Let’s start with the most important stuff right off the top – I’d like to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays spent with family, friends, and good food (and wine!).
As for the Toronto Maple Leafs — who are winners of six of their last seven and are finally reasonably healthy — let’s look at what they might be asking for from Santa as the second half of the season approaches.
Productive backup goaltending
No real secrets here. Frederik Andersen leads the league in total minutes played and is third in the league in shots against. He has played in 29 of 37 games. While the Leafs have made headway in the standings of late, they need Andersen to play a lot to make the playoffs. That said, they also need a rested Andersen to go anywhere in the playoffs. For three consecutive years, the Leafs have made the playoffs and Andersen has managed mixed results (although he did post a .922 save percentage in seven games last Spring).
This has consistently led to questions about fatigue and whether he was overplayed come playoff time. You generally play every other day in the postseason, and should the Leafs ever advance beyond the first round, the amount of hockey really adds up. Who knows, they might even need a game or two out of a backup in the playoffs (we’ve seen a number of teams call on theirs over the years).
A top-four defenseman
It’s unfortunate that this is still a need given they made a big trade for a defenseman in the summer and Justin Holl has emerged this season, but here we are.
The Rielly – Barrie pairing is fun when you’re playing Detroit and New York, but it’s hard to see them holding up in a playoff series against Boston, Washington, or Tampa Bay. The Muzzin – Holl pairing has been solid so far and there is little reason to think that won’t continue, so if they can find a defense partner for Morgan Rielly and push Barrie down next to Travis Dermott on what would essentially be an offensive-zone-faceoff-only pairing that’s dedicated to offense, it is the best they can do.
With some forwards starting to emerge amid injuries (Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, possibly Dmytro Timashov), does that make an Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen expendable to help address this need?
It has been a whirlwind start to the season in Toronto. It didn’t help that Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott were rehabbing from offseason surgeries followed by injuries to John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Alexander Kerfoot and Trevor Moore have also missed time, and now Andreas Johnsson is out. The roster has never been settled, and while no team is ever truly healthy, they didn’t even a chance to slot their players in as they really envisioned it at any point. It has been a constant game of musical chairs.
Then, of course, Mike Babcock was fired. That, too, was a whirlwind — from the firing itself to the stories that emerged after. It would be beneficial for everyone involved to just enjoy a drama-free run here for a bit, allow the team to get healthy, settle in (which they seem to be now), and play without distraction. This is still a very, very good hockey team when healthy and they are starting to look like it again.
If you wanted to add a stocking stuffer, I’d throw in a depth forward, too. When the Leafs are fully healthy, Engvall and Moore are bumped to the fourth line and then there is a collection of players vying for that other spot (Frederik Gauthier, Jason Spezza, and Timashov). I think a true defensive forward who they could use up the lineup at certain key times in games would be a nice fit there (similar to what the Penguins did with Matt Cullen or Chicago with John Madden at one point).
– In all three games this past week, the Toronto Maple Leafs started the John Tavares line on shift one along with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl on defense. Sheldon Keefe has pretty much been doing this for weeks and it looks like this will be the Leafs’ go-to line to start the night and set the tone. It’s important to have consistency in that spot and a trustworthy unit that can get the team into the game. When Tavares was out — as well as Marner — the Leafs tried a few different combinations, including the Matthews line, and there were a number of occasions that they were dominated by the opposition on the first shift of the night. Now, with a relatively healthy team and a trustworthy defense pairing, the coaching staff looks like it generally knows who they are starting the game with. That said, you can’t give up a first-shift breakaway against the Detroit Red Wings.
– Checking ice time around the league, I was a little surprised to see that Morgan Rielly is 10th in total time on ice played (for players), so far this season. The next highest Leaf is Cody Ceci, who ranks 41st in the league. I don’t think many would argue at this point that Rielly is even the best (or most important, perhaps) defenseman on the team; it’s really the two defensemen getting the most responsibility each night. It would also be hard to argue that Ceci is within their top four most important defensemen.
That seems to be evening out a bit now as Ceci played between 19:14 and 20:06 over the past week. Against Calgary and Vancouver in back to back games last week, he was in the 16-minute range. Meanwhile, the Leafs look to be resting Muzzin where possible – he played only 19:58 vs. the Rangers and 17:39 against the Red Wings, but when Barrie went down against the Oilers and it was a tight game, he played 27 minutes.
