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How Timothy Liljegren emerging as an essential piece of Maple Leafs

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TORONTO – Some of us probably owe Timothy Liljegren an apology, don’t we?

There are the card-carrying members of Leaf Nation who wished an unproven Liljegren, instead of an unproven Sean Durzi, had been included in Toronto’s futures trade to Los Angeles in 2019 for Jake Muzzin.

There are those cynics who thought the defenceman had been handed extra rope on the basis that (a) he was a first-round pick, and they always get the benefit of the doubt; and (b) he was a right shot in a system desperate for blueliners comfortable playing that side.

And there are plenty of pundits (present company included) who have extolled the high ceiling of Liljegren’s close friend and teammate, comparable and countryman Rasmus Sandin, while discussing Liljegren as a half-step behind in the Hope Rankings.

(Sandin’s own 2022 contract pitch that he was worthy of something more substantial that the Liljegren deal only fueled that line of thinking.)

Quietly, steadily, in 2022-23 we are witnessing the rise of Liljegren.

All those small developmental steps are accumulating into a giant leap for the Lily Pad.

In truth, the soft-spoken Swede’s emergence began in the latter half of 2021-22, when savvy veteran and newcomer Mark Giordano pinpointed Liljegren as the under-the-radar Maple Leaf he had been most impressed by since being traded east.

And when Liljegren, not Sandin, was trusted to participate in last spring’s critical playoff series versus Tampa.

Sure, Liljegren has long held hipster fan cache. Sporting the same beard as 90 per cent of guys who exclusively drink limited-edition double IPA microbrews helps. So do the underlying possession metrics.

But big, in-your-face statement games — like the one Liljegren enjoyed Wednesday, driving a 3-2 overtime victory at home over an engaged New York Rangers squad — were scarce.

Despite Pontus Hölmberg’s scoring on the first shot of the night, a wicked breakaway backhander, the Rangers dug in and responded with two highlight-worthy Filip Chytil goals to seize a 2-1 lead.

Maple Leafs score on first shot of game as Holmberg roofs breakaway backhand vs. Rangers.

With Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe encouraging randomness, shot volume and traffic to harass a dialed-in Igor Shesterkin, Liljegren made a smart and aggressive pinch with less than five minutes in regulation.

The defenceman drove down the blind side of the O-zone and beat his check inside the slot, putting himself in position to whack home a rebound resulting from a William Nylander shot and a nifty John Tavares tip.

The game-tying scoring play was dirty and urgent. And it was one Liljegren himself admitted he likely wouldn’t have the confidence to convert a couple years ago.

“Felt good,” Liljegren said, smiling, post-win. “I think I feel a little more comfortable going down (to the opponent’s net) and stuff like that now. Especially that time. We’re down one goal and need a goal, so try to get some more offence.”

Observed Nylander: “He’s been very steady in the D-zone and obviously making great plays with the puck in the offensive zone, and jumping into areas like he did tonight, and getting a big one for us.”

Added Keefe: “Great read by him.”

So trusted is Liljegren that Keefe threw him right back out in 3-on-3 overtime, where he assisted on Mitch Marner’s slithering game-winner.

Gotta See It: Marner makes spectacular solo effort to win it for Maple Leafs in OT.

And with his plus-2 night, Liljegren now leads all Maple Leafs with a plus-22 on the season. (The next-best Toronto defender in the category is Giordano, at plus-17.)

As injuries have mounted and the player has responded to increased responsibility, Keefe’s faith in Liljegren continues to swell.

Liljegren has averaged 16:31 a night through his career, but with 21:55 worth of work Wednesday, he eclipsed the 20-minute mark for the sixth time in his past seven outings and is getting some second-unit power-play looks.

(Memo to Keefe: The next step in the evolution should be trying Liljegren on PP1. There’s time to experiment, and things aren’t humming with Morgan Rielly up top.)

Keefe has been working with the 23-year-old since their Marlies days.

