Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe put his best foot forward when talking about the possibility of playing in front of 1,000 fans or fewer the next time his team plays at home.
“We’re just grateful we get to come to work every day, no matter what the circumstances are,” the Leafs coach said after practice Thursday. “It’s on us to make the best of it.”
The Leafs and Raptors — and every other sports team in Ontario — saw their capacity limit slashed starting Friday. The provincial government said the new restrictions were necessary to battle the highly contagious Omicron variant and “to reduce opportunities for close contact.”
To that end, teams — and large entertainment venues — can play to audiences no larger than 1,000. The Leafs and Raptors may, in fact, play to near-empty houses.
Raptors subscribers have had their tickets cancelled for the next three weeks, starting with Friday night’s visit by the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are telling their 16,000 season subscribers that their tickets for the next three games are cancelled, and the only people allowed into the rink are those mandated by the NHL collective agreement. Players and team executives have access to a pool of tickets — about 700, in the Leafs’ case — that can be given to family and friends.
MLSE spokesperson Dave Haggith said because capacity limits are temporary, there was no fair way to distribute a handful of tickets to only some subscribers.
“The biggest challenge is doing it as fairly as you can,” said Haggith. “For these three weeks we’ll go with almost no capacity, outside of just the basic league requirements. It’s going to be barebones.”
It is not quite as stark as last season, when the Leafs played to an empty Scotiabank Arena, and against only Canadian teams, while the Raptors were forced to play home games in Tampa, Fla. because of cross-border travel restrictions. But every athlete this season has spoken about how playing in front of fans again gave them a boost.
“It’s an aspect of this whole thing that’s underrated,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said on the eve of the NHL season, when capacity restrictions were lifted.
“It was very special,” teammate William Nylander said after the first game in front of a full house. “The atmosphere from warmups on was great.”
Capacity at Scotiabank Arena had already been reduced Dec. 15 by 50 per cent, to about 10,000 fans, though that only affected the Raptors. The Leafs haven’t played a home game since Dec. 11. A road trip followed that, with cancellations following that due to COVID outbreak on the team.
Their next scheduled home game is Saturday against the Ottawa Senators, though even that is in doubt due to COVID and the league musing that all or some Canadian home games might be moved to later dates, when capacity restrictions might be lifted.
A Leafs home game represents about $2 million in revenue. The NHL’s salary cap is based on revenue generated, and the league may be looking for ways to preserve the Leafs’ lucrative stream.
The next Raptors game is Friday night, with former fan favourite Serge Ibaka making his return after leaving for the Clippers in the 2020 NBA off-season.
Ontario’s restrictions are among the most restrictive in jurisdictions with professional sports teams as leagues forge through the public health crisis. Most American teams are playing without limits.
The Montreal Canadiens, though, played to an empty building on Dec. 16, and Quebec was expecting new restrictions starting Jan. 1. And in Alberta, the world junior hockey championship was played with sparse crowds before finally being cancelled after nine games due to COVID.
In the NFL, the league has stopped testing most players who are vaccinated as it approaches the post-season and continues to play to packed stadiums.
“There’s no ideal circumstances,” said Keefe. “Everybody’s trying to do their best to just make sure the games can get played. Just look at what we’ve gone through now with the world juniors. None of this is ideal. Nobody wants this situation to be what it is, but we’re trying to make the best of it and everybody’s circumstances are different in every city, every province, every state, every country.”
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Prescott on Cowboys fans throwing debris at refs: 'Credit to them' – theScore
The quarterback initially thought spectators were showering Cowboys players with garbage before reporters informed him the trash was intended for the referees.
“Oh, well, credit to them, then,” Prescott said, according to WFAA’s Mike Leslie.
Prescott was offered a chance to clarify his remark at the end of his postgame press conference but chose not to, according to Leslie.
Dallas lost moments before the debris was thrown, as the driving Cowboys failed to spike the ball while the final seconds ticked off the clock. Dallas lined up to snap the ball, but an official bumped into Prescott from behind and couldn’t spot the ball in time.
“The fans felt the same way as us,” Prescott said, according to the Dallas Morning News’ Michael Gehlken. “I guess that’s why the refs took off and got out of there so fast. I think everybody is upset with the way this thing played out.”
