From hints at what the team’s offensive focus might look like, to the apparent return of Pascal Siakam — and even how the team might navigate complications related to COVID-19 this season — we learned quite a bit about what the 2020-21 Raptors might be about.
Living and dying by the three
Though not overly surprising, given its importance in the modern NBA, it looks like the Raptors will be taking a lot of three-pointers this season.
In their pre-season finale last Friday, the Raptors hoisted up 57 triples. On Wednesday, they jacked up 46.
At first, it seemed like this was a great idea, with Toronto going 11-of-24 from deep in the first half. But after an ice-cold third quarter, where they went 0-for-10 from three-point range, and just 3-of-22 in the entire second half, Toronto appeared to shoot itself in the foot — paving the way for the Pelicans to turn a seven-point halftime deficit into a nine-point lead by the end of the third.
And while the NBA, to use a cliché, is a make-or-miss league, what’s a little bit concerning was hearing after the game how those Raptors’ three-point misses impacted the club’s energy level in the second half.
“It sure looked like it, it zapped our energy pretty big time, I thought,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said when asked if those missed triples drained the Raptors. “That’s tough to deal with, but it still wasn’t a million miles away. With six minutes to go, it was still a five- or seven-point game. We kind of weathered that, that’s a big thing, but we did seem to lose a little energy and maybe ran out of a little gas, too.”
It’s well and good to be a team with an offence predicated on the the triple, but tp hear of them running out of steam because they happened to go cold on good looks isn’t the most encouraging thing.
Granted, this was just the first game of the season, but based on all the threes the Raptors put up, as well as just the 12 free throws they attempted Wednesday, it feels like there needs to be a better balance struck between outside and inside scoring.
“We’d like to get to the free-throw line more, I thought we probably should have,” Nurse said. “But just didn’t seem to get too many of the hard driving, contact plays tonight. Yeah, we’re gonna definitely need to get to the line more. It’s certainly a high priority, we’re going to need to shore that up a little bit.”
Siakam back, mostly
For more encouraging news, it looked like the Siakam of old was back Wednesday night.
The Raptors all-star finished with 20 points, six rebounds and six assists on 8-of-17 shooting, including a 3-for-7 clip from deep.
Siakam looked active and energized, and he appeared to have some of that old swagger that made him an All-NBA selection last season, with takes to the basket that left Pelicans defenders all tied up in a knot.
“I think it was a little better in terms of continuing to play fast,” Siakam said after the game. “I’m getting back to, you know, just running and attacking, making plays and stuff, so I felt good about it.”
More importantly than seeing his confidence going toward the basket, however, was the level of playmaking he illustrated.
The six dimes Siakam dropped Wednesday weren’t by accident. His passing is something he worked on in training camp and the pre-season, and now he’s showing it to start the regular season.
“Well, I think that that’s certainly a good place for him to be,” Nurse said of Siakam’s playmaking Wednesday. “I think once you become a scorer like he is you’re going to have to play-make just because they’re going to send multiple defenders to you. And I think he’s getting better at that.”
The only criticism to be had of Siakam’s game from Wednesday is the fact he didn’t score, nor assist, in the fourth quarter. The Raptors had a chance to mount a comeback early in the final frame, but ultimately couldn’t, and while Siakam certainly wasn’t all to blame for that, his lack of production proved to be a factor.
Baynes, Boucher are going to be alright
There was obviously a lot made of the departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in the off-season, but based on what we saw Wednesday from their replacements at centre, Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher, the Raptors will be just fine.
Baynes had 11 points and nine rebounds Wednesday and, in the first half in particular, was seen setting big screens that freed-up shooters like Kyle Lowry. And, as you can see in the clip from a little earlier, he even hit a three-pointer.
Boucher, too, had a good first half, scoring eight of his 12 points, crashing the glass hard and even looking Ibaka-esque in his own way: doing damage in the pick-and-pop and drilling mid-range jimmies.
In all, Baynes and Boucher held their own Wednesday, and if this is what we can expect from them this season, things won’t be too bad for the Raptors at that spot.
