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Auston Matthews at the top of his game

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Auston Matthews already owns one of the most formidable shots in the NHL, and it’s that desire to continue being among the best driving the 22-year-old to continue refining it as much as possible.

“I try to work on it all the time at practice, trying to pick different spots, try different shots,” Matthews said after the Leafs’ outdoor practice at Nathan Phillips Square on Thursday. “And obviously [Frederik Andersen] is a pretty tough guy to score on, so it’s fun going up against him, and we’re pretty close [off the ice] so I like scoring on him in practice and just trying to pick those different areas on the ice to shoot it.”

The work Matthews has put in is paying off on the scoresheet. He’s notched seven goals in his last six games, and on Wednesday reached the 30-goal mark for the fourth consecutive season. Matthews is the first player in Leafs’ history to hit the 30-goal plateau in each of his first four campaigns, and joins a short list of 15 NHL skaters to have ever accomplished the feat.

Matthews’ shot still wowing his teammates: He can pick a corner quick, he’s deceptive

The Maple Leafs discuss how Auston Matthews has elevated his game this season and how he continues to find different ways to score.

“He puts the work in every day; he’s a hard worker,” said Jason Spezza of Matthews. “He’s a guy that takes the game very seriously. I think what we’re seeing is going to be a little more the norm, not so much a hot streak. I see him as a guy that can be like this all the time and [now] the puck is going in, but I think the consistency of his game has been great. That’s the sign of a guy really coming into his own.”

Matthews’ 31 goals put him one behind Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead, and he credits being healthy for the entire season to date as a catalyst for his consistency.

Over the past two years, Matthews has missed time with injuries ranging from a concussion to a separated shoulder, but now his focus has been entirely on producing.

“I try to approach every game the same,” he explained. “Not really get too crazy out there with how you prepare or how you approach any such game. Just try to go out there and do your best, have fun. I want to create as much offence as I can and help the team win and produce.”

In order to do all that Matthews has also had to zero in on his defensive play, an area where head coach Sheldon Keefe has seen him make strides.

“I’ve met with Auston about that,” Keefe said. “Whether it’s his intelligence that he has or his strength or speed, his instincts, those things can really help him defensively. The more that he can be good at that, he’s going to have the puck that much more offensively. Last night [when he scored in the first period against Winnipeg] was a great example, but he’s been doing that for quite some time here now. He’s been putting in a lot of really good work on the defensive side of the puck. So I’ve been really happy with that.”

When he puts all those elements of his game together, Matthews can become the most dominant player on the ice.

“It’s incredible the way that he’s able to control a game sometimes,” said Tyson Barrie. “His shot is obviously world class. We see it all the time now. He’s making big plays at big moments in the game too, which is huge. He’s a special player and he’s on top of his game right now, so it’s fun to be a part of.”

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When Keefe said after Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Winnipeg that John Tavares had been “fighting it a bit” the last couple of games, he wasn’t calling out his captain for poor play. He was identifying how the Maple Leafs captain putting too much pressure on himself was ultimately impacting his ability to execute.

“One thing I know about John is he takes his responsibility and his role on our team very seriously,” Keefe said. “He takes a lot on his shoulders and he expects himself to be able to produce. With the skill level he has, he’s going to make plays and he’s going to score and all that’s going to happen for him. We just need him to not take on too much, and recognize that we got a lot of support around him and he can just relax and play.”

Tavares committed two turnovers in Wednesday’s loss that led directly to Jets’ goals and hasn’t produced a point in three games. But while owning up to his errors following Toronto’s most recent defeat, Tavares was also confident the bad puck luck plaguing him would break soon.

“I think obviously [there’s been] a couple mistakes here and there, but I think I’ve still been able to generate some good opportunities,” he said. “And if you’re able to capitalize on some, it can change the way you feel. …I’ve have had some good looks, hit the post a couple times, had some chances in good scoring areas, but I think it’s just continue to have the puck and play well in the offensive zone, defend well when you have to, continue to be strong in the faceoff circle and be hard to play against.”

Given Tavares still sits fourth on the Leafs in points with 36 (16 goals, 20 assists), and has a faceoff win percentage of 54.6, his slower stretch coming out of the Christmas break has hardly raised any alarm bells.

“Johnny’s the last of our worries,” said Spezza. “We know he’s going to work his way out of whatever he’s going through. Over the course of an 82-game season, there’s going to be ups and downs and good teams find a way to have contributions from different guys every night. There’ll be lots of nights where Johnny pulls us through games and wins us games himself, so he’s the least of our worries.”