The coach allowed a moment of reflection on Liljegren’s patient journey to becoming an NHL lineup fixture, noting how it wasn’t until the defenceman’s third AHL season when “you could really see it blossoming,” when his natural offence and not-so-natural defensive details both began to click.

“But it took time. Time for it to come, for sure. And he stuck with it,” Keefe said. “You don’t get in those positions oftentimes if you can’t defend.”

Can Maple Leafs’ Liljegren evolve into a number two defenceman? | Kyper and Bourne

On Wednesday, Nylander handed Liljegren the Maple Leafs’ player-of-the-game belt.

“I never got it before, so I didn’t really know what to say,” Liljegren said, smiling. “But, yeah, feels good.”

So, what did the man of few words muster?

“Good comeback win.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Leafs prospect-slash-saviour Matthew Knies has been nominated for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to the NCAA’s top player.

Last season, Knies scored 15 and 33 points in 33 games. This season, the 20-year-old has 15 goals and 27 points through 26 games for the University of Minnesota Gophers.

• Chytil’s faceoff snipe was a thing of surprise and beauty.

“I gotta give it to him. Pretty nice play, catching everybody off guard like that. I mean, I haven’t seen that in a long time,” Nylander said.

Added Marner: “It’s a smart move. Obviously, it works.”

Reminiscent of Mario Lemieux pulling the same shenanigans.

• Most blocked shots, NHL forwards:

1. Auston Matthews – 63

2. Nick Bonino – 62

3. Anze Kopitar – 56

4. Garnet Hathaway – 54

5. Elias Pettersson – 50

• Justin Holl understands he may never be the fourth man in the rush whenever Morgan Rielly is his partner: “I’ve kinda just decided it’s my job to stay back now.”

• Ilya Samsonov is an incredible 14-0-1 at Scotiabank Arena. Best home goalie in the league.

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LeBron Saves Team USA in Thrilling Exhibition Against South Sudan at O2 Arena

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LONDON — In what could have been one of the most monumental upsets in international basketball history, Team USA narrowly escaped with a 101-100 victory over a spirited South Sudan team at the O2 Arena in London on Saturday night. This exhibition match, serving as a tune-up for the 2024 Olympics, showcased the rapid rise of South Sudanese basketball and the indomitable spirit of the American team led by LeBron James.

The atmosphere at the O2 Arena was electric, with fans witnessing a game that turned out to be far more competitive than expected. South Sudan, a team composed largely of refugees and players from the diaspora, pushed the heavily favored Americans to their limits.

First Half Highlights:

  • South Sudan came out firing on all cylinders, building a surprising 16-point lead in the second quarter.
  • Team USA struggled with their three-point shooting, missing 12 of their first 13 attempts from beyond the arc.

Despite the odds, South Sudan’s players, many of whom have overcome significant personal and professional challenges, played with remarkable cohesion and determination. Their performance was a testament to the rapid progress the team has made under the guidance of former NBA star Luol Deng.

With the game hanging in the balance, LeBron James demonstrated why he remains one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Benched at the start of the third quarter, James returned to the floor with a determination that was palpable.

Key Moments:

  • Third Quarter: Anthony Davis’ defensive prowess helped shrink the deficit. LeBron’s return brought stability and focus back to Team USA.
  • Final Minute: With just 20 seconds left, JT Thor of South Sudan scored over LeBron, giving his team a one-point lead.
  • Game-Winning Shot: LeBron drove to the basket, scoring the decisive layup with eight seconds remaining.

South Sudan’s journey to this point has been nothing short of inspirational. The country gained independence from Sudan in 2011, and the basketball program, still in its infancy, has quickly become a source of national pride.

Notable Contributions:

  • Carlik Jones: Delivered a triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.
  • Wenyen Gabriel: LeBron’s former teammate with the Lakers, contributed 11 points.
  • Marial Shayok: Led South Sudan with 24 points.

The team’s formation and rise have been spearheaded by Luol Deng, who played a pivotal role in recruiting and funding the program. His efforts have culminated in South Sudan qualifying for the Olympics, marking a historic achievement for the young nation.

