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Inside Byfield's breakthrough and why the best is yet to come – TSN

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TSN Hockey Reporter Mark Masters reports on the World Junior Hockey Championship. Team Canada practised at the Downtown Community Arena inside the Edmonton bubble on Wednesday. 

Quinton Byfield posted just two assists in his first nine games at the World Juniors. On Tuesday, the Sudbury Wolves centre exploded for six points, including two goals, as Canada blanked Switzerland 10-0. 
 
“We’re all real happy to see him have a night like that,” said alternate captain Dylan Cozens. “We needed him to step up and he did. I think that’s just the start for him and he’ll keep getting better from here on out. He will keep improving and take his game to the next level. We know that’s just a glimpse of what he can do.” 
 
Those words were enough to make the big man blush. 
 
“That’s a lot to ask, but I’m definitely feeling good about my game now and got the monkey off my back and there’s a lot more to come,” Byfield vowed.  
 
Byfield threw the metaphorical monkey off his back at the bench after scoring his first goal against the Swiss. 
 
“When either Connor McMichael or I score we always give a smile to each other and I think he said something about the monkey and I threw it off,” Byfield said. “Finally.” 
 
In the wake of the game, Byfield described the breakthrough as a relief. Last year, he started in a top-six role in Ostrava and finished as the 13th forward. This year, he admittedly started slow at the selection camp in mid-November while adjusting to the 10-plus pounds of muscle he put on during the pandemic pause. 
 
Head coach Andre Tourigny pushed him to be better early on, but also applauded the Newmarket, Ont., native for being coachable and improving his puck management. 
 
“He’s a more mature man than last year,” said Tourigny, an assistant coach a year ago. “He’s easier to coach. When I say, ‘Easier to coach,’ I mean it’s easier for him to make adjustments. Last year, at 17-years-old, at some point it can be a tough situation, but this year, even though he’s the youngest guy on the team, he’s real easy to coach.”
 
Byfield was the second overall pick by the Los Angeles Kings in October’s National Hockey League draft and has a dynamic blend of size, speed and soft hands. But that combination also comes with added pressure to produce. 
 
“Definitely wears on you a little bit, but not too much,” he said. “I knew it was going to come. I was playing the right way and playing how they wanted us to play. I was still feeling good about my game.” 
 

‘He was a dominant force’: Byfield puts on a show with six-point night

After recording six points in Canada’s blowout win against Switzerland, Bob McKenzie and Craig Button join James Duthie to discuss Quinton Byfield’s dazzling breakout performance at the World Juniors, and explain how Canada was able to fix its power play against the Swiss.

 
Byfield sat down with TSN on Wednesday to go over all six of his points and share some insight on his game.
 
First point – Primary assist on an even-strength goal by Phil Tomasino 
 
“I miss a check there, which isn’t good (smile), but try and get on the back-check and [Jack] Quinn strips a guy and I hear Tommy calling for it coming from the bench and I know he’s hot so I threw him the puck.” 
 
On the broadcast, TSN analyst Ray Ferraro applauded the way Byfield delivered the puck into Tomasino’s wheelhouse. 
 
“I knew he was coming from the bench on a little bit of a weird angle so I made not too hard of a pass and gave him the opportunity to shoot without stick handling. He didn’t have to dust it off and could get a quick release off and it fooled the goalie.” 
 
Even though he missed the check at the start of the sequence, Byfield’s ability to be a disruptor on the forecheck has made him an even more dangerous player. 
 
“It’s gotten a lot better. Instead of just reaching for the stick and doing stick lifts to grab the puck I’m being more physical and that creates more turnovers and allows the second guy to come in and support the puck.”
 

 
Second point – Secondary assist on an even-strength goal by Jakob Pelletier
 
“I saw the defender coming at me, but then he kind of backed up and wasn’t coming fully at me. I looked at his skates and saw he was turning the other way and I knew I had the middle to cut in and I saw [Connor] Zary coming off the bench and him and Pelts were going to the net pretty hard and I think it was just the right play to give them the puck and the rest happened from there.” 