Dealing with COVID
Norman Powell wasn’t cleared to play Wednesday until just a few hours before the game, stuck in the league’s health and safety protocol.
As Powell revealed after the game, he missed two or three practices with the Raptors before the season opener because he was under the protocol, something that may have contributed to the poor night he had, going 2-for-12 from the field for 12 points.
Regardless of Powell’s performance, however, this uncertainty that Powell put the Raptors in sounds like it’s going to be a reality moving forward.
The virus hasn’t left our midst yet, and these kinds of situations, unfortunately, might become normal as this season progresses.
Carey Price in dominant form as Canadiens stifle superstar-led Oilers – Sportsnet.ca
He was almost easy to ignore as the Canadiens had their way — four lines churning and backing the Oilers into the corner with a 4-0 lead built on a power-play goal, two at even-strength and one shorthanded.
For as dominant as Montreal was in this game — fully, completely, and it was compensated with a 5-1 win — it was Price who delivered on the key tenet of the plan.
If you want to beat the Oilers — even this deeper group than we’ve seen most recently in Edmonton — you have to hope to contain Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. You can’t count on stopping them outright, but keeping them from scoring four points apiece, like they did in Thursday’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, is a must.
And on most nights, it takes a full team effort to do that.
But on this night, it took a superstar. The one named Price.
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He is the equalizer on Montreal’s side, still very much the steady hand on this new-and-improved, bleu, blanc et rouge ship, and he showed it on his first save of the game — a dandy on Kyle Turris — and on the 33 that followed.
But the two saves Price made on McDavid, and the six he made on Draisaitl, were the difference between this game being close and it ending as it did.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien agrees.
“It’s certain he had a huge impact,” Julien said after Saturday’s game. “Listen, we’re not blind; we saw the chances they had to score and how solid Carey Price was on them. He was an excellent goalie for us tonight. We did good things, but we still have things we’ll continue to try to improve, and there were maybe too many chances against at a point…”
There was about 15 minutes of play between the Canadiens holding tight to a 1-0 lead late in the first period and expanding to 4-0 in the 10th minute of the second that come to mind.
It started with Price sliding across his crease to get a pad on a late first-period breakaway for McDavid.
Big-time save, yeah.
But Price is a big-time-save goaltender.
As Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher put it, “Probably the best player in the world coming down on him, but if you’re sitting on the bench you almost just know you’re going to get the save.”
If you’re sitting on Edmonton’s bench, you’re practically celebrating McDavid’s goal before the puck has even crossed the line.
Price took nothing for granted on the play. He didn’t guess, he didn’t try to bait McDavid into shooting to a specific spot; he just let the play come his way.
“It wasn’t really a read; it was just kind of a reaction,” Price said after the game. “He came in with a lot of speed and I was just able to close the holes.”
Because that’s what Price does when he’s on his game. He just closes holes.
The 33-year-old pulled a page out of former Oilers goaltender Bill Ranford’s book early in the second period, stacking his pads on a Draisaitl snapper from 16 feet away to close a hole. It was a deadly power-play chance turned away with flair.
But Price made all the other hard saves look easy.
He made the easy ones look easy, too, which is not what you’d say of Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen on this night.
Still, the Canadiens made Koskinen’s night difficult. They deserve their due — if not for helping Price a bit with McDavid, Draisaitl and Co., then certainly for what they did offensively.
They started with wave after wave of pressure, inundating the Oilers and knocking them on their heels with their speed. Jeff Petry opened the scoring on the power play soon after.
The former Oiler added one at 5-on-5 after Tomas Tatar made it 2-0.
Jake Evans scored unassisted on a shorthanded rush before the game was half over, and the Canadiens suffocated the life out of the rest of this one before Tatar buried a breakaway beauty with just over 10 minutes remaining in the third.
The goal that beat Price? A laser from Slater Koekkoek with 8:01 remaining — an open shot from a sharp angle that grazed the goaltender’s mask and pinged off the back bar.