Stephen Curry: “Wild game. They played really intense. It was nice to see how we responded. LeBron with a great finish down the stretch.”

Steve Kerr: “The whole team was embarrassed at halftime. We were challenged today, and it was good for us to feel that now. This was a reminder that we need to bring our best every game.”

Luol Deng: Expressed immense pride in his team’s performance, emphasizing the significance of their journey and the obstacles they have overcome.

This exhibition game was more than just a pre-Olympic warm-up. It highlighted the potential for underdog stories in sports and underscored the global reach and impact of basketball. Team USA, despite the narrow escape, was reminded of the importance of every game and the challenges that lie ahead.

South Sudan, on the other hand, has cemented its place on the international stage, showcasing that with determination and the right support, even the newest teams can compete with the best in the world.

As both teams prepare for the Olympics, this game at the O2 Arena will be remembered not only for its thrilling finish but also for the remarkable stories of resilience and ambition that played out on the court.

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UFC Vegas 94: Amanda Lemos vs. Virna Jandiroba – Main Event Recap

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In a thrilling main event at UFC Vegas 94, strawweights Amanda Lemos and Virna Jandiroba faced off on Saturday night. After an evenly matched first round, Jandiroba secured a dramatic submission victory in the second round, just moments before the bell.

Fight Summary:

  • First Round: The opening round was highly competitive, with both fighters showcasing their skills and maintaining a close contest.
  • Second Round: In the final seconds of the second round, Jandiroba managed to secure a submission, forcing Lemos to tap out. The win marks an impressive fourth consecutive victory for Jandiroba.

Post-Fight Remarks:

  • In her post-fight interview inside the Octagon, Jandiroba confidently called out UFC President Dana White, declaring, “Dana, I’m the next one. Dana, I’m your next champion.”

Future Implications:

  • With this victory, Jandiroba has positioned herself as a strong contender for the strawweight title. Tatiana Suarez, who was the rightful next contender for Weili Zhang, has been sidelined due to an injury. Jandiroba’s current four-fight win streak and her dominant performance at UFC Vegas 94 make a compelling case for her title shot.

Stay tuned for more updates as the UFC strawweight division continues to evolve, and see if Virna Jandiroba will indeed become the next challenger for the championship belt.

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Jake Paul vs. Mike Perry: Fight Night Updates

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Jake Paul is back in the ring, and he’s promising fireworks as he takes on former UFC star Mike Perry at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. The fight will be broadcast live on DAZN. Originally, Paul was set to fight Mike Tyson, but Perry stepped in after Tyson suffered an injury.

Fight Details:

Jake Paul (9-1, 6 KOs)

  • Paul is coming off a first-round TKO of Ryan Bourland in March.
  • He has promised that Perry won’t survive the second round.
  • Paul is more experienced in boxing but still relatively new to the sport.

Mike Perry (0-1)

  • Perry, known as “Platinum,” brings over a decade of fighting experience, mainly in MMA and bare-knuckle fighting.
  • He believes Paul is still green in the fight business and intends to use his experience to pull off an upset.

Main Event:
Jake Paul vs. Mike Perry

Live Updates: Follow DAZN for all the live updates, results, and highlights from the Paul vs. Perry pay-per-view main card.

Main Card Results:

Amanda Serrano def. Stevie Morgan via TKO

  • Round 2, 0:38
    • Watch the finish

Lucas Bahdi def. H20 Sylve via knockout

  • Round 6, 2:27
    • Watch the finish

Corey Marksman def. Tony Aguilar via majority decision

  • Scores: 76-76, 77-75, 78-74

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. def. Uriah Hall via unanimous decision

  • Scores: 59-55, 59-55, 58-56
    • Recap

Stay tuned for the main event updates and see if Jake Paul can deliver on his promise of another highlight reel knockout or if Mike Perry will teach him a lesson and pull off a major upset.

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