 
Third point – Primary assist on power-play goal by Ryan Suzuki

“Me and Zukes were working them low for a little bit and then really opening them up. He put a nice shot down low and I tried to put in the rebound and tried kicking it to myself, but kind of messed up and Zukes was in the right spot and buried it nicely.” 
 
What’s the key to being a good net-front guy on the power play?
 
“Being able to get in the goalie’s eyes and goalie’s presence is definitely huge and then puck recoveries when the flank is shooting and the D is shooting and getting your stick on as much as you can and always being an option and being open for a tip or shot pass. There’s a lot to do down there.” 

Fourth point – Power-play goal off a Jamie Drysdale point shot

“It was a really good shot by Drysie. He noticed I was kind of alone in front and he put a perfect shot there and I was lucky to get my stick on it. I was a little shocked, almost, you know, because I haven’t scored in a while. I think that was my first goal since February so you’re still super excited, but you have to respect your opponent and respect the score and tried to keep it as humble as I could there.” 
 

Fifth point – Even-strength goal off a pass from Quinn

“Me and Quinner were a little late on the back check there. We were early on the forecheck, but trying to get on the back check. Pelletier makes a good play there and gets the puck up to Quinner. Then a great pass by Quinner, a little saucer pass over the stick. I was trying to go far side along the ice and it worked out going far side, but not along the ice.”
 

Sixth point – Primary assist on even-strength goal by Pelletier

“It started off with a won draw and then Pelts makes a good play along the wall on the far side with the D pinching down and then I drive the net there. Quinner doesn’t get a shot off but creates a jam in the corner and we win the battle there and Pelts throws it to the net and I stripped it off the Swiss guy and got the puck to Pelts and I knew he was going to bury that one.” 
 

Byfield is actually the second Canadian player to notch a six-point night at this year’s World Juniors. Cozens accomplished the feat with three goals and three assists in the opener against Germany. The Lethbridge centre was asked where he improved the most during the lengthy off-season. 
 
“Moving the puck up the ice,” the Buffalo Sabres’ first rounder said, “just skating with it and having the confidence on zone entries and creating offence in the zone, creating offence from nothing.”
 
How do you create offence from nothing? 
 
“Sometimes it’s just beating a guy, you know, spinning off him in the O-zone and creating a lane to the net or a passing lane,” Cozens said. “That’s the biggest thing is just kind of beating a guy one-on-one and taking it to the net.” 

Cozens had nine points in seven games last year in his first World Juniors and is even more confident this time around.
 
“I do feel stronger and faster and bigger in every aspect of my game,” he said. “I’m happy with a lot of the work I’ve put in this off-season and it’s starting to pay off.”
 
Cozens has exchanged texts with Sabres forward Sam Reinhart, a World Junior gold medallist in 2015, throughout the tournament. 
 
“When I got to [Sabres] camp, you know, he was a great leader for me right away and kind of took me under his wing,” Cozens said. “I got to meet him at the draft and he’s a guy I kept in touch with a bit and he’s been with Team Canada at the World Juniors and knows what it’s like.” 
 

Composed Cozens leading Canada on and off the ice

Team Canada is a perfect 2-0 through two games at the 2021 World Juniors after wins over Germany and Slovakia. With captain Kirby Dach out for the tournament with a wrist injury, Dylan Cozens has worn the ‘C’ for the Canadians and, as head coach André Tourigny says, his leadership has been felt on and off the ice. Mark Masters has more.


 
After three games at World Juniors and four games as a group overall, Tourigny feels Team Canada is starting to get in a groove. 
 
“We have more chemistry,” the coach observed. “We have less hesitation in our game. We have more structure. We have more confidence. We know more who we are. We’re a hard forechecking team who has the ability to counterattack really quickly with a quick strike. We have big bodies who can get on the forecheck and create a lot of turnovers. Our D skates really well and can kill plays in the neutral zone. So, we know better who we are than a week ago.”

What’s the identity of this year’s Team Canada? 
 