Shutout bid busted, but spirit barely dented.
Sure, Price was mad about it, but he was much happier about earning his first win of the season.
It was a commanding performance for him, and his teammates, and they all felt it — even if Julien wisely downplayed it knowing the next meeting with the Oilers is less than 48 hours away.
“We’re a fast team. We consider ourselves fast,” Julien said. “On the other side, they were playing their third game in four nights. So there was certainly a fatigue element on the other side that took away some of their speed.
“But it was up to us to be smart and take advantage of the fact that they were playing their third in four nights.”
And it was up to Price to make the difference against two players who are among the very best no matter what the situation. Even if the shine was off of him in this game, he did exactly that.
Maple Leafs’ top line shows first hints of greatness in win over Senators – Sportsnet.ca
When Joe Thornton is informed that, even at 41 years and 198 days of age, he only became the second-oldest Toronto Maple Leaf to score a goal, Jumbo wants to know about the man standing between him and history.
Who? (Allan Stanley, the Hall of Fame defenceman) And how old? (41 years, 252 days.)
“So… I gotta play a couple more years, you’re sayin’, eh?” Thornton smiled.
If the big-bearded, carpool-karaoke-singing, hockey-hug-initiating legend keeps having himself nights like Saturday, we wouldn’t rule it out.
Even though the oldest forward in the league has been influencing the outcome of NHL games years before Tim Stützle was so much as an umlaut in his parents’ eye.
Sheldon Keefe had a feeling heading into Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre that this would be the night his prime-time top unit would finally break out. Third time’s a charm. The coach just wasn’t betting on Thornton to bust the dam before dynamic linemates Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“I don’t know that I had Jumbo maybe being the first one to get on the board,” Keefe smiled.
“That line, you could tell right from the drop of the puck today, was going to have a night. They’ve been working really hard. Haven’t had the results here quite yet, but they’ve been really working, and it was just a matter of time for the line.”
Fuelling a 3-2 Leafs victory over the Senators and salvaging a split in the weekend back-to-back, the performance of Thornton-Matthews-Marner was about as dominant as a first-line gets. That trio, Keefe’s most-used unit at five-on-five, skated nine and a half minutes together, out-attempting the opposition 13-3 in the process.
All three notched their first goals of the season, with Marner rebounding from Friday’s lacklustre showing to register three points.
“We’re still trying to get the whole rhythm thing down,” Marner explained. “It was really our first good game together. We were moving well. Down low we were really creating a lot of chances, holding on to the puck, weren’t rushing plays. I think we’re really using our creativity out there — and that’s something we weren’t doing the first two games.”
The trio is also communicating more on the ice, an element led by the boisterous, carefree Thornton whether he’s in sneakers or skates.
“That first goal, he’s screaming the whole time he’s behind me,” noted Marner, who set up Thornton with a slick drop pass on the rush.
Thornton’s first thought, of course, was to feed Matthews cross-ice on the two-on-one. Only when the Sens defender took away that lane did Thornton fire his warning shot to Allan Stanley.
“The amount of attention these two guys get it, I just gotta get open for ’em,” Thornton said. “It’s been so fun with Mitchy and Matty. We have a lot of fun out there, and I think we’ll continue to keep growing as a line. Because we are having fun and we get excited before every game, I think you can tell each game we’re getting better. And that’s a real good sign. Yeah, I love playing with those two kids.”
Matthews won an offensive draw to set up Marner’s quick-strike, which deflected off a sprawling Erik Gudbranson’s skate. And another Marner drop pass teed up Matthews’ bullet one-timer for the power-play winner.
A balanced contribution from three stars who’d had a number of positive shifts but had been snake-bitten up to this point was a major reason Toronto outshot Ottawa 40-19 and gave the puck away eight fewer times than their opponent.
What’s telling is that Keefe expanded the praise of his top line to their defensive efforts, particularly Thornton.
The most senior Leaf has played thrice in four nights, averaging 17:58 per game. He’s on pace for his most ice time since he was a sprightly 38-years-old.