– Zach Hyman is now tied for second on the team in shorthanded time-on-ice per game (Marner is first). I’ve seen a lot of commentary surrounding the Leafs special teams improving since the coaching change, but a large part of it is simply getting healthy and the personnel improving. Especially on the penalty kill, you can only really coach so much. Players have to know how to read what the opposition is doing in the zone, where to put their stick, how to position themselves, block shots, and so on. Hyman is strong in those areas. He had a great read on the penalty kill against the Rangers to poke the puck out for a breakaway opportunity; he knows how to pick his spots when it comes to whether or not to be aggressive while shorthanded.
– I didn’t think Hyman had that backhand goal in his bag of tricks, though. What a crafty little shot that was. It’s propped up a bit by his three-point night against the Wings, but he has 11 points in 18 games so far this season — is a 50-point pace — although he is shooting 18.6%.
– I pointed out the Leafs having a high forward in the offensive zone in a previous notebook; Ilya Mikheyev made another play there on a give-and-go with Holl leading to an Engvall goal. More than anyone, Mikheyev looks really comfortable at the top of the offensive zone.
It was also noteworthy to see him beat a goalie cleanly (against the Rangers) off the rush as his shot hasn’t generally been that dangerous from distance — if that starts developing, lookout. He has seven goals on the season, including an empty-net goal and a few rebound tap-ins.
– Good on Justin Holl for stepping in after a dangerous hit by Andreas Athanasiou. The game is over, it’s the final minute, and an opponent took a big run at a Leafs player. We’ve seen a few instances where the Leafs haven’t stepped in (including earlier in the week when Travis Dermott was boarded from behind against the Sabres), so it was nice to see it actually happen for once.
– I want to wish Josh Leivo a speedy recovery from a fractured knee cap. He was playing to a 43-point pace and was a solid top-nine forward for the Canucks. I have watched a good number of Vancouver games this season and they have consistently trusted him in big situations, particularly offensively whenever they pulled the goalie to make it a 6v5 situation. I also saw an instance where he was on for a 6v5 defensively, too. After Leafs traded him for Michael Carcone straight up with the coaching staff basically refusing to play him, he has become a legitimate NHL contributor elsewhere.
“It’s definitely a weight off your shoulders. Winning – there’s no better feeling than it.”
– Michael Hutchinson after notching his first win of the season
The nice thing about the win is, even though it came against Detroit, Michael Hutchinson legitimately earned it. He stopped a number of breakaways and it was a genuinely good performance. It’s a shame they couldn’t close out the shutout at the end. It’s nice Hutchinson got the win, but it would be even nicer if he gains some confidence from it and goes on a bit of a run (when he plays), too.
“It is the way that it goes. Some nights, guys are going to play more than others. Obviously, Willy had an outstanding game yesterday and produced a lot for us and was a difference maker for us. Today, it was other guys. That is the way it goes. That’s part of having a team and it is part of an 82-game season. You mix it up back and forth.”
– Sheldon Keefe on benching William Nylander
Well, he’s right and William Nylander did deserve to be benched. I’m curious how this will unfold as time goes on, though. Basically, every coach I’ve ever seen behind the Leafs bench has come out and benched a few players early, and everyone goes, “this is awesome! Players are finally being held accountable and treated fairly!” When that same player gets benched a few more times, inevitably, the narrative changes to coach X hates player Y.
That said, the nonchalant play of Nylander when he tried taking a puck off his skate — leading to a breakaway for the Red Wings — would drive any coach crazy.
“We had the [ping pong] table but it wasn’t really used a lot. So now it’s in the locker room every practice day. Right there [in the middle of the room]. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere, I think. You’re not really walking on eggshells as much.”
– Justin Holl on the culture around the team right now
Obviously, none of us were in the dressing room, but so many players on the team have spoken out with comments that suggest to varying degrees that the room was essentially toxic by the end of Babcock’s tenure.
Tweets of the Week
The last time a player was suspended for a play against a Maple Leaf was Andrew Ference in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Brendan Shanahan was the head of the @NHLPlayerSafety. There has been 225 suspensions in the 7 seasons since. 15 have been Maple Leafs.
— Earl Schwartz (@EarlSchwartz27) December 18, 2019
Interesting thread here. As noted in the replies, technically Matthew Tkachuk was suspended against the Leafs in 2017. The general point stands, though, and it’s pretty clear all the attention the Leafs receive in the media has a negative effect on them in this department.
The Kyle Okposo hit was similar to the one that got Zach Hyman suspended against Boston. He’s a repeat offender, but Nazem Kadri got suspended for four playoff games on a play that had a degree of danger that happens nearly every week in the league (Alexander Kerfoot was not that far from tearing significant ligaments in his knee on Saturday, for instance). I don’t really know the solution to this and this isn’t just a Leafs problem. The league has to be more consistent and accountable, though.