“We’re very relentless,” said defenceman Kaiden Guhle. “We’re big. We’re fast. Our forecheck is very tough to play against. We’re very resilient, very relentless. We’re a big, fast team that makes it tough for the other team and we’re trying to build on that every game.”  
 

Maple Leafs prospects Mikko Kokkonen, Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemela spoke with TSN about the improvements they’ve made this season, the direction they​’ve rec​eived from Toronto’s player development staff and how Team Finland matches up against Canada. 
 
The following is a transcript of the interview. 
 
TSN: Where do you feel your game has improved the most this season? 
 
Hirvonen, a forward with Assat: “I’ve improved my all-around game and my skating. I’ve gotten more scoring chances this season because I have more speed in my game and that’s the biggest thing.” 
 
Niemela, a defenceman with Karpat: “I have improved my defensive game. I’ve watched videos and improved also my shot.”
 
Kokkonen, a defenceman with Jukurit: “I have improved my defensive game and the most important thing that I have to improve is my offensive game right now.” 
 
TSN: How are you working on that? 
 
Kokkonen: “I have watched lots of videos with [director of player development] Stephane Robidas and our own staff and I have learned so much.”
 
TSN: What’s been the message from the Leafs to you this season? 
 
Hirvonen: “We talk about small things in my game like how to get more open in the offensive zone and how to get more pucks.”
 
Niemela: “I have to get stronger. I have to play faster and play defence more.”
 
Kokkonen: “I have to be better in the offensive zone and, of course, my skating has to be better if I want to play in the NHL. I have worked a lot on that so I’m on my way.” 
 
TSN: How do you think Finland matches up against Canada? 
 
Kokkonen: “We have a really good team right now. We are, like, really all-around team. We have offensive guys and guys to PK and we can play every situation really good.” 
 
Hirvonen: “We are a good all-around team with good defensive players and everyone has played in the Liiga one or two years so we’re really good and we’ll minimize their scoring chances and score a few goals and I think that way we can win.”
 
Niemela: “They have a good team, but we have also. It’ll be a tough game but I think we’re going to beat them.” 
 

Finnish Leafs prospects on improving their game and facing Canada

Maple Leafs prospects Mikko Kokkonen, Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemela spoke with TSN about the improvements they’ve made this season, the message they’ve received from Toronto’s player development department and how Team Finland matches up against Canada ahead of their New Year’s Eve showdown at the World Juniors.

 

 
In the weeks leading up to selection camp, goalie coach Jason LaBarbera sent video clips of Carter Hart, Mikey DiPietro and Joel Hofer playing at the World Juniors to the group of five netminders looking to secure Canada’s starting job. 
 
“Devon Levi wanted more,” said LaBarbera. “He wanted full games. He wanted the full gold-medal game from last year. He’s trying to get better and learn every day.” 
 
That approach allowed Levi to stand out immediately at the camp even though he was stuck in a cohort quarantine with two other NCAA players during the first week and didn’t play a game until the third of four intra-squad scrimmages. 
“I really liked where he was at and he’s just done nothing but trend in the right direction,”  LaBarbera said. “I like his demeanour and how he approaches things.” 
 
LaBarbera admits that it’s “pretty wild” that a kid who hasn’t played any major junior or NCAA games has won Canada’s No. 1 job at the World Juniors. The Northeastern University freshman also wasn’t invited to Canada’s summer virtual camp. 
So, what separated him from the pack? 
 
“His edge work is elite,” said LaBarbera. “When you watch him in games, practice, goalie drills, his ability to hold his edges and be able to move but also be able to change directions and grab his edges and get where he needs to go is elite. It’s a big reason why Florida drafted him and a big reason why he’s played at a high level here.”
 
There’s still areas that need to improve. A good chunk of Wednesday’s practice, for example, was focused on puck handling. 
 
“Just getting on the same page with our D,” said LaBarbera. “We haven’t had a lot of practice time to work on those things. In a normal season you’re on the same page and the calls are dialled in and the sharpness of that stuff. You want to make sure everyone is on the same page. The more you can be clean with those things the easier it is for everybody.” 

