oilers duo Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (22) for the most in the league.

Marner and Matthews are also the first pair of team-mates in NHL history to have five 60-point seasons together before turning 24. (This is based on their age when they reached 60 points. Marner achieved the feat before celebrating his 24th birthday.)

With Matthews and Marner leading the way, the Maple Leafs have a real shot of not only beating their rivals in the first round but in ending one of the longest active title droughts in North American sports.

The Seattle Kraken officially became the 32nd NHL franchise on Friday.

A final payment of their $650million expansion fee ensured the Kraken are able to make trades ahead of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft on July 21, as well as recruit free agents for their debut season.

Kraken majority owner David Bonderman said: "Today is another momentous day on the journey to puck drop.

"I would like to thank Gary Bettman [NHL commissioner] and the NHL for welcoming us to the league.

“I also want to thank my partners in our ownership group for their support and our incredible fans who have made their enthusiasm for hockey heard loud and clear since deposit day on March 1, 2018, through the name reveal and selecting their seats.

"We have an incredible few months ahead of us as we prepare to welcome our inaugural players and finally take to the ice at Climate Pledge Arena."

Bettman said: "On behalf of the board of governors, I am delighted to officially welcome the Seattle Kraken to the NHL as our 32nd member club.

"Congratulations to David Bonderman, the Bonderman Family, their partners, the entire Seattle Kraken organisation, the city of Seattle and Kraken fans as the club continues on its exciting journey towards puck drop in October."

The Kraken are the first franchise to join the NHL since the Vegas Golden Knights, who debuted in 2017-18.

San Jose Sharks star Patrick Marleau broke the record for the most games played in NHL history on Monday.

Marleau surpassed Gordie Howe as the Sharks veteran made history with his 1,768th appearance against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The 41-year-old – in his 23rd NHL season – has amassed 1,596 games with the Sharks, including 45 this term to extend his streak of consecutive regular-season games to 899 – fourth-longest in league history.

Marleau also played 164 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs (2017-19) and eight games with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.

"With everything that's going on, my biggest fear is that I don't thank everybody, that I'm going to miss somebody," Marleau said before the game.

"I just want to be able to thank everybody, and if I miss somebody, I'm so sorry, but I'll eventually, you know, try and make it right and thank everybody that needs to be thanked. Just very grateful."

Marleau, who played his first game in 1997, has made more NHL appearances than five franchises – the Golden Knights (279), Minnesota Wild (1,554), Columbus Blue Jackets (1,558), Winnipeg Thrashers/Jets (1,640) and Nashville Predators (1,721) entering play on Monday, per Stats Perform.

Before this season ends, Marleau might have played in the most regular-season wins in league history.

Marleau currently has 932 victories to his name, only adrift of Nicklas Lidstrom (937).

"To be merely mentioned in the same sentence as Gordie Howe is an achievement most hockey players can only dream about," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"To break one of his records is historic."

Nick Foligno reflected on a "pretty amazing day" after joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in a three-team trade.

The Maple Leafs landed Columbus Blue Jackets captain Foligno, who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season, on Sunday.

Columbus receive a first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft and a fourth-round pick in the 2020 Draft as part of the deal.

The San Jose Sharks gain a fourth-round pick in 2021 from the Maple Leafs for forward Stefan Noesen.

Foligno, 33, has been the Blue Jackets' skipper for almost six years but is looking forward to a new challenge.

He said: "It was an emotional couple of days. I have the utmost respect for [Columbus general manager] Jarmo [Kekalainen] and how he brought this to my attention, talking about how if there was something that made sense for the team that he would try to keep me in the loop, and that meant a lot to me.

"Ultimately, it's always what's best for the team, but he was able to fill me in on some things and see where I was headed, and it just fell into place where it worked out to come to Toronto.

"It's been a pretty amazing day once you've made the decision, but a hard day obviously with all the emotion attached to Columbus. Now that it has sunk in and how excited I am to join this team and help in any way I can, it really gets me going."

Foligno has scored 16 points in 42 games this season. He has played a mammoth 950 regular-season games for the Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators, tallying 482 points - with 203 goals and 279 assists.

Like everything else over the past year, the hockey world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. The 2019-20 season was completed with teams playing in bubble locations in Toronto and Edmonton and the 2020 campaign will open without fans as part of a condensed 56-game season, among a slew of other changes. 

With the previous season extending several months past the normal ending date, the league had little choice but to delay the start of 2021 and to find a way to make a shortened season work. The new plan is for the regular season to end on May 8, with the Stanley Cup awarded no later than July 9. 

Of course, nothing is set in stone anymore and the NBA and NFL have had to deal with countless COVID-19 issues, so the NHL expects similar problems to arise with the pandemic experiencing another surge. The league knows it may have to adapt and games will very likely need to be rescheduled. 

The NHL has already dealt with this, as the start of the season for the Dallas Stars had to be pushed back to January 19 after six players and two staffers tested positive for coronavirus. While the completion of last season in the bubble locations was virtually flawless, teams are playing in home arenas this season, increasing the chances of players becoming infected. 

To combat this, teams will be allowed to carry taxi squads of four to six extra players who will practice and be prepared to step in when needed. 

While there is less hockey to enjoy, there are some tweaks to the upcoming season that fans will enjoy. 

The four divisions have been realigned and they include an all-Canada division of seven teams, made necessary by border restrictions. The other three divisions are mostly based on geography, but St Louis and Minnesota were shuffled into a division with the three California teams, Vegas, Arizona and Colorado. 

The Chicago-Detroit rivalry gets renewed with the Red Wings moving into the Central Division, and Tampa Bay and Dallas – last season's Stanley Cup Final participants – are now together in the Central.  

There should be no shortage of intensity this season with teams scheduled to play mostly back-to-back sets solely against teams in their own division. So, the Flyers and Penguins will meet eight times, as will the Islanders and Rangers and Kings and Ducks. The teams in the all-Canada division will face each other nine or 10 times.  

The first two playoff rounds will be played within the division, meaning the bad blood that started in the regular season could grow even deeper. The division winners will then advance to the semifinals but seeding will be based on points rather than geography.  

The new setup raises the possibility of a Stanley Cup Final between traditional East teams like the Capitals and Penguins or Canadian rivals Montreal and Toronto.   

To recoup some of the money lost by having no fans or limited fans at the start of the season in some cities, the NHL is allowing teams to include a sponsor name on their helmets and each division will also include the name of a corporate sponsor. 

The condensed season was preceded by an abbreviated training camp without exhibition games and there is concern that the start of the season will be marred by sloppy play. This could be especially true for the seven teams that have not played a game since March after they did not qualify for the expanded playoffs.  

As in any offseason, several big-name players changed teams. It will be jarring to see 43-year-old Zdeno Chara in a Capitals uniform and Joe Thornton playing for the Maple Leafs after 14 seasons in San Jose. Henrik Lundqvist would have looked strange as a member of the Capitals following an 887-game run with the Rangers, but he decided not to play this season due to a heart condition. 

Injuries will also keep some marquee players off the ice for a while. Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov – the 2018-19 scoring leader – will miss the entire regular season due to hip surgery and the Stars could be without top forward Tyler Sequin (hip) and goaltender Ben Bishop (knee) until at least March.  

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is out indefinitely with an unknown illness and there is no word on whether the 12-time 20-goal scorer will play this season. 

While this season is full of unknowns and will be like no other before it, the potential is there for it to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.

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