The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
One — This was a great response after the no-show in Boston. The Raptors played a much more comprehensive game, were overflowing with effort and courage from the start, and finished strong despite an equally plucky showing by the undermanned Sixers.
Toronto looked to have the game in hand, but Philadelphia launched a quick 9-0 run to regain the lead at home, and it was shaping up to be a repeat of the Cavaliers game, only this time the Raptors were able to execute effectively in crunch time and sink the Sixers with two dagger threes. It was an especially satisfying result because all eight players who suited up for the Raptors gave positive contributions that culminated in the win.
Two — Fred VanVleet keeps playing at an All-Star level. He ensured the Raptors got off to a strong start offensively, as he directly created the first nine points of the game with a dish to Scottie Barnes, a triple, two free throws, and a layup as part of his 13-point outburst in the first quarter.
VanVleet then settled more into a team game, but made a number of momentum-shifting plays in the third quarter as the Raptors were surging ahead, where VanVleet would beat multiple defenders before finishing with exquisite skill at the basket over top several shot blockers. Then at the end, VanVleet returned to close out the win with a banked-in three, a genius cross-court feed to Svi Mykhailiuk in the opposite corner, and the last triple that closed the book on the Sixers.
VanVleet has been the best player all season for the Raptors, and they can always count on him.
Three — VanVleet’s current averages are eerily similar to that of Kyle Lowry at the same age. The age-27 year was Lowry’s breakout and the first time he was given sole command over a team, just as it is for VanVleet. They’re both at 18 points, seven assists, five rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting roughly 43 per cent from the field and 38 per cent from three to go along with heady defence.
The Raptors have been blessed to go from Lowry at the helm for a decade to now having VanVleet grow into the role. The one quality most similar between the two players is their fearlessness. VanVleet sliced through the trees on offence while gnawing away at bigs below the basket with his heavy hands, just in the same way that Lowry would always fight to keep the Raptors in games.
Four — OG Anunoby threw two perfect passes to ensure the victory. Both times he drove into the paint, drawing multiple defenders with him, before kicking it to the opposite corner. On the first play with the Raptors down two, Anunoby used a screen from Precious Achiuwa and got all the way under the basket before throwing it to the corner trusting that Gary Trent Jr. would duck down to the corner and be open for the shot which he was.
The next trip down, Anunoby grabbed the rebound and was initially planning to walk it up slowly, except he realized that Andre Drummond was tracking him in transition and so Anunoby quickened his pace to ensure the mismatch, before getting past Drummond easily off the dribble and getting the crosscourt feed to VanVleet.
Five — The Raptors are successful playing through VanVleet and Anunoby as the two pillars of their offence and should keep it that way. There is the question of how Pascal Siakam slots in, but right now the answer should be clear he’s third behind the other two.
The offence lost its rhythm in losses to the Nets and Celtics when the Raptors tried to clear out for Siakam. While a large part of that is rust from his injury, there’s also not as much of a need to feature him in that way as the Raptors did in previous seasons. VanVleet and Anunoby are routinely seeing extra defenders, and it’s up to the rest of the team to slot in around them, which includes Siakam.
Six — This was the Chris Boucher that everyone was waiting for. Boucher carried the Raptors’ scoring off the bench, pouring in 17 points in 24 minutes, which was more than he contributed in the last six games combined. Boucher started slowly, but was pivotal in the Raptors’ third quarter run which saw them reverse a nine-point deficit and create a lead that lasted until late in the fourth.
Boucher was running hard on the break, which accounted for five of his seven baskets, and he mixed in a three to beat the buzzer and two impressive blocks to boot. Nurse went to Boucher early in the first quarter and played him at centre for the first time this season, which was a return to his role last season before he was reassigned as a wing player. That seemed to get Boucher settled in the flow, as he was able to use his speed advantage against centres that wouldn’t otherwise exist when he’s matched up with wings.
Seven — Nick Nurse managed this game perfectly. He went to Boucher off the bench after the first timeout in the first quarter, and showed trust in a struggling player and was promptly rewarded. Nurse then shifted to a zone for much of the third quarter which cut the Sixers’ dribble penetration while also allowing them to stack extra bodies on Drummond in the paint. In the fourth quarter, Nurse rode Boucher as long as he could before replacing him with Mykhailiuk, and he contributed with a three off an incisive pass from VanVleet, created two turnovers, and won a crucial offensive rebound that resulted in a three for the Raptors.
