TORONTO – And now for something completely different.
Mitch Marner is a versatile, adaptable sort of star player.
Over the course of his hockey life, he’s played centre and wing. He’s driven offence and been tasked with shutting down some of the toughest forwards in the business. He has run the power play and volunteered to assume a prominent position on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ penalty kill.
So, it’s noteworthy that Marner is now trying something he’s never done at any level: move from the flank to the slot on the power play.
“I’ve never played it, to be honest, so it’s definitely something new to me,” Marner said Monday, before jetting to Montreal for the Leafs’ 5-2 preseason loss.
“I love to try new things, so I’m excited to give that give it a shot. Hopefully, I get used to it pretty fast.”
The rearrangement of Toronto’s beleaguered top power-play crew is no small storyline heading into 2021-22.
Despite loading their 5-on-4 unit with more than $40 million worth of talent, the 2020-21 Leafs’ power-play tumbled to 16th overall (20 per cent) in the regular season, then converted on only 13 per cent of those opportunities in their seven-game collapse to Montreal. (Among all playoff teams, only Vegas and Nashville’s power plays were less effective.)
Coach Sheldon Keefe watched his high-powered superstars go just plus-2 in 23 power-play chances in a series in which the Leafs lost three one-goal games.
Yep. Power-plays matter.
The PP’s ineffectiveness turned to ugly when Marner vehemently shot down an unverified rumour that he had refused to accept a coaching staff request to move off the half-wall last season.
“It’s a complete lie,” said Marner after the season, visibly upset by the idea. “It sucks that stuff like that’s being said, but I’m not surprised either.
“I think everyone can see I’ll try and play any role I can to help this team win.”
So disastrous was Toronto’s 2021 power play that it cost assistant coach Manny Malhotra his primary responsibility.
Keefe has flipped the PP to new assistant Spencer Carbery’s purview, and changes are already underway.
“Tough conversation, you know, because [Malhotra] was brought here to do a job. But Manny’s a team guy, and he’s still very much involved in everything that we’re doing off the ice, including the power play,” Keefe said.
“Spencer’s a great coach. He’s got a good vision and a good plan and has that perspective as a head coach [with the Hershey Bears] in terms of how things play out.
“The biggest thing is just fresh voice, fresh eyes, good ideas. And just like it seems a good fit for us, given what we went through last season.”
Marner scored 20 goals last season, all even-strength.
Even though he saw more PP minutes (3:08 per game) than any Leaf not named Auston Matthews, and even though he’s striving to develop into a dual shooting threat, Marner never scored once on the man-advantage.
Yet despite cries from the outside to adjust the formation and try William Nylander on the flank, Marner stayed put.
That changes under Carbery.
The assistant’s first look at Nylander on the flank resulted in a power-play goal Saturday in exhibition, as John Tavares tipped a Nylander shot 10 seconds into a PP.
“It’s not really a big deal. I like to play whatever,” Nylander said. “As long as you’re on the powerplay, it’s fun.”
Marner’s teammates believe he’ll adapt fine to the bumper spot, and Carbery has been showing him video of Brayden Point’s slot work on Tampa Bay’s deadly PP as an example.
From the middle, Marner can feed Matthews or Nylander for one-timers — or fire the puck on net himself to create havoc and loose pucks for a net-front guy, like Nick Ritchie, to bang home.
“He’s just so smart, he can play anywhere. I think he just wants to be productive, be helpful. He wants to be in the middle of the ice, wants to get lots of puck touches, and he’s very good at that,” Morgan Rielly said.
“Being the middle, I think he’s gonna get lots of action. I mean, he’ll go wherever anybody tells him to go. He just wants to help the team.”
Kase set to be Keefe’s Swiss army knife
While Nick Ritchie and Michael Bunting appear to have penciled themselves in as Toronto’s brand-new top-six wingers, Ondrej Kase has all the tools and experience to steal some of that ice time in event of injury or underperformance.
Keefe believes Kase’s troubled injury history has lessened the level of hype he’s gotten so far in Toronto, but the coach is excited to see what he can contribute in a variety of roles.
“He’s got a really good skillset, both offensively — the ability to make plays and finish plays — but also he’s tenacious on the puck. So, I think he can move up and down our lineup and play anywhere we feel we need him,” Keefe said.
“It’s evident when you watch him that he’s an NHL player.”
Kase finished off a beauty pass by Rielly Monday and tied a game-high with four shots on net during his first peek in a Leafs sweater.
A 20-goal man for Anaheim in 2017-18, Kase could potentially slide onto the Leafs’ second power-play unit. But Keefe is also going to try him out on the penalty kill, as the coach searches for the best winger to take up some of Zach Hyman’s PK minutes.