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When a collection of Leafs got onto the subway Thursday morning with Toronto’s other commuters, bound for Nathan Phillips Square and the team’s outdoor practice, Barrie wasn’t sure if their presence – in full gear – was welcomed by others, but he knew from experience it was the best way to get around downtown.

“I take the subway every day to the game, so I was trying to show these guys the ropes,” Barrie said. “There’s a couple of pictures [people asked for], but it’s pretty cool to have a team pile on there when you’re just trying to get to work. Or maybe it’s annoying, I’m not sure. But either way, it was a cool day.”

Barrie: ‘I take the subway every day to the game’

With the Maple Leafs taking the subway on Thursday to their practice at Nathan Phillips Square, defenceman Tyson Barrie admits he takes the subway all the time.

Toronto split up into three groups for the practice’s 3-on-3 tournament based on a player’s region of origin, falling into Team East, Team West or Team Ontario.

Andersen watched the action in street clothes from the bench (he did an on-ice workout beforehand), leaving Michael Hutchinson and practice goalie David Ayres to man the nets. After a hotly contested round-robin and semifinal, Team East defeated Team Ontario for the title, which left a sour taste for Barrie and his third-seed Team West.

“I think anytime you get a group together and you put something on the line and people are watching, it’s going to get competitive,” he said. “Would have been nice to see Hutchy make a save. He kind of ruined it for our whole team, but whatever, it’s not a big deal. I’m not a big finger-pointer.”

Leafs Ice Chips: Barrie jokingly calls out Hutchinson after outdoor 3-on-3 tourney

The Leafs played an outdoor 3-on-3 round robin tournament at Nathan Phillips Square on Thursday afternoon. After being hotly contested it was won by Team East, much to the chagrin of Tyson Barrie from the losing Team West. Kristen Shilton has more.

All jokes aside, it was nice for the Leafs to enjoy some fresh air and a different practice format amid a busy stretch of games.

“It was fun,” said Keefe. “Great to see the fans out there and just to see our players have smiles on their faces and out there enjoying themselves. Nice little experience to break up our week and really break up our season.”

“It’s a lot less serious, and a lot of us grew up being able to play outside and just play shinny with our friends, so it was great,” added Tavares. “And with the way that the team is intertwined with the city and the community, it’s such a big tradition and big history.”

Thursday was the first time Keefe had been back to Nathan Phillips Square since the Toronto Raptors’ championship parade in June.

“I went at about 6:30 in the morning, just to get a feel for it,” Keefe said. “I got out of there – my family was in a different area when the actual parade was coming through – but I wanted to go and see what it would look like at City Hall there.”

Leafs discuss the ‘great experience’ of practicing outdoors: ‘It’s fun for everyone’

For the second year in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs took the subway to an outdoor practice in front of a ton of excited fans at the rink at Nathan Phillips Square. The Leafs discuss the amazing experience playing on the outdoor rink and their appreciation of the fans’ support, especially with the freezing weather.

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Keefe said the Leafs are planning to bring injured forward Andreas Johnsson with them to Florida on Friday, so he can practice with the team on Saturday and even possibly play on Sunday against the Panthers. Johnsson hasn’t played since hurting his leg on Dec. 4.

“We have no determination yet on what’s going to happen for him in terms of the game,” Keefe cautioned. “But he’s going to be out there and get to practice with us and we’re getting more towards the day-to-day type of stage for him.”

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Astros' Garcia to start Game 6 of ALCS against Red Sox – Sportsnet.ca

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HOUSTON – Rookie Luis Garcia will start for the Houston Astros against the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series on Friday night with a trip to the World Series on the line.

Garcia started Game 2 and gave up a grand slam in the first inning before leaving with no outs in the second because of discomfort in his right knee. Manager Dusty Baker announced Thursday that Garcia would get the ball for Game 6 and said the Astros are confident the problem is behind Garcia and he’ll be 100% healthy for Friday’s start.

The Astros fell behind 2-1 in the series after two big wins by the Red Sox. But they rode their powerful offence to consecutive victories in the last two games to take the series lead and move within a win of advancing to the World Series for the second time in three seasons.

The Astros won the championship in 2017, a crown tainted by the team’s sign-stealing scandal, before losing to the Washington Nationals in seven games in the 2019 World Series.

The Red Sox previously announced that Nathan Eovaldi would start Game 6. Eovaldi got the win in a solid Game 2 start but was charged with the loss in Game 4 after giving up the go-ahead runs after coming in with the game tied in the ninth.