Many of the decisions looked to be on the flow, but that’s what makes Nurse such a successful coach because he’s able to make in-game adjustments to affect the outcome.
Eight — Another key adjustment was Nurse prioritizing defence over offence in the second unit. The Raptors are short on outside shooting, and Nurse’s compromise has been to keep at least two shooters on at once, which can sometimes become difficult when he goes to the second unit since three of his four best shooters are in the starting five.
To compensate, Nurse has gone to Malachi Flynn for short stretches in recent weeks, but the better option is simply to double down on size and defence instead. Nurse went with a lineup with VanVleet as the only shooter with Dalano Banton as the other guard, Barnes as the three, and with Boucher and Achiuwa in the frontcourt. Naturally, that lineup struggled to score, but the Sixers had just as hard of a time scoring against them, and that allowed the Raptors to hold the lead while also buying the starters a breather.
Nine — Barnes’ instincts are so sharp for a player of his experience. There was a gorgeous give-and-go sequence with VanVleet where Barnes worked for early post position in transition, caught the feed from VanVleet, instantly touch passed it back to VanVleet cutting through, who then kicked it out to Achiuwa wide open at the top of the floor. Unfortunately, the shot was nowhere close to falling in, but Barnes smartly got to the baseline and anticipated the miss before finishing the putback.
Ten — Trent Jr. had a quietly excellent game with 20 points and four assists. That included a promising stretch in the fourth quarter where Trent Jr. was briefly entrusted as the de facto point guard, and he got two great shots out of the pick and roll.
First, he circled downhill off a screen from Boucher, baited the help defender towards him, before serving up a perfect lob for Boucher to finish. The next trip down when Trent Jr. called for another Boucher screen, the Sixers were more conscious of the pass to the roller so they sagged back, and Trent Jr. promptly pulled up for three.
The next step in Trent Jr.’s blossoming game is to add in the playmaking aspect to complement his scoring.
The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
That’s changed on this trip, two lopsided wins and the chance for a rare sweep of the Golden State. The Leafs followed up a 6-2 win in Los Angeles with Friday’s 4-1 domination of the San Jose Sharks.
While rookie Joseph Woll finished strong with 30-plus saves for his third win to give Jack Campbell another rest, the other end of the ice belonged to the team’s top guns. William Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares helped drive ex-Leaf James Reimer from the cage.
It was Toronto’s sixth straight road victory and eighth of the past nine allowing two goals or less. Most important for coach Sheldon Keefe, the team didn’t relax in the warm California sun. They weren’t given a day off since arriving from a win on Long Island.
“We made it very clear, it’s very much a business trip coming out here,” Keefe said before the game. “That’s not an easy thing to do, because it is a beautiful place to be and it’s a great time to enjoy that as you start to move on to the winter months. But our guys have been focused. We’ve had a enough time after practice to enjoy a few hours of sunlight.”
Another win Sunday in Anaheim, likely to be the toughest stop, would be their first 3-0 run here in four years with very few before that.
“Certainly the morale of this team right now is the best it has been all season,” said Keefe, who had his 77th win as Toronto coach to pass Paul Maurice for 14th place in team history. “We feel we had a really good camp and pre-season and felt really good about our group and had a few days together (in Gravenhurst, Ont.) where I thought there was a lot of growth inside our team. Then obviously the season didn’t start well, it took us some time to get rolling, get people comfortable in their roles.
“(But) we can’t get too focused on that. It’s a long season, a daily thing (to maintain). The confidence is there right now, but you need that every day. You hope to be 1-0 every day.”
With 15 wins in 22 games, the Leafs are still pressuring division leading Florida. The first five minutes and change produced three of night’s haul of goals. It took just 32 seconds for the Leafs, who survived a scramble around Woll and headed up-ice, Tavares with a nice pass to send Nylander in alone. After a long stretch without a goal, Nylander’s 111th tied him with Ace Bailey for 50th in team history.
A few moments after Nick Bonino took advantage of rookie Kirill Semyonov being caught out too long, Wayne Simmonds chipped a David Kampf shot past Reimer. It was his fourth point in five games, though trapped as the last man back on defence, he was beaten by ex-Leaf Alex Barabanov on a close call. Woll stopped that and then Jonah Gadjovich on a breakaway, but forced his mates to kill a second minor in the period when he came out to clear a puck that eluded Justin Holl, only to fire it over the glass.