Referee Alex Kemp said afterward the officials operated properly and spotted the ball correctly.
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was also frustrated by the way the final seconds played out.
“We shouldn’t have had any problem getting the ball spotted there,” he said, per CBS Sports.
I Watched This Game: Pettersson breaks out in big Canucks win over Capitals – Vancouver Is Awesome
The Vancouver Canucks’ road trip was not going to plan. The Canucks were looking to make a statement against some of the top teams in the NHL, but through three games that statement appeared to be, “These teams are better than we are.”
On Sunday, the Canucks were facing another of the NHL’s best teams, the 7th-in-the-NHL Washington Capitals. They were doing so on the second half of back-to-backs in an afternoon game with one of their best forwards — Conor Garland — out on the NHL’s COVID protocol and with Thatcher Demko playing his fourth game in six nights.
That’s not typically a recipe for success but the Canucks bucked the odds thanks partly to a complete effort from the entire team but, more specifically, thanks to a breakthrough performance from Elias Pettersson.
The team’s franchise forward hasn’t exactly been playing like a franchise forward this season, unless you consider “getting fans’ hopes up and then leaving them bitterly disappointed” as a pretty accurate representation of the Canucks franchise.
Pettersson’s struggles culminated with a game on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes where pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. He had some terrible giveaways, accidentally blocked what looked like a sure goal, took a skate to the face, hit the post on his best scoring chance, and snapped his stick in half on another chance, after which he got tripped by the goaltender and went crashing into the boards with no penalty call.
It seemed like there was nowhere to go but up for Pettersson and he went way, way up against the Capitals, scoring two enormous goals to lead the Canucks to the win.
“We don’t have a lot of natural scorers on our team,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau, “Hopefully, it’s not an anomaly or a one-off and he can continue to do this and then that’ll make it an awful lot easier on us.”
Of course, Boudreau had previously said that Pettersson’s game was rounding into form and that the scoring was on its way.
“When you start getting chances — he hit the post last game and he had a couple of breakaways the game before — it was inevitable that he was going to score at some point,” said Boudreau.
Pettersson, for his part, wasn’t worried.
“I know what I’m capable of,” said Pettersson. “Of course, it’s been tough for me. I’m trying to play my best hockey every game, and it’s been been a slow start.”
With limited media access due to COVID this season, Pettersson hasn’t been grilled by the media about his struggles all that much, so it wasn’t surprising that he was asked about his confidence. At one point, when he was again asked about mental aspect of his struggles, he muttered, “Oh, so it’s just gonna be questions like that.”
That’s a bit of the death-stare Pettersson from earlier in his career popping up and it’s honestly nice to see some of that confident bite back. But also, yeah, it’s going to be questions like that when you go from being a near point-per-game player with strong two-way play and a dominant playoff run under your belt to putting up 19 points in 38 games.
Pettersson is too good of a player to be kept quiet forever but even the biggest believers in Pettersson had to have their confidence rattled a little bit by his struggles this season.
Hopefully, this is just the start of a Pettersson renaissance. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any hope of the Canucks beating the odds and making the playoffs unless Pettersson regains his form and becomes the Canucks’ best forward like he has been in the past.
With Pettersson excelling, it was a lot more pleasant when I watched this game.
- It should be noted that while the Canucks were playing on the second half of back-to-backs, so were the Capitals. Also, the Canucks were missing Garland due to COVID protocol but the Capitals were missing John Carlson, who is tied for 6th in the NHL among defencemen in scoring, for the same reason. Maybe that all balances out.
- A big reason for the three-straight losses on this road trip was the power play going 0-for-12 in those three games, so it was great to see them go 2-for-4 tonight. Of course, that was countered by the penalty kill giving up two goals on two Capitals power plays, so you can’t really say that special teams were the difference.
- Before going 2-for-2 against the Canucks, the Capitals had gone 3-for-33 on the power play in their last 10 games and were 28th in the NHL overall in power play percentage. Despite their firepower up front, the Capitals have had one of the worst power plays in the NHL this season but you wouldn’t know it from Sunday’s game.