There are teams who wonder if they can pry Gardiner out of Carolina before the Feb. 24 trade deadline because of his usage on the Hurricanes (5th Canes D TOI)… Something to monitor in the second half. On other hand, nice depth/luxury to have for Carolina https://t.co/7y41nQDkXI
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) December 20, 2019
It has been interesting watching Jake Gardiner from afar this year. He was a lightning rod for debate in Toronto, extremely overvalued by some, and extremely undervalued by others. As is often the case, the truth lied somewhere in the middle of all the noise. In Carolina so far, he’s clearly a third-pairing defender and he’s on pace for under 20 points (which would be a career-low) after signing a 4×4 deal in the summer.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) December 22, 2019
First and foremost, I hope Anthony Mantha is okay. An injury always gets people fired up one way or the other (especially on Twitter). At the end of the day, though, when you throw a clean hit and are approached aggressively, all bets are off and you should prioritize protecting yourself.
There was a somewhat similar incident with Muzzin recently against the Blues where he crushed Jaden Schwartz (on a much better hit, in my opinion) and Brayden Schenn engaged him, but nothing of consequence happened because Muzzin didn’t want to fight. I’m just not sure what you can expect to happen when a player skates towards another and punches him in the face.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think everything has to be taken in perspective when it is a game against the Red Wings, but we’ve been calling for a Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews reunion for quite some time in this space and that was a little preview as to why. As long as the Tavares line is going head to head against top lines (which will always be the case, basically), it makes sense to have Hyman on that line. He’s their best defensive winger. But his forechecking and grunt work does give Matthews a spark. I still think it would be interesting to see Andreas Johnsson paired with Tavares and Marner when he returns. Mikheyev’s play is giving the Leafs options on the left side as well.
2. I think it works out well for the Leafs that they have a back-to-back right after the Christmas break, playing New Jersey followed by the Rangers. That gives the Leafs a chance to get Michael Hutchinson right back into the net to see if he can continue to build off of his win and get himself rolling. Beyond back-to-back situations, they have to actively look for opportunities to put Hutchinson in favourable matchups to rest Frederik Andersen.
3. I think the faster we get over this idea of trying Kasperi Kapanen in the top six, the better. He’s a really nice player due to his speed, forechecking, and his shot. When he’s engaged physically, he’s very noticeable. But he is best suited for the Leafs third line at this point in time. I’d much sooner try any of Mikheyev, Engvall or Moore in the top six.
4. I think Frederik Gauthier just won’t go away — and good for him. He deserves kudos for that. Prior to the past weekend, he had played in the single digits (minutes wise) in six of his last seven, but he was over 10 against New York and Detroit. Keefe noted after the Detroit game that he thought he was going. I’m still unsure if he’s a full-time solution on the fourth line, but to his credit, he has managed to stay in the lineup and make some contributions. He deserves to be in right now.
5. I think the Next Gen Game is a great idea as a creative attempt to introduce new/younger fans to the game and the Leafs. There are three more this season, and it’s a worthy initiative. All for anything that attempts to grow the game.
What’s at stake on final day of MLB regular season – Sportsnet.ca
Four teams, two National League playoff spots.
And the AL Central champion.
Besides post-season seeding, that’s what remains to be decided on the last scheduled day of this bizarre baseball season. It could all come down to the wire at once in a wild rush, too, with every meaningful game Sunday starting just after 3 p.m. EDT.
“If you said that to me before the season started or on opening day, I would probably look right at you very honestly and say, `I would not be surprised if this season came down to the very last game.’ And that’s what we get,” Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Christian Yelich and the Brewers control their own fate. So do Yadier Molina and the Cardinals. The winner of their matchup Sunday in St. Louis punches a post-season ticket. Brett Anderson (4-3) pitches for Milwaukee against Austin Gomber (1-1).
San Francisco is still breathing, but needs help. Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies need even more.
One more chance to play in October as part of a playoff field expanded to 16 teams this year following a rocky regular season reduced to 60 games because of the coronavirus.
“It’s frustrating because you see the team that you have around you and you know we should be there — we should easily be there,” Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen said Saturday night after a 4-3 loss at Tampa Bay left Philadelphia on the brink of elimination. “To be on the outside looking in right now, it can be frustrating at times.”
The Phillies (28-31) got a reprieve hours later, staying in the race when San Francisco lost to San Diego. They need a win Sunday over the Rays and losses by the Giants and Brewers to land their first playoff berth in nine years.
San Francisco (29-30) needs a victory over the visiting Padres and a Brewers loss. The Cardinals (29-28) make it with a win or a Giants loss. Milwaukee (29-30) is in with a win or losses by the Giants and Phillies.