LaBarbera on Levi: ‘He’s done nothing but trend in the right direction’

Team Canada’s goaltending coach Jason LaBarbera has nothing but high praises for the 19-year-old goalie from Quebec. LaBarbera also tells Mark Masters how Devon Levi is just the third goalie in the last 40 years of Canadian junior teams to not come from one of the country’s three major junior leagues.

 

 
Lines at Canada’s practice on Wednesday: 
 
Forwards
 
Holloway – McMichael – Cozens
​Perfetti – Newhook – Krebs
Quinn- Byfield – Pelletier
Mercer – Suzuki – Tomasino 
Zary
 
Defencemen
 
Byram – Drysdale
Harley – Schneider
Guhle – Barron
Korczak (R) – Spence 
 
Goaltenders
 
Levi 
Garand
Gauthier 
 

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Raptors’ defensive progress undone in frustrating follow-up vs. Pacers – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “frustrated” as “feeling discouragement, anger, and annoyance because of unresolved problems or unfulfilled goals, desires, or needs.”

An alternate definition may also be this quote from Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after his team fell to the Indiana Pacers Monday night, 129-114.

“It was hard to play anything, all they did was parade to the free-throw line. … You can’t play defence when every time they touch the ball it’s a foul.”

Just a day after coming away with one of their best victories of the season, beating this same Pacers team 107-102 thanks largely to a complete defensive effort, the Raptors came out on the second night of their back-to-back set with Indiana looking like a shadow of the team from Sunday afternoon.

Heading into Monday’s contest there was optimism that the Raptors might be able to build off their win from Sunday to take it to the Pacers once again. A notion that grew when word came that Kyle Lowry would be returning to the lineup after a two-game absence.

Instead, however, Toronto got jumped on by Indiana as the Pacers enjoyed a 51.3-per cent shooting night and even managed to score 70 by the end of the first half, when they shot 59.1 per cent from the floor.

“I would say I don’t think we were sliding our feet enough or guarding or containing the ball as good as we did last night,” said VanVleet of the defensive difficulties the Raptors encountered in the first half. “We didn’t make the extra rotation and we kicked their butts yesterday and they played like it tonight.”

As Nurse saw it, however, it was more of an issue of the Raptors’ offensive process — or lack thereof — that was the true culprit of the team’s issues.

“Our shot selection choices in the first half put us in a bind on defence,” said Nurse. “I think we were surprising ourselves with some of those shots and early drives into nothing and that hurt us in transition defensively.”

Added Norman Powell, who was responsible for some of those head-scratching early shots that Nurse was talking about: “We were taking quick shots early in the shot clock. Even turnovers, before we could even set up a play. Fueled their offence, they didn’t get back not expecting a shot. I took one or two of those in the first half. We’ve just got to do a better job of staying composed and running through our sets and getting good looks so we can set up our defence.”

The poor offence leading to even worse defence was only one-half of the story, however — literally.

In the second half Toronto played much better defensively, using an effective zone for many stretches. Or at least it would’ve been effective had it not been for what appeared to be the true source of Nurse and the Raptors’ frustration Monday evening: The whistle.

In total in the game, the Pacers took 45 free-throw attempts to just 27 the Raptors took, with the Pacers taking 17 alone in the fourth quarter.

It was a noticeably tight whistle for the Raptors Monday and it allowed Indiana to weather the loss of all-star forward Domantas Sabonis — who exited the game with a knee injury just before the end of the first quarter — thanks to a big night from Malcolm Brogdon — who scored a career-best 36 points — and Myles Turner.

Both Brogdon and Turner took 12 free-throw attempts each in the second half of Monday’s game and, essentially, all of the work the Raptors were doing was being erased by these two guys constantly stopping the game and earning points at the charity stripe.

By the end of the game, frustration with the officials spilled over and Lowry, who was largely ineffective in his return, scoring 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting, got ejected and Nurse was seen verbally lambasting the officials.

“There were some critical ones,” Nurse said of missed calls from the officials. “There were a couple missed goaltends, there was a time when it was about an even game or two-point game and Chris [Boucher] dove on the floor for a ball and I called timeout while he had it and the referee just completely ignored it and then they ended up getting the ball back, getting free throws, then getting a rebounding foul, then getting more free throws on that one.