- “We’re all concerned about the penalty kill,” said Boudreau. “It’s great that you score power play goals and it was largely overdue…but we’ve got to shore up the penalty kill because I’m a big believer that if you can have your special teams in the top 10 in both categories, you’re usually a playoff team and you’re usually a tough team to beat.”
- Alex Ovechkin opened the scoring with a classic Ovechkin goal: a one-timer from the top of the left faceoff circle. There’s not much shame in giving up a goal like that to Ovechkin — he’s the greatest goalscorer in NHL history for a reason — but it was his third shot attempt from the exact same spot on that power play. Allowing three one-timers from the Ovi spot is like standing around in the open while Steven Seagal ever-so-slowly snipes all of the people around you — eventually, he’s going to get you.
- “I wouldn’t look at [Ovechkin] and he was looking right at me and I said, ‘No more,’” said Boudreau. “If he played against me every day, he’d probably have 110 goals a year. He gets up for it. Seriously, if it wasn’t for Demmer — Ovi had, on one shift, he had two great looks on two-on-ones, he had a couple great looks in the third period.”
- This was an outstanding game by the line of Tanner Pearson, J.T. Miller, and Brock Boeser, particularly in terms of puck possession. When they were on the ice together at 5-on-5, shot attempts were 22-to-8 for the Canucks, as they spent long shifts in the offensive zone. Pearson’s work on the forecheck was phenomenal, repeatedly winning the puck down low below the goal line.
- The only issue is that line couldn’t put the puck in the net. Pearson had the line’s best chance in the final minute of the first period, as J.T. Miller gave him a wide-open net but his stick was checked at the last second by Capitals defenceman Matt Irwin and his shot was sliding wide before it was cleared away by Aliaksei Protas.
- Pettersson responded for the Canucks with his own power play goal in the second period. After a stint as the net-front presence on the power play — an interesting experiment that largely failed because the Canucks never play the puck down low on the power play — Pettersson was moved back to the top of the right faceoff circle where he ought to be at the end of Saturday’s game and started there on Sunday. As 38 Special would say to him, “I want you back where you belong.”
- Pettersson’s goal wasn’t a mirror image of Ovechkin’s — instead of a one-timer blast, Pettersson instead made a patient play to step around the defenceman charging out to take away the shooting lane and whipped the puck off the short-side post and in. Like everything in the frame of a Wes Anderson movie, it was perfectly placed.
- A few minutes later, Pettersson made it 2-1 but the goal came after a strong shift by the Miller line that didn’t allow the Capitals to change. That allowed Pettersson and his linemates, Nils Höglander and Bo Horvat to buzz around the offensive zone until a point shot from Oliver Ekman-Larsson created a rebound. Pettersson’s first shot on the rebound was stopped but then he called bank and put the puck off the backside of goaltender Ilya Samsonov and in.
- Garnet Hathaway had a very stupid game for the Capitals. He took a ridiculously unnecessary penalty for knocking Ekman-Larsson’s helmet off, leading to the Canucks’ game-winning goal but his far worse offence was this elbow to the head of Tyler Motte completely away from the play. Hathaway got a two-minute minor that probably should’ve been a five-minute major and he ought to get a suspension out of it too.
- Horvat gave the Canucks the 3-1 lead with a fantastic shot from the bumper on the power play. He was helped by the threat of Pettersson’s shot: he just missed the net on a one-timer a moment earlier, so the penalty kill was cheating towards him. That left Horvat a little bit more room for a one-timer of his own that went short side on Samsonov.
- Miller’s pass on Horvat’s goal deserves another look because Miller didn’t give Horvat another look. He was looking towards Boeser down low the entire time, completely fooling penalty killer Nick Jensen, who swung his stick to block a pass to Boeser that never came, opening up the passing lane to Horvat on the inside.
- The Capitals mirrored Horvat’s goal with their own power play marker from the bumper. This time, the pass did go down low: Nicklas Backstrom passed to Evgeny Kuznetsov below the goal line, who relayed to Tom Wilson for the finish, with Tyler Myers and Jason Dickinson a step slow to prevent the shot.