Matthews missed on some good looks in the middle period, then directed blueline traffic for a point shot to give himself an easy rebound on the lip of the crease, making it 3-1. His eighth since Nov. 1 made him one of four NHLers with at least that many this month — Leon Draisaitl (15), Matt Duchene (10) and Alex Ovechkin (9).
While Toronto’s eighth-ranked penalty kill added three more to its total, the No. 1 power play unit stayed out for the duration and didn’t take its foot off the gas until Tavares knocked in a rebound with 20 seconds remaining, his team-high 10th and the 13th time in his career he’s reached double figures.
That was all for Reimer on 17 shots, marking the fifth time he’s not finished a start against his old club, one of those an injury on that crazy night when he and current Leaf Petr Mrazek were hurt and local Zamboni driver David Ayres filled in for a Carolina win. Adin Hill didn’t get much respite from Toronto’s breakaways, born of 11 takeaways through 40 minutes.
Kampf was back in the lineup after missing all but a shift of Wednesday’s win in L.A. with an upper body injury, though linemate Ondrej Kase was scratched for a rest, replaced by Semyonov. The latter was about the only Leaf not to shine, Keefe keeping him on the bench for a spell in the middle period after some rough spots.
The 27-year-old is in his second season with Ottawa after they flipped a second-round pick and prospect Jonathan Gruden to Pittsburgh to get him back at the 2020 draft. At the time, they felt they had their starting goalie of the foreseeable future, quickly inking him to a four-year, $25MM contract; his $6.25MM AAV is the sixth-highest in the league among goaltenders this season.
What have they received in return for that money? Not a whole lot. Murray struggled considerably last season, posting a 3.38 GAA with a .893 SV% in 27 games, the worst numbers of his career. This season, those numbers aren’t any better – a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .890 in six games. Those numbers are below average for a backup let alone a starter.
Ottawa’s decision to dress Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson against the Ducks was a strong message from head coach D.J. Smith that he has lost faith in Murray. At this point, getting him down to Belleville for a stint to try to give him an opportunity to find his game again against lower-level competition certainly makes some sense.
Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch suggests the Sabres and Coyotes could be teams to keep an eye on with regards to a potential claim. Both teams have a need for a goaltender but with two years still left on his contract and both teams operating as lower budget squads, it’s hard to imagine they’d be willing to take him off waivers with how poor he has performed in Ottawa. A trade with retention after he clears and maybe some games in the minors would be a likelier scenario.
Assuming he does indeed clear on Sunday, the Sens will get a small bit of cap relief as $1.125MM of Murray’s AAV will come off their books when he’s sent down. Of course, with Ottawa being a team that’s closer to the Lower Limit of the cap than the Upper Limit, that relief won’t be worth a whole lot to them but they’ll be able to move forward with a Forsberg-Gustavsson tandem for at least the time being while giving Murray an opportunity to get back to form in the minors.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report that Murray would be waived.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket Friday, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament.
Italy will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs to Sweden. Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, it may have to beat Euro 2016 champion Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.
“It’s not a great draw and it could have gone better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini acknowledged. “Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy.”
Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this could be his last attempt at winning international soccer’s biggest trophy. He will turn 37 before next year’s tournament starts.
Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimović netting twice for the Swedes.
“It’s not worth thinking about (Italy),” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “It’s important that we concentrate on beating Turkey.”
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.
Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
Scotland looks to end a 24-year wait to play at the World Cup while Wales’ only appearance was in 1958.
“At the moment, the way the team is playing, the confidence the boys have got, we would be happy to play anyone, anywhere,” said Scotland coach Steve Clarke, whose team has won six straight since September.
However, Ukraine won at Hampden Park in June, in the Euro 2020 round of 16 against Sweden, and went unbeaten through a World Cup qualifying group won by France.
Sweden will not have Ibrahimović for its semifinal against the Czechs. The 40-year-old forward has a one-game ban for getting yellow cards in the qualifying group.
“We already did it last time (in 2018) and we of course (know) that we can do it again,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson.
The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.
The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.
The European playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.
Also, FIFA said Qatar will host the intercontinental playoff in June that will decide the last two qualifiers for the tournament.
The intercontinental draw paired the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania’s representative.
Those qualifying campaigns are still being played.
The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13-14 will complete the 32-team World Cup lineup.
The intercontinental playoff was originally scheduled for March 2022 as two-leg, home and away series. The games were pushed back as the global qualifying program stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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