The NHL’s one-time-only, all-Canadian division has cleared its final hurdle.
Next stop, puck drop.
The Manitoba government said Friday it will allow the Winnipeg Jets to play home games during the COVID-19 pandemic, joining Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia in giving the NHL’s plan to resume action north of the border this season the thumbs up.
Manitoba announced a minor modification to current public health orders on Friday, allowing professional hockey games to be played. The move comes five days before the NHL season begins next Wednesday.
The approval came the same day the Dallas Stars closed their facility after six players and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The Columbus Blue Jackets, meanwhile, said Friday a number of players didn’t practise “out of an abundance of caution and in accordance with NHL COVID-19 protocols.”
The season features a new North Division that will see the seven Canadian franchises only play one another instead of crossing into the United States for games due to border restrictions related to non-essential travel and the current 14-day quarantine. The same goes for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
WATCH: Manitoba approves ‘robust’ plan:
No fans present for games
There will be no fans present for games in Canadian NHL arenas, at least to start the schedule, while players and team staff have to adhere to a number of protocols when on the road — which include being restricted to the hotel and rink.
“The protocols here are very good,” Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen said Friday. “Of course we’re happy to do what we like to do. And I feel grateful for that.”
Players are being tested daily for the novel coronavirus during training camp. That will continue for at least the first four weeks of the regular season, but there is still increased risk when compared to the tightly controlled bubbles the NHL employed to resume the 2019-20 campaign in Toronto and Edmonton this summer.
Ontario sport minister Lisa MacLeod announced Thursday the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs were good to host games in 2021, posting on Twitter: “This approval was granted after close scrutiny of the rigorous health and safety protocols that will be adopted to keep players, staff and our communities safe from the spread of COVID-19.”
The other three provinces had previously given consent, although Quebec Premier Francois Legault had to reiterate earlier this week the Canadiens would be permitted to play in Montreal despite his government instituting a curfew from Saturday through Feb. 8 in hopes of curbing the spread of COVID-19.
“The people from the Canadiens have had long discussions with public health,” Legault said Wednesday. “I think Quebecers want … to see hockey games.
“It’s done completely safely, and they have the means to pay for that safety.”
And while NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Dec. 24 the league believed it had an agreement in place to hold games in Canada, none of the five provinces in question — which each had to sign off — provided formal confirmation until Dec. 31.
Alberta gave green light for Calgary, Edmonton
Alberta released a statement to The Canadian Press on New Year’s Eve saying it had greenlighted games for the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers six days earlier, while Manitoba and B.C. both indicated their jurisdictions were still holding discussions.
B.C. eventually gave its blessing Sunday. Quebec followed suit Monday and Ontario did the same Thursday before Manitoba rounded things out Friday.
The federal government previously gave the start of training camps the go-ahead and also the waived its 14-day quarantine rule under “national interest grounds” in favour of a modified plan for players and team staff returning to the country.
The Leafs and Canadiens open the shortened 56-game season Wednesday at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena before the Oilers host the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place later that evening. The Jets begin their schedule by welcoming the Flames the following night at Bell MTS Place, while Ottawa gets started Jan. 15 at Canadian Tire Centre against Toronto.
Canadian Nick Taylor finishes second round strong to lead in Hawaii at Sony Open – TSN
It wasn’t the best start for Nick Taylor, but the finish was pretty good.
Taylor played the first five holes of his second round of the Sony Open in 1-over and looked as if he might have trouble making the cut. Instead, he went 9-under over the next 13 and takes a two-shot lead into the weekend.
“Early on today, the first four or five holes, I made some nice par putts,” said Taylor. “I was 1-over and then I started hitting it better and giving myself opportunities and kept making putts.”
His hot stretch started on the 15th hole, his sixth of the day, when he hit his approach to seven feet and made the birdie. He made a four-footer on the next hole to get to red figures, and then pitched in for eagle on par-5 18th to close out the front side.
He made five birdies on the back nine, none more eventful than his final hole of the day. His tee shot darted left, coming to rest against a fence that bordered the driving range. At first, it appeared Taylor would have to play his shot left-handed and hack it back into play, but he got relief from the netting above the fence and was able to play a full shot into the fairway. A wedge to three feet and a simple putt added a final birdie for a round of 62.
“Whenever you get another birdie, it’s obviously a nice finish, but after everything that happened, it’s nice to walk away with four,” said Taylor. “It was a fortunate break and nice to take advantage of it.”
The Canadian, who is leading the tournament in Strokes Gained: Putting, will have to keep making birdies if he hopes to earn his third PGA Tour win. There are five players grouped two shots back and another eight players trailing by three shots. The cut came at 4-under with the Waialae Country Club course playing easier in the afternoon as the winds that usually provide a defense, died down.