- While the Canucks gave up two power play goals, they were much stingier defensively at 5-on-5 and they capably closed out the rest of the third period, protecting the one-goal lead until the final minute, when Boeser beat out an icing and centred for a Miller empty-net goal to seal the win, with Pearson getting the second assist. It was a fitting finish for a dominant effort by that line.
Novak Djokovic could be barred from French Open under new vaccine law – Sportsnet.ca
BELGRADE, Serbia — Novak Djokovic returned home Monday after being thwarted from defending his Australian Open title only to face a new predicament: He could be barred from the French Open this year, too, if he’s still not vaccinated against COVID-19.
A plane carrying the No. 1-ranked player touched down in his native Serbia, closing at least the first chapter in a dizzying drama that has resonance in the world of elite sports, Australia’s pandemic politics and the polarized debate over the coronavirus shots.
A handful of fans waving the Serbian flag greeted him at Belgrade’s airport. Djokovic has an almost iconic status in Serbia, and many there felt he was poorly treated by Australia.
But his troubles may not be over yet: He could be barred from the French Open this year, under a new law intended to exclude the unvaccinated from stadiums and other public places. Much could change between now and the start of the Grand Slam tournament in late May, but that raised the specter that the recent saga in Australia would be not just a blip but an ongoing challenge for the athlete, who is increasingly being held up as a hero by the anti-vaccine movement.
A member of the French Parliament, Christophe Castaner, said that the new law will apply anyone who wants to play in the French Open — a reversal of earlier plans to create a “bubble” around the tournament.
But some details of the law are still being hashed out — including how it will deal with people who have recently recovered from COVID-19, as Djokovic has. The question is how recent the infection has to be to qualify for an exemption to vaccination rules. France’s sports ministry said Monday once the law is in place, there will be no exceptions until further notice.
Djokovic is also the defending champion at Wimbledon, which begins in late June. But so far, England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus regulations for visiting athletes, if they remain at their accommodation when not competing or training. The U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open, has said it will follow government rules on vaccination status.
It’s also not clear when Djokovic could head back to Australia. Deportation can lead to a three-year ban on returning to the country, although that can be waived, depending on the circumstances.
For now, a warm welcome awaits Djokovic, who has overwhelming support in his native Serbia where his closest family lives. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has accused the Australian government of “harassing” the top-ranked tennis star and urged him to return home.
“God bless you Novak,” read one of the banners held by the fans at the airport as he was whisked through the passport control and customs and then driven by his brother Djordje to his apartment in Belgrade.
The official Tanjug news agency reported that Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, said her son will remain in Belgrade in the coming days and won’t make statements for the media.
Djokovic’s Australian saga began when he was granted an exemption to strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and the tournament organizer in order to play in the Australian Open because he had recently recovered from COVID-19. He received a visa to enter the country through an automated process. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him.
The initial news that the star had been granted the exemption sparked anger in Australia, where strict lockdowns in cities and curbs on international travel have been employed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus since the pandemic began.
More than 95% of all Top 100 men and women tennis players in their tours’ respective rankings are vaccinated. At least two other men — American Tennys Sandgren and Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert — skipped the Australian Open due to vaccine requirements.
In the end, Australian authorities revoked Djokovic’s visa, saying his presence could stir up anti-vaccine sentiment and that kicking him out was necessary to keep Australians safe. He was deported Sunday, a day before the tournament got underway in Melbourne.
Djokovic has won nine titles there previously. He had hoped this year to secure his 21st Grand Slam singles trophy, breaking the record he shares with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis. Federer is not playing while recovering from injury, but Nadal is competing.
As the legal battle played out in Australia, Djokovic acknowledged that he had attended an interview in Belgrade in December with journalists from L’Equipe newspaper after testing positive for the coronavirus. He later described this “an error” of judgment.
Asked if Djokovic would face any penalties for flouting his isolation while being infected when he returns to Serbia, Serbian officials said he would not because the country is not in a state of emergency.
Djokovic is a national hero in Serbia, whose president had called the court hearing in Australia “a farce with a lot of lies.”
“Novak, welcome home, you know that we all support you here,” said Snezana Jankovic, a Belgrade resident. “They can take away your visa, but they cannot take away your Serbian pride.”
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