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Calgary Flames’ Hamonic becomes 1st NHL player to opt out of league’s plan to play during pandemic – Globalnews.ca

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Just hours after the NHL announced it had reached a deal with the NHLPA to resume play amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Calgary Flames issued a statement to say one of the team’s players told them he would not be taking part.

Defenceman Travis Hamonic, 29, is the first known player to opt out of the hockey league’s plan to resume its season.

READ MORE: NHL officially names Edmonton, Toronto as its hub cities in plan to resume play during pandemic

“Earlier this evening, Travis called me to inform us that he has decided to opt out of the NHL Return to Play Program,” Flames GM Brad Treliving said in a news release. “Travis explained that due to family considerations, he has made the difficult decision not to participate in the Stanley Cup qualifier and playoffs.

“While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

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In 50 regular season games this season, Hamonic scored three goals and collected 12 points. The veteran defenceman is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Treliving said his team is focused on preparing for training camp and the Flames’ upcoming qualifying round series against the Winnipeg Jets, which begins on Aug. 1.

The series will take place in Edmonton, which earlier on Friday was officially revealed to be one of the NHL’s two hub cities where the remainder of the season and playoffs will be played. The other hub city is Toronto.

Watch below: Some recent Global News videos about the NHL.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Canadiens vs. Penguins recap: Habs rally to move closer to playoff spot – Habs Eyes on the Prize

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“Well, at least we don’t root for the New York Rangers,” I thought as the Blueshirts lost their third straight and took the swiftest of exits from the hub in Toronto to join the Alexis Lafrnière sweepstakes.

After winning the first game and losing the second, Montreal returned to home ice, which these days looks an awful lot like away ice, to host the Pittsburgh Penguins for the crucial third game of this best-of-five play-in series.

There was one change for each team compared to their previous lineup. Jake Evans replaced Jordan Weal in that hybrid center-winger-ish role on the fourth line, while Mike Sullivan replaced Jared McCann with Sam Lafferty.

Brendan Gallagher was tested pre-game and must have given Claude Julien both thumbs up since he took his usual spot to the right of Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar to start the game. In his first shift, Gally rushed to the boards to chase down a Penguins defenceman and was seen limping off the ice. His foot is clearly still hindering him, but knowing Gallagher, he would probably rather amputate the foot than take a night like this off.

Montreal took the lead four minutes into the contest. Shea Weber got not one, not two, but three chances in a row upon joining the rush in front of Matt Murray. Third time’s a charm for the captain, as he backhanded the puck past the goalie from close range.

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Pittsburgh’s bench decided that it would be wise to challenge the goal for goaltender interference, since there was a bit of contact between a surging Artturi Lehkonen and Murray’s left pad just as Weber’s shot went in. The challenge was unsuccessful, sending the Habs on the power play on a delay-of-game penalty.

The power play was — as so many times before — a letdown to watch. But if power-play goals are your cup of tea, you would get your fill just minutes later. Unfortunately though, both goals were scored by the frozen birds from western Pennsylvania.

The first one came after a slashing call on Ben Chiarot. The always surgically lethal Evgeni Malkin found Patric Hörnqvist out left, just as the referees were raising their arms for a delayed penalty on Weber for cross-checking. Weber gave the refs an interrogatory look and lost focus just long enough for Hörnqvist to one-time it past Carey Price.

Since an accident seldom comes alone, Jason Zucker slapped in the leading tally for the guests just a minute later, when Weber was repenting his sins in the penalty box. Game-changing goals in the playoffs were exactly what Jim Rutherford was praying for when he shipped half his house and Alex Galchenyuk to Minnesota earlier this year. Now Zucker has scored in two straight games, and Rutherford is beginning to see return on his investment.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi decided that enough was enough and tried to inject his team with fire and grit by levelling Brian Dumoulin hard enough to knock his helmet off in front of the benches. Dumoulin looked bewildered as to what had just happened. Young playmakers aren’t supposed to take down defencemen like that.

Just seconds before the break, Conor Sheary decided that it would be fair to even out the stat sheet for number of power plays. Very kindly, he took an unnecessary minor for tripping. Going to the booth, he looked so pleased with himself that he was laughing in the referee’s general direction.

Montreal’s second power play of the night ended as the previous six have ended during this series: without a goal. The man advantage continued to look stiff and uninspiring.

Five minutes into the second period, the hill would become even steeper for the Canadiens as Pittsburgh extended their lead. Brandon Tanev skated full-speed to win a battle in the offensive zone. His pass cut straight into the slot to find Zach Aston-Reese. After a rebound from Price, Latvian superstar Teddy Blueger scored his first ever post-season goal from close range, diving into the crease to win the battle against Victor Mete and Xavier Ouellet.