“…They called the foul every time they drove in the second half. So it wasn’t very physical at all, they weren’t letting us play very much.”

To add to this point, VanVleet, doing his best to be as diplomatic as possible so as not to get fined, mentioned how tough it was, in general, for the Raptors to play with the whistle being as tight as it was.

“I don’t know the rules on what it takes to get fined and I’m certainly learning that I don’t know the rules of the game as well as I thought I did,” said VanVleet. “So, it’s tough. It’s very tough. There are nights when the whistle goes your way and there’s nights when it doesn’t. But I think for me, personally — I can’t speak for any of the other guys — tonight I was just disappointed in the relationship and the back and forth that was going on between the players and the officials.

“So I can’t speak to any calls or things that I would like to go in different ways, but I will say that getting a warning seven, eight minutes left in the first quarter that we were talking too much and complaining too much, that sets a hard precedent for the rest of the two hours that we’ve gotta spend in the arena. So, I don’t want to single those guys out, I don’t want to single any plays out but it is very, very difficult to play that way.

“…You’ve gotta take it in stride, the referees certainly weren’t the reason why we lost but it definitely adds a different element to the game in that sometimes it’s kinda hard to overcome — especially on a back-to-back like that.”

As VanVleet pointed out, the officials weren’t the reason why the Raptors weren’t able to come away with a victory Monday, but the frustration with them is understandable as the free-throw disparity between Toronto and Indiana was glaring. And given the fact that a win would’ve pulled the Raptors within just one victory from being .500 again for the first time since they were 0-0, the feeling of discouragement, anger, and annoyance makes a lot of sense.

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Smith weighs lineup changes after 7-1 loss – TSN

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It appears changes could be coming to the Ottawa Senators lineup after a 7-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night.

The Senators, who dropped to 1-4-1 on the early season, are winless since defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in their opening game on Jan. 15 and have been outscored 17-5 over their past three games.

“We got some guys that maybe are taking for granted positions in the National Hockey League,” Senators head coach D.J. Smith said. “We’ve got to find the right combination and we’ve got to give some other guys opportunity to see if they want to play a little harder than some of the guys that are playing now.”

Smith added that he considered pulling Matt Murray after the second period for a second straight start, but elected to keep the off-season addition in net. Murray allowed seven goals on 35 shots, including three on 14 shots in the third period.

“Certainly he didn’t have a very good game, but he’s got to work through it and find a way to battle for us there,” Smith said of Murray. “He’s no different than any other player and he’s got to find his groove here.”

Murray has a 1-3-1 record this season with a .862 save percentage and a 4.47 goals-against average. Backup Marcus Hogberg, who got his first start of the season on Saturday, is 0-1 with a .875 save percentage and a 3.80 GAA.

The Senators, who sit last in the North Division with three points, will face the Canucks again on Wednesday and Thursday before heading to Edmonton to continue their current road trip. 

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Conor McGregor and the problem with being the man who has everything – MMA Fighting

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In hindsight, Conor McGregor’s most recent legacy-building moment may have been the worst thing that could have happened for him.

Twelve months ago, McGregor was back. “The Notorious” had been sidelined for 14 months, with a humbling loss to rival Khabib Nurmagomedov followed by a year of McGregor ending up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Smashing a cell phone in Miami. Punching a man in an Irish pub. And before all that, an accusation of sexual assault in Dublin, which resurfaced this past week in the form of a civil claim, along with new alleged details.

McGregor also teased a retirement in March 2019 (the second such time he’d done so), a stunt that didn’t feel remotely permanent. It was obvious McGregor needed something big to regain the faith of the masses, but what?

A second Nurmagomedov fight wasn’t happening, and a trilogy bout with Nate Diaz was stuck in limbo. Eventually, McGregor was handed a favorable matchup with the popular Donald Cerrone, an all-time great who was also a non-factor in the contenders’ rankings. No matter, McGregor made the most of the opportunity, blowing Cerrone out of the water in 40 seconds at UFC 246 and restarting the “What will Conor do next?” news cycle.

