ST. PAUL, Minn. — Not a bad way for the Maple Leafs to hit the mid-point of the 2019-20 regular season.
And Happy New Year indeed.
The Leafs continue to grow under Sheldon Keefe, and continue to win hockey games while adjusting to a higher tempo, offensively-driven system, the latest victory a 4-1 triumph over the Minnesota Wild on New Year’s Eve.
Few teams can say afterward they enjoyed a never-in-doubt win, but the Leafs could claim as much on Tuesday at the Xcel Energy Center, building off a strong first period to improve to 13-4-1 since Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as coach.
“Efficient is a good term to describe it,” Keefe said. “I didn’t think we gave up a lot, especially in the third period when we expected them to push.
“I don’t think we made the best plays all the time through the neutral zone and that slowed us down a little bit.
“But we continued to get the puck back. We thought they would be forechecking us really hard and they would shoot the puck a lot and that didn’t seem to happen a whole lot. Just the way that we retained the puck took the wind out of their sails and we hope that that can continue.”
Overall, the Leafs are 22-14-5 and with 49 points will start 2020 in second place in the Atlantic Division.
The victory, the Leafs’ ninth in 11 games, was highlighted by another goal from Auston Matthews, giving him 27 and putting him on pace for 54. Certainly, if Matthews stays healthy, he should set a career-high, his highest output coming three seasons ago when he scored 40 goals.
As it is, Matthews finished the calendar year with 50 goals in 91 games, including playoffs.
William Nylander, for the first time in his NHL career, has scored a goal in four consecutive games. Nylander, who has had instant chemistry with captain John Tavares, also became the third Leafs player to score the winning goal in three consecutive road games, joining Mats Sundin (2001) and Alexander Steen (2007).
Tavares sealed the win with an empty-net goal with 25 seconds to play.
“Things are building, the confidence is getting better, I think we’re starting to have a really good feel about the way we want to play,” Tavares said of his level of optimism as the new year starts.
“We know we can still be better, but certainly I think the things (Keefe) has implemented have really translated well with the skill set of our team.
“We have responded to this point, there’s a lot of hockey left. We have to keep building from here.”
Matthews gave the the Leafs a 3-0 lead at 8:34 of the second on a power play, finishing a tic-tac-toe feed from Nylander.
The Wild got on the scoreboard at 11:46 on a power play when Ryan Suter, from the point, beat a screened Frederik Andersen.
The Leafs, who play in Winnipeg against the Jets on Thursday, couldn’t have played a much tidier first period.
Not only did Toronto take a 2-0 lead into the intermission on goals by Alex Kerfoot and Nylander, it killed off two penalties and held the Wild to just two shots on goal while the teams played five on five.
Kerfoot opened the scoring at 5:55 not long after Wild forward Zach Parise turned the puck over to Nylander. The Leafs kept control and Tavares eventually found Kerfoot, who snapped a shot over goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s catching glove.
Nylander scored with 31 seconds remaining in the period. Tyson Barrie, behind the goal line, got the puck to the front of the net where Matthews jammed away at it. Dubnyk got turned around, and before he could get set, Nylander put the puck in the open net.
“I think there’s still steps you want to take,” Nylander when asked if he thinks he is all the way back after missing a chunk of last season. “You’re never satisfied, so you want to keep going.”
The Leafs lost Travis Dermott and Pierre Engvall for brief periods, but both returned. Keefe indicated he didn’t think there were any health issues with either.
Toronto outshot Minnesota 29-27.
Matthews will represent the Leafs in the NHL all-star game for the fourth year in a row, and no, he’s not getting tired of the experience.
And at the age of 22, Matthews isn’t anywhere near trying to beg off from the weekend. Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin is skipping the all-star festivities for the second year in a row, while Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin told reporters on Tuesday that though he is Detroit’s candidate for Last Man In voting, he would rather have the rest than head to St. Louis for the all-star festivities.
Matthews’ family enjoys the weekend as much as he does, but he can see the advantage in having those days to go on a quick vacation and relax.
“I understand both sides of it,” Matthews said. “A guy like Ovie wanting that extra rest, winning means the most.
“For me, it’s still pretty cool to go. It’s a tremendous honour.”