After yet another uneventful power play (which at least had a decent scoring chance from the second unit), Montreal creeped closer via a goal from Jonathan Drouin. Once again, the goal came after great lead-up work by the reborn Kotkaniemi. The centreman won a battle near the boards and Weber served Chiarot for a slapshot, which was deflected in by number 92. Exactly what the doctor ordered, both for Drouin and for the Canadiens.

Any injury on the ice becomes worse than normal to witness during these crowd-free times. The Scotiabank Arena went eerily quiet when Evans got slammed into the boards by Brandon Tanev. Evans went to the locker room with a bloody towel covering his face, and he was later ruled out for the night. That is not something you want a young guy to experience in his post season debut.

Malkin got sent to the box a few moments later, sending the Habs back on the power play yet again. If nothing else, it is good for this team to practise playing one man up, to see if they can overcome their woes. And what do you know, this time it nearly resulted in a goal! Montreal tied it up three seconds after the PP was over, and it was all thanks to Paul Byron. He found Nick Suzuki for a shot, which Murray stopped, but using his blazing speed, Byron was first to the rebound, circled around the net, and pushed the puck past the Pens netminder to draw the game even. It was an excellent effort and a wonderful confidence boost.

Dale Weise celebrated his birthday by shoving Aston-Reese to the ground without a call from the referees. Aston-Reese got back on his feet and, not knowing who had been the instigator, he shoved Max Domi to the ice. This was seen by the refs and the Penguins forward got penalized for roughing, all while Domi laughed like a hyena from the bench.

During the power play, Danault was as close as can be to steer in the tiebreaker off a shot from Joel Armia, but the puck danced away off the line after hitting both Murray and the crossbar. Instead, Montreal kept their habit of waiting until the opponent is back at full strength before scoring.

Jeff Petry noticed that he had zero passing lanes to work with as he positioned himself out left near the goal line. From almost no angle whatsoever, he launched a rocket which hit Murray in the mask and went in. You could say that there is no way that a top-tier goaltender should concede a goal from that angle, but it was actually a perfectly placed shot. Kudos to Petry for banking on that chance! This could be a future classic if this becomes a memorable playoff.

With a 4-3-lead against a Sidney Crosby-led Penguins, focus shifted, as it tends to do, toward Price. Laser-focused and large, he denied Pittsburgh a game-tying goal on several occasions, without seeming to break a sweat. The Penguins players looked listless and clueless on the bench. I am certain that they didn’t see this scenario unravelling when they were two goals up just a period earlier.

Byron decided to take a hooking penalty with three-and-a-half minutes left, risking the very fragile lead. With 20 seconds left of that penalty kill, Murray went to the bench, putting the Pens up by yet another attacker. The Habs fought and clawed their way through the remaining seconds, not giving Crosby, Malkin, or Kris Letang an inch to create quality scoring chances.

The Canadiens held on and can celebrate Dale Weise’s birthday in style tonight. On Friday afternoon, at 4:00 PM Eastern, thsy will have a chance to kick out the fifth-seeded Penguins from the post-season, before it has even begun.

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Toronto's No-Frills Formula Could Lead to a Raptors Repeat – Sports Illustrated

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The scene was different, virtual fans replacing real ones, the silence of a near-empty arena broken only by hip hop music and digital crowd noise pumped through hanging speakers. But for Masai Ujiri, it all felt familiar. 

A year ago, in Las Vegas, Ujiri implored Raptors fans not to panic. “Don’t lose one second of sleep,” said Ujiri, just days after Kawhi Leonard packed his bags for Los Angeles. “We’re going to be just fine.” Now here was Ujiri, the Raptors president, a few feet from the NBA branded floor, in a hooded sweatshirt watching Toronto batter Orlando, its likely first-round opponent.

For the Raptors, a win, and a 3-0 restart.

For Ujiri, perhaps, further vindication.

The Magic are just recovering from dealing Dwight Howard. Cleveland has cratered, twice. Oklahoma City made the playoffs a year after Kevin Durant left, but that took a history-making season from Russell Westbrook and ended with a quick first-round exit. History isn’t kind to NBA teams that lose superstars. It took New Orleans years to dig itself out from the Chris Paul trade. The Magic are just recovering from dealing Dwight Howard. Cleveland has cratered, twice. Oklahoma City made the playoffs a year after Kevin Durant left, but that took a history-making season from Russell Westbrook and ended with a quick first-round exit.

Toronto won’t be first-round fodder for anyone, and really—how did that happen? Leonard was an All-Star, a top-five talent, the reigning Finals MVP. And after beating the Magic, Toronto’s winning percentage (.731) stands as the best in franchise history.

There is no voodoo to the Raptors success, no secret sauce. Probe for one and you are met with a string of blank stares and collective shrugs, as if you are the crazy one for thinking they shouldn’t be here.