On Saturday at UFC 257, McGregor was back again, this time getting a chance to replay one of his old hits. What better way to show that he was never gone than to once more vanquish Dustin Poirier, a former featherweight rival who now stands as one of the best lightweights in the world? This was McGregor’s chance to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

That wasn’t the case, however. Poirier completely outclassed McGregor, making brilliant use of his wrestling and low kicks in round one to wear the former two-division champ down before flurrying in round two and leaving McGregor flat on his back in perfect position to become the next big meme. McGregor has lost before, but for the first time in his UFC career, it didn’t just look like he’d ran into a superior opponent or a difficult style matchup; no, it looked like his best days had passed.

Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor
Zuffa LLC

How did we get here? Let’s look at the Cerrone matchup again. With respect to “Cowboy,” one of the best to never win a UFC title and someone who could probably compete until he’s 50 if he wanted to, he entered the matchup with McGregor as a potential showcase opponent. Cerrone was coming off of back-to-back lopsided losses to Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, and while there’s no shame in that, it wasn’t expected he’d last long against McGregor either.

The booking was considered such a layup for McGregor that Cerrone had to suffer the indignity of actually having to respond to critics suggesting that he was going to take a dive for McGregor and the UFC. Cerrone’s ensuing loss only opened the door for more criticism, much of it coming from talking head pundits that are barely qualified to analyze rec league soccer, much less the highest level of combat sports. But I digress.

It was everything McGregor wanted. A highlight-reel win over a known property. The chance to rehabilitate his image with a respectful buildup and an appreciative opponent. He even hugged Cerrone’s grandmother afterward.

Jerry Cerrone and Conor McGregor
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It was too perfect, and exactly the sort of thing that could make one overlook the fact that McGregor’s game wasn’t any different and that Cerrone was his first win since November 2016. Nothing had changed for McGregor other than the fact that he bit the bullet and signed on for another UFC fight.

He was still a multi-millionaire, still beloved by countless fans, still a shining star in Dana White’s eye even as their public confrontations became more frequent. If this was supposed to be the turning of a page for McGregor, the words sounded too familiar.

If Cerrone was the right man to welcome McGregor back last year, then Poirier was exactly the wrong man to welcome him back this year. “The Diamond” did nothing but sharpen his edges since first fighting McGregor in 2014, moving up to the loaded lightweight division and dominating the competition outside of a blip against Michael Johnson. McGregor was a former lightweight titleholder, but his actual achievements at 155 pounds paled in comparison to Poirier’s.

So when Poirier had his chance for revenge, he put on one of the best performances of his career while McGregor wilted. It looked exactly like what it was on paper, one fighter who had scraped his way to an interim title one win at a time versus a fighter who had done a brilliant job of maneuvering himself into position to win a second undisputed title. There’s a difference.

White wasn’t wrong when he said at Saturday’s post-fight press conference that McGregor has grown complacent. He’s the highest-paid athlete in MMA. He was chilling on a yacht in Abu Dhabi while the rest of the fighters were whittling away their time at a hotel. He was able to bring his family with him to Fight Island while a fighter like Dan Hooker wouldn’t see his for another few weeks due to strict COVID-19 safety measures in his native New Zealand.

In the grand scheme of things, there is simply no consequence to McGregor losing anymore outside of a little public humiliation. And that’s nothing that a few seven-figure checks can’t fix. How can one maintain the edge they once had when they were literally fighting to put food on their table and now have reached the level of success and comfort that McGregor has? We can’t blame McGregor’s shortcomings completely on his affluence, as there are plenty of other athletes and fighters (including Poirier) who have only elevated their games as their bank accounts have increased. It’s not an excuse. It’s a weakness, and it’s costing him in the cage.

They say that good living is the best revenge. It certainly isn’t the best motivation. So while McGregor can be content with the incredible financial security he’s created for himself and his family for generations, he may also have to accept that his days as a legitimate UFC contender are behind him.

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