That Andersen, heading to his first all-star game, will be going will make the event that much more memorable for Matthews.
“Absolutely,” Matthews said. “Very deserving. You could have made an argument for him last year as well. The fact that we’re going to be going, we’re pretty stoked about it.”
Andersen, the first NHL goalie to win 20 games this season, said he has not made it a personal goal to get to the all-star game. Well, sort of.
“Both yes and no,” Andersen said. “If I play the way I can, I should have a good chance to be in there. We do have a lot of good players on this team and very few spots on the (all-star) roster. More guys have been deserving to go over the last few years and that’s just how it is.”
Keefe didn’t have to be told that Adam Brooks played just four minutes 50 seconds in his NHL debut on Saturday. “I thought he was good and I talked to him about the fact that I lost his line there for good chunks of the game,” Keefe said. “It’s on me, not on him. The nice thing I saw him doing was skating and playing with confidence. He’s skating at a higher level now than he has been that I’ve seen him in this time in pro.” Brooks played eight minutes 52 seconds against Minnesota … The Toronto Marlies ended the calendar year on a sour note, losing 4-1 to Cleveland on Tuesday at the Coca-Cola Coliseum. Kenny Agostino scored the Marlies goal, while Kasimir Kaskisuo made 32 saves. Toronto, which dropped to 19-10-2-1, next plays on Friday in Syracuse.
How Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter found different paths to stardom – Sportsnet.ca
TORONTO — For years now, every time Vince Carter returned to Toronto it was about the end.
Was this his last visit? Was this his last visit?
How much longer would he play?
This time the end didn’t matter, although the circumstances being what they are, you wished differently.
A clue — if you needed one — that something was off came when Carter’s Atlanta Hawks teammates gathered during shootaround Tuesday morning and sang him happy birthday.
But Carter’s birthday – his 43rd – was Sunday wasn’t it?
And then it comes back: There was nothing to celebrate Sunday. The Hawks were playing but there were no well wishes to be had. When Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter accident, the NBA lost an icon, but Carter lost a friend, a contemporary, a peer and a one-time rival.
It’s all still fresh.
“I think when you see somebody that young leave us [and] for me having conversations with [him], talking about how happy he was and doing what he was doing,” said Carter, who has a basketball-playing teenage daughter of his own. “Being able to travel around with his daughter… and teaching her. That’s what makes it a little harder.”
The beginning of the Toronto Raptors’ 130-114 win over the Hawks will be remembered for a moving tribute video in memory of Bryant and a 24-second moment of silence in recognition of his uniform number.
With that in the air this time, Carter’s visit to his NBA home was not about the end — that will come April 10 when Carter visits Toronto the final time in the third-last game of his NBA-record 23rd season, which he has said will be his last.
Instead, Tuesday was all about the beginning, back when Vinsanity was spreading and Carter was a high-flying kid, wowing the NBA in this strange, new market.
It was all there in a tribute video to Carter that earned a standing ovation at the start of the second quarter. Carter did his part by knocking down a couple of vintage threes for old time’s sake.
“I was just happy to see a few shots go in,” said Carter, who scored eight of his 10 points in a three-minute burst in the second quarter. “I was trying to play my game, just taking what’s there. I haven’t been shooting very well, so it was more finally making a doggone shot.”
It was a bit of throwback, but fitting as Bryant’s passing has inspired the NBA to look back, and when you look back on the legendary Laker’s career, you see Carter.
The NBA was in a post-Michael Jordan limbo when Carter won the rookie-of-the-year award in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. The job of the biggest basketball star in the world was available.
But we know how all that ended. Carter, ultimately, didn’t want the role.
Bryant? He put every fibre of his soul into applying for it every single night. There was a moment when Carter was ahead of him on the superstar-in-waiting depth chart, a more likely candidate to bridge the gap between Jordan and — as it turned out — LeBron James.
Carter was just another obstacle in Bryant’s way.
“I just know he thinks,” Carter said of those early years when Bryant was gunning for him. “‘If he’s the next guy that’s compared [to Jordan] I gotta go dominate.’”
Carter will end up in the Hall of Fame, but it was Bryant – Carter’s AAU teammate when he was 16 and Bryant 15 – that died an NBA icon.