“We don’t spend any energy in having that ‘sports talk,’” Marc Gasol told me. “It’s good bar talk. We understand the media has to do that. We know we’re not easy to beat. We believe in ourselves. We have a lot of tools, a lot of great players and, to me, the best coaching staff in the NBA.”

Indeed. The Raptors are good because they have Pascal Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player and 2019 playoffs breakout star, who has ratcheted his game to yet another level. There are traces of Leonard in Siakam, embers from a season-long education that remain. Teammates describe Siakam as a workaholic, driven to be great, empowered by head coach Nick Nurse to be the playmaker few saw when Siakam was an undersized center at New Mexico State. Siakam has built upon a breakthrough third season, becoming a more willing three-point shooter.

They are good because of Fred VanVleet, the fourth-year guard enjoying a breakout season of his own. Defense has keyed Toronto’s success, and VanVleet has emerged as an integral part of it. Once something of a liability, VanVleet leads the NBA in deflections and ranks in the top five in steals. Inside the Raptors locker room, everyone knows: If you don’t defend, you don’t play.

“You look bad when you don’t play defense,” said VanVleet. “You stick out like a sore thumb … you don’t want to be that guy.”

The Raptors are good because of Kyle Lowry, the stalwart, Mr. Raptor, arguably the greatest player in franchise history and the tone setter for this group. A competitive fire still burns inside Lowry, the same flame that pushed him past the blacktops in North Philadelphia to Villanova, to the NBA, to an eventual NBA championship. Up 16 points against Orlando, Lowry is barking at Evan Fournier at the free throw line. Up double digits in the final minutes, Lowry is battling Nikola Vucevic on the offensive glass.

Before the season, Nurse met with Lowry. We need more scoring, Nurse said. Lowry agreed. “It was a short meeting,” Nurse told SI. Lowry has responded by increasing his scoring average six points, ticking his three-point percentage up to 36% this season.

Ujiri saw this talent, this coaching staff and any thought of tearing the team down was fleeting, at best. For months, the Raptors were peppered with trade calls, with rivals probing if Gasol, Serge Ibaka, even Lowry were available. Ujiri didn’t bite. First-round picks are valuable, sure, but the Raptors believe they can find talent anywhere. Siakam and O.G. Anunoby were picked up late in the first round, Norman Powell in the second while VanVleet and rising rookie Terence Davis were undrafted free agents. Draft assets, Ujiri reasoned, weren’t worth breaking up this core.

Months later, Toronto is firmly entrenched as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and, really—are we sure anyone can beat them? The Raptors have stomped the Lakers, outlasted the Heat and put a 10-point loss on Orlando. LeBron James himself has declared them true contenders. Milwaukee will enter the postseason as the conference favorite, but the Raptors have beaten the Bucks before and have the size to body up with them. Siakam and VanVleet will have to step forward and make shots in bigger roles, but they have a championship run to lean on.

“We’re a no-excuse team,” Gasol said. “I don’t need someone to tell me to believe in something. You go out there and you compete and you can beat anybody. It doesn’t take a genius to know that we have a lot of pieces. I don’t need someone to tell me ‘you guys can win it.’ It’s really hard, and it’s a different year, obviously, but on any given night we can be one of the good teams.”

Here comes Toronto, impossibly, improbably determined to defend its title from the beginning, armed with the personnel and confidence now to do it. The four-month hiatus healed lingering injuries, handing Nurse the deepest, most talented roster he’s had all season.

Minutes after beating Orlando, Ibaka emerged from the Raptors makeshift locker room, beelining up the stairs to the weight room, anxious to squeeze in 15 minutes on the one treadmill available before the last bus pulled out. Behind him, Stanley Johnson, eager to do the same.

“You played 25 minutes, Serge,” Johnson said. “Let me get on first.”

“Five minutes,” Ibaka replied, before disappearing up the steps.

For Ibaka, for Toronto, the work has just begun. 

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Raptors’ deep-rooted defensive culture key to championship aspirations – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors had an internal goal after the NBA season went on hiatus on March 11: Win the pause.

That was the focus for the organization, from team president Masai Ujiri on down — find ways to use the time at hand to prepare, analyze and improve.

Through the first three games of the schedule since play resumed in the league’s quarantine bubble on the campus of Walt Disney World Resort, the Raptors seem to have nailed it.

Not only are the defending NBA champions 3-0 in their eight-game reseeding schedule after their 109-99 win over the Orlando Magic, a potential first-round playoff opponent, it’s the way they’ve done it that is serving notice that they are serious contenders to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals — and significant threats to do some damage to whichever superstar-driven team ends up emerging from the West.

Toronto was already either the first- or second-best defensive team in the league before the hiatus, and now? They are somehow better, having barely played for five months.