“We just have to keep our head up and try to win,” San Francisco pitcher Johnny Cueto said.
Over in the American League, all eight teams are set. All that’s left to be determined is seeding — and first place in the Central.
Minnesota has a one-game lead and can lock up its second consecutive division crown — and the No. 2 seed in the AL — with a win at home against Cincinnati or a White Sox loss at home to the Cubs.
“I look at that 2019 banner a lot up there at the stadium, so it’d be nice to put another one up there,” Twins reliever Taylor Rogers said.
If the teams finish tied, Chicago wins the division because it holds the tiebreaker over the Twins.
“It would mean a lot for all of us that have been here for the last couple of years,” White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada said through a translator. “It would be a really good starting point for us for the next season because we would have that foundation there.”
AL East champion Tampa Bay has clinched the league’s top seed. Oakland won the AL West and will also play a best-of-three first-round series at home beginning Tuesday — possibly against rival Houston.
Even without winning the Central, Minnesota is assured of playing at home, where the Twins are a major league-best 24-6. Cleveland can earn home-field advantage with a win over last-place Pittsburgh and a White Sox loss.
The Yankees and Blue Jays are also in, but headed out on the road.
Anthony Rizzo and the Chicago Cubs clinched the NL Central crown Saturday night even while losing to the crosstown White Sox. So the third-seeded Cubs will open at home Wednesday just like the other National League division winners, top-seeded Los Angeles and No. 2 seed Atlanta.
“This one feels good,” Rizzo said.
San Diego will be the No. 4 seed. Cincinnati and surprising Miami have also secured spots, though their seeds are still to be determined.
Houston (29-30), Milwaukee (29-30) or Philadelphia (28-31) could become the first team in major league history to qualify for the post-season with a losing record.
The Astros, who close their season at Texas, have already clinched their fourth straight playoff appearance. That means first-year manager Dusty Baker will take his fifth different franchise to the post-season in that role.
And there’s also a possibility the regular season could extend to Monday.
If the Cardinals lose Sunday and San Francisco wins, St. Louis must head to Detroit for a doubleheader Monday to make up two games postponed by the Cardinals’ coronavirus outbreak this summer.
Makeup games to settle the playoff race. Certainly would be a fitting way to finish the 2020 season.
UFC 253 results: Matches to make for ‘Adesanya vs Costa’ main card winners – MMA Mania
UFC 253 went down last night (Sat., Sept 26, 2020) inside Flash Forum on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In the main event of the event, Israel Adesanya retained his Middleweight title after defeating Paulo Costa, knocking him out in round two (see it again here). In the co-headlining act, Jan Blachowicz became UFC’s newest Light Heavyweight champion after he flattened Dominick Reyes with some accurate striking, also in round two (video replay).
Winner: Israel Adesanya
Who He Should Fight Next: Jared Cannonier
After “The Last Stylebender” took out Paulo Costa, he took the opportunity to call for his next fight, a rarity when you’re the champion. Indeed, Adesanya stated that if Jared Cannonier gets through Robert Whittaker at UFC 254 on Oct. 24, 2020, also on “Fight Island,” he will gladly grant him the next title shot. Should “Gorilla” come up short, there is no telling if Israel would grant Whittaker a rematch. If the champ wants it, there really is no reason not to give it to him.
Winner: Jan Blachowicz
Who He Should Fight Next: Thiago Santos vs Glover Teixeira winner
Jon Jones teased that he could very well could take a quick trip back to 205 pounds in order to reclaim his title after vacating it earlier this year, which gave Jan and Dominick Reyes to become new champion. But I highly doubt UFC would go for that, as Jones is preparing for his move to Heavyweight. That being said, the winner of Teixeira vs Santos — which is set to go down on Nov 7, 2020 — should get first crack at dethroning Blachowicz. Santos already has a knockout win over him, so a rematch would be highly-intriguing. A fight against Teixeira offers up a great battle, as both men posses dangerous knockout power.
Winner: Brandon Royval
Who He Should Fight Next: Alexandre Pantoja
Royval stated after the fight that he hesitated to call out a high-ranked foe, but he is simply being too hard on himself, as he had a great win over Kai Kara France. A fight against Pantoja seems fitting at the moment since the No.5 ranked fighter is coming off a tough loss to Askar Askarov. Prior to that, he was making huge strides toward a shot at the title. Pantoja has the experience edge that could let us know just where Royval fits in the division, though his first two wins over Tim Elliott and Askarov already gave us a pretty good idea.