“I feel like you can make four, five, six pars in a row you’re probably getting lapped,” Taylor stated, “especially with how the fairways are running.”
It marks the second time in his career that Taylor has held the 36-hole lead. The other time was last year at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am where he went on to win. Since that victory, however, he hasn’t finished inside the top 25 in 15 starts.
The 62 is also his career-low on the PGA Tour; he’s posted rounds of 63 on four previous occasions.
“I’ve always liked this golf course,” Taylor said. “It kind of suits my eye off the tee. I’ve driven the ball well the last couple days and really putted well. Obviously when you’re doing that you’re going to shoot some good scores, and reading the greens well, so hopefully I’ll keep doing that.”
Taylor tees off in the final group with Stewart Cink and Webb Simpson at 5:50 pm ET.
Mike Weir and Mackenzie Hughes, the two other Canadians to make the cut, will play together at 3:50 pm ET.
Maple Leafs’ Robertson to make NHL regular-season debut vs. Senators – Sportsnet.ca
Nick Robertson will make his NHL regular-season debut Saturday in prime time for the Toronto Maple Leafs — and his coach predicts the teenager to come out flying.
“He’s got lots of energy and lots of confidence. He’ll be movin’ out there tonight, for sure,” said Sheldon Keefe, less than three hours before puck drop in Ottawa.
“We’re looking for him to make an impact on each shift that he gets—and he has the ability to do that. He showed that even in the bubble.”
The 19-year-old Robertson appeared in four of the Leafs’ five post-season games in last summer’s Columbus series and registered his first goal.
He then remained in Toronto throughout the off-season to train with his teammates, skipping out on Team USA’s gold-medal run through the world junior championships in order to pour all his efforts into cracking the big leagues.
Tonight, Robertson will replace seldom-used fourth-line winger Alexander Barabanov in the lineup as Toronto looks to avenge Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Senators. Barabanov has yet to register a point and is a minus-1 through two NHL appearances.
Keefe said he is eager to see how the OHL’s leading goal-scorer has improved his details away from the puck and how Robertson looks from a strength perspective, facing a bullish Sens squad that outhit the Leafs 33-12 on Friday.
“Over the off-season, he has put in a lot of work. How can he handle the physicality of the NHL and the strength of the defenders?” Keefe said. “He and I have talked about that that was a big area that took out of the Columbus series, that gave him some struggles.”
Despite his Leafs scoring eight goals over their first two games of the season, Keefe has been unsatisfied with his offence at even strength, prompting the lineup change.
Second-string goaltender Jack Campbell will get the start in net for Toronto, and third-stringer Aaron Dell will back up, giving No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen a full two days’ rest ahead of next week’s busy schedule.
On the Senators side, coach D.J. Smith announced Mike Reilly would sub in for Christian Wolanin. Smith would not confirm whether forwards Colin White and/or Alex Galchenyuk would play. Both were healthy scratches in Friday’s Ottawa victory.
NFL Divisional Round: What to watch for in Saturday’s games – Sportsnet.ca
Now things get real.
With wild-card weekend in the rear-view mirror, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC have entered the playoff chat.
Divisional weekend kicks off with a Saturday double-header that features the 2020 MVP favourite against arguably the league’s top defence and a pair of electrifying young quarterbacks squaring off in Western New York.
To help get set for the action, here’s what to watch for in the NFL playoffs on Saturday.
LOS ANGELES RAMS AT GREEN BAY PACKERS
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
What Vegas is saying: Packers -6.5 | O/U 45.5
Packers: Kingsley Keke, DE (Out, concussion)
Rams: Cooper Kupp, WR (Out, knee); Terrell Lewis, LB (Out, ankle); John Wolford, QB (Out, neck); David Edwards, G (Out, ankle)
How they got here
Packers: With Aaron Rodgers back in MVP form, the Packers thrived in head coach Matt LaFleur’s second year in charge on the way to an NFC-best 13-3 record behind the league’s highest-scoring offence.
Rams: Sean McVay’s team was able to survive a worst-case scenario at quarterback on wild-card weekend thanks to an absolutely dominant defensive performance against division rival Seattle.
What To Watch For
MVP favourite Rodgers faces toughest test yet
It’s been a renaissance season for the 37-year-old Aaron Rodgers, who led the league with 48 touchdown passes in the regular season and quarterbacked his team to the second-best record in football. Along with a top offensive line (even without All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari), arguably the best receiver in the game in Davante Adams and a dangerous run game, Rodgers and the Packers are an offence to be reckoned with.