“Joe had really great legs right to the very end of the game,” Keefe said. “Some of our best tracks and catching guys from behind and having a stick on the puck and creating a turnover the last couple of games here in Ottawa came from Joe and his effort there. So, feeling really good about what he’s been able to do and how he looks in that area.”
Certainly, it’s too early to declare the Jumbo and the Kids experiment a rousing success, but Saturday at least hinted at the greatness three guys with elite skill can stir when they’re clicking.
“We want to get better every single day we’re here,” Marner said. “Tonight was a great step forward for us three.”
• Brutal break for 19-year-old rookie Nick Robertson. In his NHL regular-season debut, the winger popped off the screen in his 2:20 worth of work, but suffered a knee injury when he was crunched into the boards by Drake Batherson.
“It looks like he’s definitely gonna miss some time,” Keefe said.
More on Robertson’s status will be known after his MRI, which could be as soon as Sunday.
• Jason Spezza skated less than seven minutes but was a perfect 10-for-10 in the faceoff circle, a major reason Toronto won 63 per cent of its draws.
• Even goalie Jack Campbell had to tip his cap to Stützle’s incredible first NHL goal, a one-timed clapper plucked out of midair.
“The only thing I could think other than ‘I should’ve had it’ was, ‘I just want to shake his hand,’” Campbell said. “That was a heck of a play. What a young talent. It’s good for the league.”
• Keefe spoke highly of Campbell’s work in the victory. Toronto’s starting goalie for Monday’s game versus Winnipeg has yet to be announced.
Toronto Maple Leafs game recap: Leafs remember who they are, defeat Ottawa Senators 3-2 – Pension Plan Puppets
The Toronto Maple Leafs came into game three of the 2021 season sporting an overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens and a two goal loss to the Ottawa Senators. Tonight was the second game of a back to back in the nations capital. It featured the regular season debut of highly touted prospect Nick Robertson, as well as the goaltending duo of Jack Campbell and Aaron Dell, giving Frederik Andersen the night off after two shaky starts.
Speaking of shaky starts, we get an offside call seconds into the game. It’s not that bad jsut silly. The first few minutes are a lot of back and forth, board play, scrums, but no shots or attempts. The Leafs start to get frisky in the offensive zone approaching the three minute mark; Zach Bogosian breaks his stick on a blue line shot attempt, William Nylander tries to put the puck through the side mesh. Jack Campbell gets tested quickly afterwards, and we get some nice safe play up and down the ice until Erik Gudbranson blocks a shot and the puck gets lots in his pants.
Mitch Marner receives a pass close to the net, but dangles one too many times before taking his shot and it’s easily stolen by Thomas Chabot.
Marner tries to retrieve the puck, but trips Chabot and gets called for it. Should he have though? That’s questionable. The Senators run a smooth power play but the Leafs are able to get in the way, block some passes, and when the Senators do get through Jack Campbell makes the save to kill off the penalty.
The game continues. Neither team is particularly putting pressure on the other, nor are they doing anything spectacular. Thankfully it’s not completely frustrating, though that’s probably because the game is tied. Auston Matthews and Nick Robertson get some good shots on net, but Matt Murray knocks them away.
Joe Thornton just completely falls over and slides down the ice. Forget goals, or fights, that is my favourite part of hockey.
Justin Holl easily strips Evgeni Dadanov of the puck, preventing him from getting his first as a Senator. HOWEVER the Senators regroup and Nikita Zaitsev shoots from the blue line, it hits Nick Paul in the midsection, which redirects the puck past Jack Campbell and into the Maple Leafs net. 1-0 Ottawa.
Pressure comes from the Maple Leafs in response to this goal. The puck is cleared up ice from the Leafs zone by TJ Brodie, Mitch Marner skates it in, drop passes to Joe Thornton and Jumbo scores his first to tie the game!
Goal scored by #97 Joe Thornton. Assist, to a player who was less than 2 months old when Thornton was drafted, Mitch Marner.