Winner: Ketlen Vieira
Who She Should Face Next: Raquel Pennington
A match up between Vieira and Pennington seems like a fitting one since both ladies got back in the win column in their previous outing. Vieira defeated Sijara Eubanks in Abu Dhabi, while “Rocky” took out Marion Reneau. Prior to that, Vieira was defeated by Irene Aldana, and Pennington by Holm, two ladies who will collide next week on “Fight Island.” The title shot in the women’s Bantamweight division is there for the taking and a few impressive wins for anyone in the Top 5 can get them there sooner, rather than later.
Winner: Hakeem Dawodu
Who He Should Fight Next: Bryce Mitchell vs Andre Fili winner
Dawodu picked up a huge win over Zubaira Tukhugov in Abu Dhabi, bringing his win streak to five in a row. Up next for “Mean” should be a fight against the winner of Mitchell vs Fili. Dawodu has done enough to possibly sneak into the Top 15, especially after his most recent win. But if he doesn’t get there, then perhaps a win over Mitchell or Fili will do the trick. Fili is one of the most seasoned veterans at 145 pounds, though he is also in search of a spot in the Top 15. Mitchell, meanwhile, just got there and he’ll fight like hell to stay there.
For complete UFC 253 results and coverage click here.
Blue Jays set to play Rays in playoffs after dropping finale to O's – TSN
BUFFALO, United States — Feeling healthy, confident and ready for the next challenge, the Toronto Blue Jays capped their regular season Sunday by tuning up for their first playoff appearance in four years.
A series against the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays was locked in when the Blue Jays dropped a 7-5 decision to the Baltimore Orioles in a game that meant little for either team.
Toronto gave slugger Teoscar Hernandez the day off and rested most of its relievers so they’d be fully charged for Game 1 on Tuesday at Tropicana Field. The Rays have been the class of the American League but did have some trouble with the Blue Jays at times, making this best-of-three wild-card series all the more intriguing.
“They’re looking forward to the challenge and I love that about our kids,” said Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo. “They really want it.”
By losing to Baltimore, the Blue Jays — who sealed a post-season berth last Thursday — secured the eighth and final seed.
At the start of the day, Toronto had a chance to rise to the No. 5 seed. Potential outcomes existed that could have seen first-round matchups against the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians or the Chicago White Sox.
Toronto was 4-6 against Tampa Bay this season. Four of the Blue Jays’ losses were by one run.
“They’re a good baseball team, they do everything well collectively,” said Toronto starter Tanner Roark, who gave up two earned runs to the Orioles over four innings.
“I think it’s going to come down to whoever makes the least mistakes in that series (will) win it. We’ve played them tough all year. We’ve lost a lot of one-run games and we’ve won a lot of one-run games.”
Toronto looked like it was on its way to closing the 60-game season on a five-game win streak after homers by Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in the third inning. But the Orioles scored three runs in the fourth and tacked on three more in the fifth.
Shun Yamaguchi (2-4) shouldered the loss after working two frames. Gurriel had four hits and scored three runs.
Toronto right-fielder Jonathan Davis made an all-world play in the second inning to take a home run away from Cedric Mullins. Davis extended his left arm over the top of the wall near the foul pole and managed to squeeze the ball as he crashed to the warning track.
Davis drove in the game’s first run in the bottom half of the frame as his sacrifice fly scored Gurriel, who led off with a double. An inning later, Guerrero hit a solo shot for his ninth homer and Gurriel hit a no-doubt two-run blast for his 11th homer of the season.
Mullins helped the Orioles (25-35) cut into the lead with a two-run triple in the fourth inning and Austin Hays drove him in with a sacrifice fly to tie the game. Yamaguchi gave up three straight hits at the start of the fifth and the Orioles pulled ahead to stay.
Travis Lakins Sr., (3-2) worked two innings for the victory. Cesar Valdez pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his third save.
The Blue Jays finished the pandemic-shortened 60-game campaign with a 32-28 record. Toronto was 17-9 at Sahlen Field, normally home of the team’s triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons.
“Our confidence right now is great,” Gurriel said via translator Hector Lebron. “We have pretty much everybody healthy. From one through nine, the lineup is good and everybody is feeling great right now which is what you want going into the playoffs.”
Under Major League Baseball’s expanded playoff structure, 16 teams will play in the post-season. Division winners are seeded Nos. 1-3 in each league, second-place teams are seeded fourth through sixth and two wild-card teams get the seventh and eighth spots.
The Blue Jays last reached the post-season in 2016 as a wild-card entry. Toronto went on to reach the American League Championship Series for the second straight year.
Toronto’s last World Series victory came in 1993. A long playoff drought followed until the Blue Jays returned to the post-season in 2015.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2020.
Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.
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