But in their first game of the playoffs, Green Bay faces what might be its toughest test of the season in the Rams defence, which allowed both the fewest points and yards in the regular season and is fresh off smothering Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offence last Saturday.
With juicy matchups all over the field – Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey and the Packers offensive line vs. Aaron Donald being our favourites – how the Packers fare against Brandon Staley’s defensive unit is must-watch TV.
Can elite Rams defence steal another one?
It’s been laid out above so we don’t need to belabour the point: the Rams defence is dominant.
But the offence, which is usually a strength of L.A.’s under Sean McVay, is in a bit of a funk these days because of a very sticky situation at quarterback. Not only is Jared Goff dealing with the effects of recent thumb surgery but he hasn’t been at his best in the second half of this season even when healthy.
John Wolford, the backup QB who led the Rams to the playoffs with a Week 17 win when Goff was sidelined, is out for Saturday’s game after suffering a neck injury against Seattle. So the options at quarterback are slim for an offence that has been struggling to find the end zone.
That means an upset win will almost definitely fall on the shoulders of the defence… again. Can they repeat last week’s performance and shock the Packers at Lambeau? It’s going to be a tall task, but the good news is defensive superstar Aaron Donald is a go despite leaving the wild-card game with a rib injury last week.
BALTIMORE RAVENS AT BUFFALO BILLS
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
What Vegas is saying: Bills -2.5 | O/U 49.5
Bills: Darryl Johnson, DE (Questionable, knee)
Ravens: D.J. Fluker, G (Questionable, knee); Marcus Peters, CB (Questionable, back)
How they got here
Bills: Buffalo survived a scare from Philip Rivers and the Colts on wild-card weekend in the best game of the first round, mostly thanks to another MVP-type performance from Josh Allen.
Ravens: Lamar Jackson got the monkey off his back last weekend, earning his first playoff victory with a win over the Titans in which the reigning MVP torched Tennessee with his legs and the Ravens defence stuffed rushing champ Derrick Henry.
What To Watch For
Can Bills slow down Lamar and the Ravens?
Josh Allen put on a show in last week’s tight win over the Colts, and we expect the third-year Bills quarterback will be able to keep up his stellar season against the Ravens. But the biggest question heading into the divisional round for Buffalo is how the defence will slow down the quarterback on the opposite sideline.
Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had success against the Ravens in their matchup last season, holding that prolific Ravens offence to its lowest total yards in a game in all of the 2019 regular season.
But that Bills defence was a top-three unit; the 2020 edition of the Buffalo defence is still above average but has had its ups and downs, which includes giving up 472 total yards to Indy last weekend.
Jackson and the Ravens offence has been explosive throughout their six-game win streak, averaging 425.5 total yards of offence – including 262.2 yards per game on the ground – and more than 34 points per contest over that span.
Can the Bills defence rebound from wild-card weekend to slow Lamar Jackson and get big stops? That will be the key to Buffalo advancing to its first AFC title game since 1993.
Will blitz-heavy Ravens get after Josh Allen?
During the regular season, no defence blitzed more than the Ravens: Baltimore rushed five or more players on 44.1 per cent of dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference.
It’s a strategy that’s worked well for a defence that has been among the league’s best under defensive co-ordinator Don “Wink” Martindale the last three seasons, including in 2019 against Buffalo when Josh Allen struggled in a big way against the Ravens’ blitz.
In Josh Allen’s previous matchup with the Ravens, he was blitzed on a career-high 64% of dropbacks.
Allen was sacked 5 times on blitzes (tied for the 2nd-most in a game since 2016) and lost -17.7 EPA (6th-worst by a QB).#BALvsBUF | #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/ywICPZOrHW
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 14, 2021
But, unfortunately for the Ravens, success against the blitz is among the many incredible transformations Allen has undergone as a passer this season, and in 2020 the Bills QB has emerged as among the league’s best in that category.
Despite that marked improvement, Martindale says his defence won’t shy away from bringing the house against Allen in Saturday night’s prime-time showdown – and with good reason seeing how well it work last time. But Baltimore did show an openness last week to change tactics when blitzing wasn’t getting the desired results, and cut the percentage of dropbacks on which they blitzed Ryan Tannehill in half in the third and fourth quarter last Sunday – and it worked.
So will the Ravens blitz Allen Saturday at their normal rate, and if so, how will Allen fare? If Allen continues his success against the blitz, will Baltimore adjust on the fly?
Whatever happens, Saturday’s clash between two of the AFC’s most prolific teams will be fascinating.
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