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Leafs quietly confident about ability to win all-Canadian division –



TORONTO — The first day of an NHL training camp is reserved for promotional photos and medicals. It also comes with an outsized amount of media attention, even in this age of safely-distanced Zoom availabilities, so when you work for a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs it’s important not to say anything you might later regret.

By that measure, it was a good afternoon behind the microphone for general manager Kyle Dubas.

“A great hypothetical,” Dubas said Sunday, when asked if this can be considered a successful season for his Leafs without some form of playoff success.

The third-year GM was in good spirits during a 20-minute session with reporters. He certainly wasn’t evasive or sneaky while fielding a couple variations of the question about how success should be measured in 2021. He simply refused to put any words around what we all kind of know intuitively about this iteration of his team.

The Leafs intend to conquer the North, first in the regular season and later in the divisional playoff rounds. They fancy themselves as legitimate players for the Stanley Cup and they know they haven’t won a playoff round since before Nicholas Robertson strapped on skates for the first time.

That’s why the less-is-more approach was smart for Dubas.

We’re all going to say it regardless, so why add any more kindling to the pile just as the match is being struck?

The closest Dubas came to disclosing specific expectations was pointing out that the team hadn’t finished any better than a tie for sixth overall in the NHL standings in recent years. He spoke of how former divisional foes in Tampa and Boston were consistently great regular-season teams before going on long playoff marches.

He didn’t explicitly connect every dot but it sure sounded like he was setting the bar: Dominate the regular season, secure home-ice advantage and the long-anticipated next step will follow.

“A lot of people will point to our playoff failures as a source of discontent and worry going into the year, but as I explained to the players [on Saturday] — and [coach] Sheldon [Keefe] and I have talked about really from the end of the season — the major thing that we feel has affected us as we’ve gone through the season has been we’ve not set ourselves up as best as possible for the playoffs,” said Dubas. “In going back to ‘16-’17 all the way through last year, we’ve had stretches which have hindered our ability to position ourselves as strongly as possible going into the playoffs. What we’re focused on right now in Day 1 of camp is building the foundation that’s going to serve us in the regular season and then focusing on each and every day in the regular season as a way to set ourselves up as best as possible for the playoffs.”

Signs of growth, he suggested, can be measured by how quickly they shake off a bout of poor play. Merely being good won’t be viewed as good enough.

The Leafs are favoured to win the North Division by both bookies and advanced statistical models alike, and this once-in-a-lifetime COVID-19 realignment guarantees the last Canadian team standing a spot in the conference finals.

In that sense, this seems like a golden opportunity after sharing a division with the Lightning and Bruins — teams that have won the first and third highest number of total games, respectively, across the last four regular seasons.

But this is sports and the models don’t always hold true.

Not every free-agent signing fits as expected, which is just as applicable for T.J. Brodie and Joe Thornton in Toronto as it is for Jacob Markstrom and Christopher Tanev in Calgary and Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry in Montreal.

Plus, the gap between the Leafs and the other Canadian teams wasn’t evident at all when the season was paused last March. Edmonton actually enjoyed a slightly better winning percentage at that moment — .585-.579 — while Vancouver (.565), Calgary (.564) and Winnipeg (.563) followed closely behind.

Then Montreal knocked off Pittsburgh inside the summer return-to-play bubble and had a busy off-season. Even Ottawa, also-rans the last two years, have reason for hope with a burgeoning group of prospects and some veterans brought in to calm the waters around them.

“As difficult I think as the circumstances and the world we’re living in right now [are] — playing without fans and a lot of tough times that a lot of people are going through — I think this is such a unique opportunity for something that can be really special,” said Leafs captain John Tavares.

“I think the Canadian Division is probably the most exciting just because of all the fans and the pride that comes with playing in each team’s individual city,” added Auston Matthews. “It should make for some good hockey.”

Someone has to break through.

Vancouver reached Game 7 of the second round in August, Calgary added Markstrom to a group that’s won more games than any Canadian outfit the last two seasons, Edmonton has two Hart Trophy winners aged 25-and-under on its roster, Winnipeg played in the Western Conference Final in 2018 … but it is Toronto being labelled the alpha dog.

With the strongest blue-line they’ve built in the Matthews/Marner Era, and depth to spare at every position, they’re feeling quietly confident heading into a 56-game sprint of a season. They just didn’t want to put any quotes on the bulletin board before the first official practice had even been held.

“I think you’ve got seven teams that are probably all looking at it the same way,” said Dubas.

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McIlroy hoping for ‘close to normal’ Ryder Cup



Ryder Cup

(Reuters) – Rory McIlroy said he is hopeful that a near-capacity crowd will be able to attend the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September.

McIlroy said organizers had made the right call by deciding not to stage the event without fans last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m excited for the Ryder Cup,” McIlroy told the European Tour’s website.

“Hopefully, with how the vaccine is being rolled out, we are starting to see some light at the end the tunnel with this pandemic.

“It may not be the full, full capacity that a Ryder Cup usually is, but hopefully it will be very close to what a normal Ryder Cup is and I am excited for that.”

McIlroy, who is playing at the Abu Dhabi Championship this week, said he was in a good frame of mind.

“I’m raring to go after the Christmas break, I’ve done some good practice and you come into the new season with renewed optimism and a lot of goals,” McIlroy said. “I guess that has translated into some good golf here.

“I keep getting myself into contention and someone goes out and has a really good Sunday but I need to take the initiative and have one of those really good Sundays myself to get over the line.”