“He was a star, he was elite, he was one of the best,” said Carter. “So regardless if he played for your favourite team or not you had an appreciation for him… you respected him for his drive and for his willingness to be the best and to try to win by any means.”
Carter experienced it firsthand many times. He went head-to-head with the Lakers star 31 times in his career, 19 as a starter, but it was the early matchups that carried the most punch.
Bryant had already been in the league for two seasons when Carter – having played three seasons at the University of North Carolina – made his NBA debut. They didn’t meet in Carter’s rookie year due to a compressed 50-game schedule. The next season – Carter’s breakout 1999-2000 year – Bryant was injured when the Raptors upset the Lakers on the road. They finally met at what was then the Air Canada Centre on Dec. 20, 1999.
Carter knew he had his hands full.
“[You] respected him for his drive and for his willingness to be the best and to try to win by any means. I can recall games here where we’re just going back and forth with him. Especially in the early years where we were, I guess, three years removed from being teammates in AAU basketball,” said Carter. “So competing against him — and his Laker teams were dominant — it was a challenge for us to even compete. So it was something special and, obviously, to battle him head [on] was what it was all about, man. He was one of the elite players, and, obviously, his drive… he wanted to go [against] the best competition and dominate. And I knew that coming in.”
Eventually the Lakers went 5-1 against Toronto when both Carter and Bryant were in the lineup – not surprisingly, given several of the games came while the Lakers were reeling off three straight championships and four trips to the NBA Finals in five years.
Bryant had the edge statistically too.
Carter averaged 25 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 36.9 per-cent shooting in those six games against Bryant and the Lakers. Bryant averaged 28.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and four assists on 43.4 per cent from the floor.
No surprise there, either.
“With him and Shaq, you had to figure out how to solve that puzzle,” said Carter. “There were nights when I had to figure out how to score through, around and over Kobe Bryant and if you happened to get past him, guess who was next? Shaquille O’Neal. It was one of the toughest puzzles to solve. I’ve had success and I’ve had some failures.”
That Bryant was eager to take on Carter was no surprise – this was the kid who challenged Philadelphia 76ers players to one-on-one games when he was playing high-school ball in Philadelphia. But the more easy-going Carter was up to it as well.
“You could tell there was something there, but surprisingly there was something there from Vince too,” said Alvin Williams, who knew Bryant as a young prodigy in Philadelphia and was Carter’s teammate on the Raptors. “Vince was usually the guy who was kind of laid back and didn’t care about the matchup all that much, at least from the outside it looked like that.
“But you could tell that game meant a lot any time they matched up.”
The first time Carter met Bryant, they were teenagers playing on a summer-club team that featured two more future NBA stars – Tim Thomas and Richard Hamilton. Bryant was a year younger, but unnerved.
The future was foretold.
“It was a little different back then, as far as when you heard about a guy it was because somebody had played against him. It was word of mouth,” said Carter, who had come up from his home in Daytona Beach, Fla., to play for the New Jersey-based team. “Once he got there, I mean the swagger, the confidence at that age, you knew he was going to be something… he came in and he was one of our point guards. And his ability to shoot, obviously, how tall he was, his ability to pass, make plays.”
But it was the younger kids’ audaciousness that stood out and – as it turns out – stood the test of time.
“I remember he was shooting half-court shots,” Carter recalled. “He wasn’t making them all, but the confidence to come on an AAU team that was that good and still feel like he could shoot half-court shots in games? And he’d make a few. So you were in awe of his range and his ability, and his confidence was second to none.”
Bryant never changed. But how his rivalry with Carter did and how their respective careers went along explains more about the two men than how it started.
Bryant eventually packaged that confidence, that willingness to stand apart and commit to being the best he could be in the pursuit of being the best ever into an alter ego he called ‘Black Mamba.’
He introduced it to the world after he was embroiled in a sexual-assault case in 2003 that was eventually dismissed, but which included Bryant publicly acknowledging wrongdoing and settling with the victim in a civil suit.
He told The New Yorker in a 2014 interview it was a way to distance himself from himself.