— Rob Pizzo (@robpizzo) January 17, 2021
The period ends tied at one each. The Senators are playing like a team who have been together for three years, not coming out of the bottom of a rebuild, where as the Leafs have forgotten how to defend and pick their spots for shooting the puck (the spots should be closer to the net).
After four periods of hockey against the Senators, I really feel like I underestimated them. Hopefully the Leafs get their things together for a more cohesive and solid second period.
They’ll be doing it without Nick Robertson though, as he’s out with a knee injury after Drake Batherson mashed him into the boards.
The Maple Leafs got revenge though, as Mitch Marner quickly scores on Matt Murry to open the second period.
The Senators get a chance to tie the game as John Tavares gets called for hooking, but the Senators can’t get a good chance, and Jack Campbell makes the necessary saves, and the penalty is killed.
Thomas Chabot gets the Senators their first penalty when he slashes John Tavares on the hand – the hand he needs to shoot pucks too! The Senators do a good job killing this penalty until Paquette makes a hand pass off a face off to give the Leafs 12 seconds of a five on three. They don’t score on the five on three, Chabot comes back to defence, but the Leafs are playing around in the offensive zone until a puck deflects out and down the ice.
The Leafs power play has a great sequence that sees Tavares, Matthews, and Rielly have great chances but nothing gets past Murray. On the plus side they got seven shots off on that power play. Great work, even if it didn’t go as planned.
Going back and forth with the penalties, Ilya Mikheyev is careless with his stick and gets it up high on Chabot. The Leafs keep the power play at bay for 40 seconds until Marner is called for puck over the glass.
The Senators waste their two man advantage without getting a proper shot off – not surprising as they only had 10 shots up until the power play – and the Leafs kill Marner’s penalty as well, keeping the Senators from scoring or getting a shot.
Auston Matthews comes close to the five hole, but Murray closes his legs in time. The Senators get a couple weak shots, the Leafs continue to control the puck though, and the second period will end with the score 2-1 and shots 28-12 for the Leafs.
Also, this is how the period ended. Okay, I guess?
The third period starts with the Leafs getting two quick shots on net and Alex Kerfoot drawing a hooking penalty from Josh Brown, so they get their third power play of the night early on in the third.
The first unit clicks on this one and Auston Matthews gets a shot from the top of the circle past Murray for his first goal of the season:
The Senators finally get their first shot on goal – five minutes into the period – and it’s stopped by Campbell (shots are 35-13 now for Toronto). The Maple Leafs are up by two, and are spending the third period clogging the neutral zone, and protecting the lead. The Senators are barely getting any possession time, and even less offensive zone time. The Maple Leafs are showing up for real now.
Brady Tkachuk tries to get under Matthews skin, but now that he’s scored Auston is afraid of no one.
The Senators manage to get a second goal past Jack Campbell, and it’s a big one for them as Tim Stützle gets the first NHL goal of his career. 3-2 Maple Leafs.
The Senators have a chance to build off the momentum of that goal as Zach Hyman is called for high sticking as Thomas Chabot shows off his acting skills.
This powerplay is a bit better for the Senators, but Jack Campbell still won’t let them have a goal on the man advantage.
The Senators are pushing hard to tie the game, playing the Leafs more until Stützle gets called for tripping Jake Muzzin, giving the Leafs a late powerplay and the chance to put the game away. They don’t, as the Senators kill off the penalty without any scares from the Leafs. Drake Batherson shoots on Campbell, how kick saves the puck, but the Leafs can’t clear after that and there’s a minute long scramble in front of the Leafs net as the Senators try to score before the game ends.
The first regulation win of the season for the Maple Leafs, outshooting the Senators 40-19. It started badly, but ended well. The Leafs ran the game in an unexciting way, got the win and now flee Ottawa for the comforts of home.
Game four is Monday night against the Winnipeg Jets*, 7:00PM on TVA Sports and Sportsnet Ontario.
Carey Price in dominant form as Canadiens stifle superstar-led Oilers – Sportsnet.ca
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