“[Kase] hasn’t had a great deal of time on the penalty kill in his career, but I’m hoping to get him some looks there,” Keefe said. “From a skillset standpoint, in terms of how he skates, his anticipation, he’s hungry on the puck — those are all the things we want on our penalty kill. He seems to have those traits.”
What a feed from Rielly pic.twitter.com/FC9U8LF6eS
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 28, 2021
Make-or-break season for Liljegren?
Although it seems like yesterday Timothy Liljegren garnered headlines as a promising first-round draft pick in this city — a right-shot defenceman, finally! — the prospect reminded us Monday that he’s now spent the bulk of four seasons with the Marlies.
Rare is the player who breaks through and establishes himself as a bona fide after that many tours on the minor league circuit. (Justin Holl, for example, is the exception, not the rule.) At some point, the potential needs to pop.
So… where does that leave the 22-year-old Swede heading into a training camp where he’s clearly the seventh-best D-man?
“Tough to tell. Going into my fifth year, I need to play good,” Liljegren said. “It’s my fifth year. I need to get things done, you know.
“I gotta fight for my spot on the roster. That’s what I’m focusing on.”
That means cleaning up turnovers, playing sound positional hockey, and chipping in offence when he spots a chance.
Liljegren believes he “grew a lot as a person” from a tumultuous 2020-21 campaign that saw him jostling from the AHL to the taxi squad and eventually sneaking into a pair of late-season NHL games.
Keefe has paired Liljegren with the laid-back Jake Muzzin in camp, hoping the veteran’s wisdom and calming presence rubs off.
And yet, barring an injury to a member of the top six, we don’t see Liljegren suiting up on Opening Night.
“I can’t focus on other things,” Liljegren said. “I just have to focus on playing a good game.”
Nylander impressed by Fernandez’s U.S. Open run
William Nylander tends to keep his public commentary concise.
So, after 16 months passed without an original tweet, the star forward was compelled to break his silence while taking in September’s incredible U.S. Open women’s final between Britain’s Emma Raducanu and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez.
Both unseeded. Both entering the tournament as teenagers.
“I thought it was amazing. Both young women doing an unbelievable job,” said Nylander, an avid tennis player himself.
“I can just imagine for both girls, they probably didn’t think they were going to be in the final. And all of a sudden, they’re there — 20,000 fans, and the entire world’s watching on TV. I mean, it’s pretty cool to see what they were able to do.”
Maple Leafs lineup for preseason Game 2
Schwarber hits grand slam, Red Sox hammer Astros to take ALCS lead – Sportsnet.ca
BOSTON — Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez walked off the mound with a six-run lead and a message for Carlos Correa and the rest of the Houston Astros:
Now it’s Boston’s time.
Tapping his wrist to mimic Correa’s Game 1 celebration, Rodriguez rode four more Boston homers — including Kyle Schwarber’s record-setting grand slam — to a 12-3 victory Monday night as the Red Sox took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series.
The taunt drew a rebuke from Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who reminded his pitcher that they still need two more wins to advance to the World Series for the fifth time since 2004. Games 4 and 5 are at Fenway Park on Tuesday night and Wednesday.
“It’s not that I’m mad at him,” said Cora, who was celebrating his 46th birthday. “We don’t act that way. We just show up, we play, and we move on.”
One game after J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers each hit grand slams, Schwarber hit a second-inning 3-0 pitch 430 feet into the right field grandstand.
Boston is the first team ever with three slams in a postseason series.
“Electrifying. It’s unbelievable,” outfielder Alex Verdugo said. “You can have a big swing and get four runs in on just that one play — it’s huge.
“It’s one of the best plays in baseball, man. You give up a grand slam, it takes a lot out of you,” he added. “And just to kind of keep stepping on their neck and adding the pressure, it’s huge.”
Martinez and Devers each homered again, Christian Arroyo also hit one, and Kike Hernandez had two more hits for Boston, which opened 9-0 leads and coasted to victory in back-to-back games. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe ended it with a diving catch of Correa’s sinking line drive.
“They count as one (loss),” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We come back and win tomorrow and the series is even. You don’t like it tonight, but you come back in the morning.”
Rodriguez gave up five hits, including Kyle Tucker’s three-run homer, and struck out seven. He retired Correa to end the sixth and let the Astros shortstop know that his gesture in Game 1 was not appreciated.
Cora chastised Rodriguez before giving him a hug when he reached the dugout.
“He just told me `Don’t do that,’” said Rodriguez, who said he would apologize to Correa if he sees him. “It was something that was part of the moment. But (Cora) just told me, ‘We don’t do that here. Stay humble. Just go out there and play hard every time.”’
“Besides that,” Cora said, “he was outstanding.”
Correa said he “loved every single bit of it.”
“It’s just the way baseball should trend, moving forward,” he added. “You need to let the players have fun.”