In the 142 days they went between games, the Raptors have gone from being really, really good at keeping other teams from scoring to being really, really good at making other teams look around at each other and wonder what the point was of even trying.

They are a better team, defensively, than they were last season when they had two all-defensive team starters in their lineup — including Kawhi Leonard, arguably one of the greatest defenders the league has ever seen.

They believe they are a good enough team, defensively, to repeat as NBA champions.

Three games isn’t the largest of sample sizes, but tell that to the Magic, who were held to 25 per cent shooting in the first quarter Wednesday night, and then 35 per cent in the second quarter and found themselves trailing 55-35 at half.

The Raptors took their foot of the gas a little in the second half, but never enough to give up control of their victim. The Magic were going down and the Raptors would decide when they would be allowed up.

Then again, the Magic don’t need much convincing. They’ve now lost eight straight games to Toronto going back to their first-round playoff series last season, while scoring an average of 91.25 points a game.

But the Magic shouldn’t feel too badly. The Raptors held LeBron James and Anthony Davis and their Los Angeles Lakers to 92 points in their first seeding game, so.

Livestream the Raptors’ quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.

It’s becoming clear that this is who the Raptors are — an amorphous blob of bodies and limbs that operates with a single, shared defensive brain. Opponents don’t get the luxury of beating one Raptor at a time, they have to beat all five, and more often than not, it’s not going to happen.

“It’s a matter of will,” said Marc Gasol after helping limit Magic All-Star centre Nikola Vucevic to an ineffectual 12 points on 10 shots, a Raptors tradition. “Defensively, it’s like believing in what the coaches are telling you, and everybody having each other’s backs. It’s a matter of continuous effort. It’s not one effort that’s going to stop the play. It’s not two, it’s not three. We’ll continue to make efforts and make it as tough as possible for the other team and continuing possessions with rebounding.

“It’s a matter of will, right? And I think, in our locker room, if you don’t have the will, or the discipline, to play defence, it is going to be really hard for you to see the floor, and that gives the coaches a lot of credit …they have high standards defensively, and I think that’s what separates the good teams from the great teams.

“I think that’s who we are.”

They are a coach’s dream, in other words.

While the appetite for defence in the NBA is far undersold by the general public — anyone who has had the privilege to see even regular-season games played up close would be shocked at the overall intensity on both sides of the ball – it is something that doesn’t come naturally to all teams, and not all teams want to make the sacrifices necessary to play great team defence all the time.

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The Raptors don’t have that problem.

“Before a pass is ever made you’ve got to have some desire, you have to have some readiness, you got to have some anticipation, you’ve got to have some IQ before the ball’s even started in an offensive sequence,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that are locked in on that.

“They pay attention to the game plans, they’re basketball guys, they watch the other teams, they study them, they like stopping them, it’s kind of an interesting thing that they got going. They come to the game and they start figuring out how we’re going to stop them. They really try to make adjustments, there’s communication amongst them, each other.

“[It] kind of feeds it from there.”

The current buzzword for it is ‘culture’ – where habits and expectations are in place almost without anyone being aware of them. There are no longer rules and demands but an understanding of how things are done that gets passed on within the group, organically.

The Raptors have that in many ways and right now it’s manifesting itself in their defensive approach. The results are remarkable. Toronto had a defensive rating of 104.9 before the hiatus, which was good for second in the NBA.

Over their past three games they’ve dropped that to 96.1, which is first by a mile. They held teams to 106 points a game before the season was stopped, tops in the league, and now they’re holding opponents to 98.9 points a game, best again. Through three games teams are shooting just 39.5 per cent from the floor, compared to 42.7 before March 11, which was second in the league at the time.

The Raptors have high standards for themselves, and they’re exceeding them.

“I think it just starts from the top down, obviously Nick kind of sets the tone, and the coaching staff sets the tone and then it’s just a collection of what kind of guys you’ve got, like what is your character like?” said Fred VanVleet, who leads the NBA in deflections and is among the league leaders in steals. “Do you have defensive-minded guys? Do you have guys who are pissed off when they get scored on?

“That’s kind of the beginning of it, and then it gets to the point — once you’ve got enough of that — [where] you look bad when you don’t play defence. Like you stick out like a sore thumb. So when guys are watching the game you can tell when a guy’s not on the same page as everybody else, it looks bad, and guys feel that, and you don’t want to be that guy — ever — on the court.

“So, I think we’re just learning and growing and pulling some of the new guys along with this. Obviously to win a championship you have to play extremely great defence for a long time and we did that. And that just gave us even more confidence on that end of the floor that what we’re doing is working.”

You want some culture? The Raptors have some culture, and their culture is about stopping other teams in their tracks, about making the game very unenjoyable for them, and they’re very good at it.

The Raptors look like they may well have ‘won the pause,’ and more importantly have the look of a team that’s ready to win much more than that.

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