The Ryder Cup will be held from Sept. 24-26.


(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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Canadiens’ penalty killers simply perfect in Edmonton



“We had some good sticks tonight,” said Weber. “(The Oilers) were trying to hit seams and we were able to get sticks in lanes. (Goaltender Jake Allen) was able to make the first save and we were able to clear the puck after that.”

Julien rotated seven forwards on the PK to ensure there were fresh legs on the ice.

“Having more bodies allows us to be more aggressive,” said Weber. “Obviously, our forwards are trying to use their speed against the other team and that allows us to be more aggressive.”

Artturi Lehkonen completed the Montreal scoring with a short-handed goal. Not only did the Oilers go 0-for-10 on the power play in the two games in Edmonton, but they also gave up short-handed goals to Lehkonen and Jake Evans.

As good as the PK was, the fact that it had to work so hard indicates that the Canadiens have to do a better job of staying out of the box. It should also be noted that Weber and Romanov received cross-checking penalties. It might be a coincidence, but the penalties came in the wake of complaints that the Canadiens manhandled Auston Matthews last week in Toronto.

The Canadiens are bigger this year and they are playing bigger. They also outhit the Oilers 31-17 Monday.

“We were playing hard, we have many hits,” said Romanov. “We’re playing like a team, we’re playing like a family.”

It should be noted Allen deserved a shutout. He didn’t get one because Jonathan Drouin misplayed the puck at his own blue line and that led to a breakaway goal by Shore.

The nasty look Weber directed at Drouin told you everything you need to know about the play.

Source: – Montreal Gazette

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Ehlers scores OT winner as Jets rally for win over Senators – TSN



OTTAWA — Nikolaj Ehlers and the Winnipeg Jets have yet to lead a contest in regulation and yet they’ve won two of their three games to start the NHL season.

Ehlers scored in overtime as Winnipeg twice rallied from a two-goal deficit en route to a 4-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.

The Jets (2-1-0) opened their season Thursday night with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames and were coming off a 3-1 loss Monday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Ehlers scored his first goal of the season at 2:20 of overtime, moments after Winnipeg goalie Laurent Brossoit made a nice stop on Ottawa’s Drake Batherson. Blake Wheeler forced overtime for the Jets, scoring with 1:17 remaining in regulation with Brossoit on the bench for the extra attacker — a goal originally credited to Josh Morrissey before an official scoring change switched it to the Winnipeg captain.

“It (winning despite not leading in regulation) shows we don’t give up,” said Ehlers. “We battled our (butts) off to stay in the game . . . it feels good to have the two points.”

Ehlers heaped lavish praise upon Brossoit, who got the start after Connor Hellebuyck played Monday night.

“He kept us in the game,” Ehlers said. “They had a lot of good open chances, especially the last one there before our goal.

“We know we’ve got two goalies back there that keep us in games and do a great job. We’re trying to do our best to limit the shots they get, but if they play the way they’re playing right now, we’re happy.”

Added Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice: “He (Ehlers) can be so dangerous, such a dynamic player late in a game, just the speed to get into that hole and then make the play that finishes it,. We need him to feel confident and healthy and strong and when he is he’s just so very dynamic.”

Adam Lowry and Kyle Connor also scored for Winnipeg, which was outshot 41-28 in the contest.

“I guess you should wrap all of us up in our goaltending,” Maurice said. “That’s the key in our game, our goaltending has been outstanding.”

Josh Norris, Chris Tierney and Alex Galchenyuk scored for Ottawa (1-1-1).

The game was the first of three in five days between the two clubs. They’ll square off again in the nation’s capital Thursday night before returning to Winnipeg on Saturday.

Winnipeg was minus forward Patrik Laine (upper-body injury) for a second straight game. He’s listed as day to day.

Rookie forward Tim Stutzel, who’s dealing with a nagging minor injury, didn’t play for Ottawa. The third overall selection in the 2020 NHL draft, who has a goal through two games with the Senators, is also considered day to day.

Maurice said Tuesday’s game was an indication of just how important it is for a team to continue playing hard and believing in the process, regardless of the score. Ottawa controlled much of the play and held leads of 2-0 and 3-1 but couldn’t break Winnipeg’s will.

“That’s the most important piece for any team, that the score on the clock doesn’t dictate your effort level and your compete level,” Maurice said. “The late comeback wins have a really nice impact on your team.

“You carry those for a number of games. You always feel that you have a chance.”

Ottawa dominated the first, outshooting Winnipeg 18-9, and was rewarded with the opening two goals of the contest.

Norris opened the scoring on the power play at 4:41. He registered his first NHL goal when he slid the puck in off Brossoit’s skate.

Conner came close to putting Winnipeg on the scoresheet when he fired a shot off the goalpost on the power play. But Tierney put Ottawa ahead 2-0 with a deflection at 10:31 for his second of the season.

Lowry pulled Winnipeg to within 2-1 at 18:09. He deflected Neal Pionk‘s shot from the point past Matt Murray — making his third straight start in goal for Ottawa — for his first of the year.

It was more of the same in the second as Ottawa outshot Winnipeg 14-8 in the period and went back ahead by two goals at 11:47 of the second on Galchenyuk’s power-play blast. It was his first of the season but Winnipeg countered with Connor’s goal with the man advantage at 16:12.

It was Connor’s third of the season. He’s scored in all three Jets games in 2021.

“He’s scratching the surface here,” Maurice said of Connor. “He hasn’t been lucky in his start and he’s putting up great numbers.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan 19. 2021.

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