Boston matched a franchise record with its seventh straight postseason win at home. The Red Sox had 11 hits in all, becoming the first team in major league history to reach double digits six straight times in a single postseason.
Hernandez, who has 18 hits during the playoffs and is batting .500 — both leading the majors — left the game after six innings.
Asked why, Cora said with a smile: “He has been running the bases a lot in the last few days, or weeks, or whatever.”
The Red Sox capitalized on two Astros errors and the struggles of Houston starter Jose Urquidy, who gave up six runs, five earned, on five hits and two walks, striking out one in 1 2/3 innings.
Rodriguez, who missed all of last season with COVID-related heart problems, retired the first six batters before running into the trouble in the third, when Tucker made it 9-3.
His outing enabled Cora to keep Nick Pivetta fresh for a Game 4 start.
To the delight of the Fenway fans, who targeted him with profane chants for his role in the Astros 2017 cheating scandal, Jose Altuve struggled at the plate and in the field.
A Gold Glove and AL MVP-winner, the three-time batting champion went 0 for 4 and let Arroyo’s chopper bounce off his chest for an error with the bases loaded in the second inning. One batter later, Schwarber hit Boston’s third grand slam in 11 innings.
The Red Sox, who only had three grand slams during the regular season, matched the 1998 Atlanta Braves as the only clubs to hit three in a single postseason. Boston has 20 homers this postseason, matching the 2004 Astros for the most through the first eight games of the playoffs, per MLB.com.
Altuve also waved at a throw from Martin Maldonado on Hunter Renfroe’s stolen base in the third; the error went to the catcher. The throw to third was also wild, but the Astros were saved another error when the ball missed the dugout and bounced off the padding back toward the field.
Astros: Baker said outfielder Jake Meyers, who injured his left shoulder crashing into the wall in Game 4 of the Division Series, is doing better and could start as soon as Tuesday.
The teams play Game 4 on Tuesday night. The Red Sox are expected to rely on Pivetta, who was 9-8 with a 4.53 ERA in the regular season. Houston will call on RHP Zack Greinke, with RHP Cristian Javier ready to follow the veteran. Greinke has been limited over the past two months due to a neck issue and a positive COVID-19 test.
Canada's women's team drops third straight game with 8-0 loss to Drumheller Dragons – The Globe and Mail
The Drumheller Dragons held Canada’s women’s hockey team off the scoresheet Monday, blanking the national squad 8-0 in a tune-up game.
Adam Raesler scored a hat trick for the Alberta Junior Hockey League side, while Luke Fennig added a pair of goals. Ty Daneault, Grayson Dietrich and Ty Whitford all scored singles.
Canada’s Kristen Campbell stopped 19-of-22 shots in two periods of work and Emerance Maschmeyer made six saves in relief.
Eric Ward saved all five shots he faced in 29 minutes of play for the Dragons and Garrett Fuller finished out the game, making six stops.
Neither side capitalized with the man advantage, with Team Canada going 0 for 3 on the power play and Drumheller going 0 for 2.
Canada has now lost three games in a row to junior-A hockey teams as it prepares for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Olympics-Small minority of U.S. Olympians oppose COVID-19 vaccine mandate, say officials
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said on Monday its decision to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for those competing at next year’s Beijing Olympics has been met with some resistance.
In a bid to create a safe environment and restore some level of consistency in planning, the USOPC announced last month that Team USA athletes hoping to compete in the Beijing Olympics will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The response is as you would expect: Within our general population, there are some people who are extremely happy that we introduced this policy,” Jonathan Finnoff, the USOPC’s chief medical officer, said during the virtual Team USA media summit.
“And there are others that are upset and would like to not have any mandate regarding vaccinations.”
According to Finnoff, it is only a “very small minority” of Team USA athletes who oppose the mandate and the USOPC is having one-on-one conversations with each one to discuss their feelings and explain why the decision was made.
Last month’s announcement by the USOPC came days before the International Olympic Committee said the Beijing Olympics would have tight COVID-19 measures in place to ensure the safety of all participants during the Feb. 4-20 event.
Finnoff said the “more stringent” Beijing measures, which he added unlike the USOPC’s rules will not grant religious exemption, would supersede the U.S. policy.
Any athlete who is granted a medical exemption will have to go through a 21-day quarantine in Beijing before they can begin training ahead of their event.
“These are challenging times but the vaccine policy that we’ve put in place and that China has put in place is going to make the Games as safe as possible,” said Finnoff.
USOPC Chief Executive Sarah Hirshland said the COVID-19 mandate is all about the safety and health of the team.
“The presence of this virus makes the challenge greater for all of us in a Games environment but we are committed to doing everything we can to mitigate illness and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Hirshland.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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