The Astros got eight terrific innings from Framber Valdez in a 9-1 win in Game 5. The performance gave Houston’s taxed bullpen a much-needed break after relievers pitched 29 1/3 innings combined through the first four games.

Baker said Jake Odorizzi would be available for long relief Friday if needed. Odorizzi threw 82 pitches in four innings in Game 2 after taking over following the injury to Garcia.

Baker also said rookie center fielder Jake Meyers, who hasn’t played this series after injuring his shoulder in the final game of the ALDS, probably wouldn’t return to the lineup in this series. He said Meyers could pinch-run or pinch-hit but isn’t ready to return to the field. Fellow rookies Chas McCormick and rookie Jose Siri have filled in at center against the Red Sox.

Houston is without ace Lance McCullers Jr. for this series because of a flexor pronator muscle strain in his right arm. Baker said Thursday that McCullers still hasn’t resumed throwing, so it’s unclear if he would be available to return if the Astros were to advance.

If necessary, Game 7 would be Saturday night in Houston.

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NFL Prop Picks For Browns vs. Broncos: Bet This Donovan Peoples-Jones Over/Under On Thursday Night Football – The Action Network

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Credit:

Jason Miller/Getty Images. Pictured: Donovan Peoples-Jones #11 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates after a touchdown

Sean Koerner, our Director of Predictive Analytics, is highlighting his favorite player prop for every primetime game throughout the 2021 season. He has a 428-326-6 (56%) all-time record on NFL bets he’s tracked in the Action app.


Broncos-Browns Prop Bet

Donovan Peoples-Jones Under 2.5 Receptions

Editor’s Note: Now that Odell Beckham Jr. is officially active, Browns player props are off the board at most books.

Peoples-Jones has been on fire over the past two weeks, posting lines of 5/70/0 & 4/101/2 against the Chargers and Cardinals, respectively. However, I believe it’s time to “sell high” on him as he’s due for some regression.

He’s caught a ridiculous 86.7% of his targets this season despite seeing an aDot of 15.7. Players with an aDot that high typically average a catch rate in the 57-60% range.

There are a few other reasons why my projections are lower for him compared to the market:

  • Case Keenum is starting in place of Baker Mayfield tonight. Peoples-Jones has shown great chemistry with Mayfield over the past couple of games. The QB change seems like a setback for him.
  • Weather could be a factor tonight. Steady winds of approximately 20 mph are expected with the possibility of some occasional rain. That would (in theory) negatively impact a high-aDot player like Peoples-Jones.

  • Jarvis Landry is making his return from IR. He should be Keenum’s main target tonight, while the TE group should also see an increase in target share after a season-low five targets as a group last week. I also expect RB/WR Demetric Felton to have an expanded role tonight and he has been heavily targeted (37.5% of routes run) when on the field this season.

I’m projecting DPJ for 2.3 receptions tonight with a median projection of 31.5 receiving yards (market is currently at 38.5) — I’d give this under about a 60% chance of hitting. He’s the type of player who could clear his yardage prop on a couple of deep catches, so the safer play here is to take the under for his receptions, especially since we are getting + money. I would bet this down to -105.

Pick: Donovan Peoples-Jones Under 2.5 Receptions (+115) at BetMGM

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Canadiens fans welcome Kotkaniemi back to Montreal with boos, vulgar chant – Yahoo Canada Sports

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Carolina Hurricanes forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi (82) was not welcomed back to Montreal with open arms. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

The Carolina Hurricanes were in Montreal on Thursday night to face the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, marking the return of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was at the centre of petty off-season drama after signing an offer sheet with the Canes.

In true hockey fashion, the Bell Centre crowd greeted the 21-year-old with boos and taunting chants.

The Canadiens acknowledged the former third-overall pick by displaying him on the jumbotron, which in turn sparked another wave of disapproval from the near-sellout crowd.

It was Kotkaniemi who got the last laugh, though, tipping in a goal in the third period for his first point with the Hurricanes — much to the delight of Hockey Twitter. Carolina ended up walking away with the 4-1 victory, keeping Montreal winless on the season.

The native of Pori, Finland appeared in 171 games for the Habs over three seasons, scoring 22 goals and notching 40 assists. He also registered 12 points in 29 playoff games, including five goals in Montreal’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.

Carolina tendered an offer sheet to Kotkaniemi in late August, offering a one-year contract at $6.1 million. Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin chose not to match, and Montreal received a first- and third-round pick as compensation.

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