“After the Colorado incident, I had every major sponsor drop me, except for Nike,” Bryant said. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘what am I going to do now?’ My vision was to build a brand and do all these things. Now everybody’s telling me I can’t do it… The name just evokes such a negative emotion. I said, ‘If I create this alter ego, so now when I play this is what’s coming out of your mouth, it separates the personal stuff, right?’ You’re not watching David Banner—you’re watching the Hulk.”
It worked. Eventually Bryant’s off-court ventures picked back up. On the floor, even as a three-time champion, his best years lay ahead of him. There were the spectacular scoring exploits in 2005-06 — the season he dropped 81 points on the Raptors — and 2006-07 when he averaged 33.5 points a game, back when points were a lot more difficult to come by. He then led the Lakers to three straight Finals and post-Shaq titles in 2009 and 2010 that helped seal his legacy.
By this time, Carter was on to his second act, too. After 11 years as a leading man split between Toronto and New Jersey, Carter was content to transition into role-playing status, eventually moving to the bench and then finally three years of semi-retirement far from the spotlight’s glare — first in Sacramento and the last two years in Atlanta.
Two different men, two different agendas. Bryant never stopped pushing. After an early taste of being the NBA’s next big thing, Carter went with the flow for most of his 23 seasons. Bryant was hard on teammates, demanding perfection. Carter extended his career because everyone liked him, and he was a source of wisdom and comfort for young players on bad teams.
Each in their own way were being true to themselves.
“Kobe had a different determination. Kobe had a different perspective. Kobe had a different goal [and] agenda than Vince did,” said Williams. “That was the biggest difference between Vince and Kobe because they were both great players, they both had great opportunities [but] Vince started going in a different direction whereas Kobe had to still prove, prove, prove because he wanted to be that No. 1 guy. That was the biggest difference.”
No one would have bet earlier in their careers that Carter’s would have outlasted Bryant’s, mainly because it was impossible to imagine Bryant ever walking away.
Injuries eventually forced his hand and Carter was the last man standing.
Some of Carter’s most memorable – and most significant – moments as a Raptor came in his battles with Bryant and the Lakers.
On Tuesday, there was one more Carter moment in Toronto with his old friend and rival Bryant looming large.
It wasn’t one anyone would have wanted, Carter least of all.
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Shanahan on 2017 draft: 'I didn't look into' Mahomes enough – theScore
That year’s class, of course, featured Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. As Kyle Shanahan’s squad prepares to battle Mahomes in Super Bowl LIV, the head coach admitted he should have scouted the 2018 MVP more extensively.
“I didn’t look into (Mahomes) obviously as much as I should have (prior to the draft),” Shanahan told reporters Tuesday, according to NFL.com’s Nick Shook. “We definitely looked into him, studied all of his tape. Was just a freak, could make any throw. … We had the second pick in the draft. Did not feel, like from all the intel that you get and stuff, that he was gonna go that high.”
On draft day, San Francisco traded the No. 2 pick to the Bears (which Chicago used to draft Mitch Trubisky) and received the No. 3 selection as part of the return. The Kansas City Chiefs selected Mahomes 10th overall after trading up.
Shanahan added, “You saw a bunch of talented guys in that draft. It’s very tough when you watch college systems. … You can see ability, you can see talent, but how’s the mind? How do they play in the pocket? How do they process? That’s not just an IQ score. That’s some stuff I don’t think you can totally test. You gotta go through that with them, so there’s always a risk when you spend a first-round pick on a quarterback. With the situation we were in, (we) didn’t want to be that risky.”
Shanahan was entering his first season as San Francisco’s head coach and had targeted then-Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. The team slapped Cousins with the franchise tag in 2017 and he was widely rumored to be a trade candidate.
“It was a little different situation for us just ’cause I think it’s pretty well documented … the relationship I had with Kirk being in Washington and I felt very confident that he wasn’t gonna stay there,” Shanahan said. “So anytime you go into a season knowing that a franchise quarterback was going to be available the next year, it made me a lot more picky.”
After failing to acquire Cousins, the 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo and found themselves NFC champions two campaigns later. Garoppolo and Mahomes will face off Sunday for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
How Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter found different paths to stardom – Sportsnet.ca
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