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Maple Leafs lose to Sharks as troubling trends persist: ‘We gotta execute’

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SAN JOSE — A day before the Leafs faced the Sharks, practice was nearly done when a frustrated Sheldon Keefe put a stop to things.

“Everybody in here please,” he said.

The Leafs coach was not happy with what he was seeing. The execution wasn’t there. He voiced his displeasure, urgently. Then, he ran the drill back again. This time it was executed properly. And that was it. Practice was over.

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A day later, his team failed to execute against a Sharks team that’s sitting near the league basement. This, after losses already this season to the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens, two teams that finished at the bottom of last season’s standings.

The Leafs have yet to really look like the Leafs this season. Nothing like the team that stacked up a franchise-record 115 points last season. Instead, they’ve looked lost, disjointed, uninspired. Not much is going right at the moment.

“Obviously we want to build traction,” Auston Matthews said after the loss to the Sharks, which came three nights after a dispiriting loss in Vegas. “I just don’t think we’ve really put together a full 60-minute game. I think that consistency within the game and momentum shifts and stuff are kinda hurting us right now.”

The Leafs fell behind 26 seconds into the game in San Jose, and then slipped into a 3-1 hole.

“I think there was just too many ups and downs, not a whole lot of consistency throughout the game,” Matthews went on. “There was times we did some good things obviously, and had some good possession and some good plays offensively. There was also times where we were just a little bit stagnant and couldn’t really get much going.”

(D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports)

Keefe’s lineup shakeup had only a so-so effect.

Alex Kerfoot’s addition to the top line helped spur two goals — one from David Kampf, the team’s unlikely five-on-five goal leader, another from Mitch Marner. It was hardly a dominant outing, though.

As Matthews noted, the Leafs struggled to turn one good shift into another.

More concerning was how things went for the one line that remained intact: the trio of John Tavares, William Nylander and Nick Robertson.

They were pinned in their own end for most of the night, to the point that Keefe had to remove both Nylander and Robertson from the line in the third period and replace them — with Kerfoot and Calle Jarnkrok — for defensive zone draws.

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The Tavares line was having to shoulder an unusual share of defensive zone faceoffs because of the lineup restructuring. The coaching staff wasn’t going to send the tough stuff to the line that featured Michael Bunting and Denis Malgin. And they most certainly aimed to get the Matthews’ group on offence as often as possible.

So Tavares and company were tasked with more of that load (38 percent offensive zone faceoff percentage). Shot attempts were 13-4 for San Jose when Tavares, Nylander, and Robertson were on the ice.

Nylander, notably, was held without a shot or attempt. Tavares is still looking for his first five-on-five goal of the season.

“I thought that San Jose’s best players gave us a real hard time today,” Keefe said. “Every time those guys got on the ice they tilted the ice.”

That sounds, in a roundabout way, not unlike the message Keefe delivered after the loss to the Coyotes. San Jose’s best players — Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, Timo Meier — were all playing against the Leafs’ best players — and winning those minutes.

Keefe may have to go back to the drawing board, whether that’s dropping Michael Bunting back onto the top line or finding a different look for the Tavares group. It’s probably time to give Nicolas Aube-Kubel another look at the bottom of the lineup.

The only line that should definitely stick for now is the one that reunited Kampf with Pierre Engvall. That unit, with Zach Aston-Reese filling things out, was the most successful group in San Jose. Despite landing only one offensive zone faceoff, the line finished with an expected goals mark approaching 90 percent.

For the second game in a row, the Leafs gave up too much good stuff, too many high-quality opportunities (though two of the four San Jose goals came on one power play).

“We gotta figure out these turnovers,” Marner said. “We’re giving a lot of teams a lot of odd-man rushes, a lot of chances our way. We’re not helping our D a lot, especially forwards. We’re not coming back to pucks. They were way hungrier on the forecheck. That’s the thing that our team has been so good at the last couple years, getting pucks back and creating offence off that. The forward group, we need to get way hungrier on the puck. We need to create way more chances up ice and help our D out a little more.”

“We didn’t play our game the first two periods,” added an unusually outspoken Kampf. “I feel like in the third we came back a little bit and started playing a little bit harder. It wasn’t good all game.”

Keefe has not been happy with the way the puck is moving from the D to the forwards. In other words, how the team is initiating its attack. It’s what, in his estimation, has stalled the offence and led to his team spending more time playing defence.

The Leafs are sitting about 50 percent expected goals for the season. Not great. Last season that number was 56 percent.

“We gotta execute,” Keefe said. “You watch the game, you watch how many times we don’t execute on passes. We’ve got a lot of really good players, a lot of skill on our team, and we’re just not connecting on passes, like, tape-to-tape passes that we’re just either making the wrong decision and passing to the wrong guy, or we’re holding on too long and it gets disrupted. That’s a big problem for us.

“Our inability to move the puck up the ice efficiently is slowing down all of our game on offence and it’s really hurting our game defensively as well because we’re just getting stressed. The second period we couldn’t get our defence off the ice because we just couldn’t move the puck up.”

Though Marner pinned those problems on the forwards, Keefe said, “It starts with the D. Their first touch (with the puck) has to be better.”

The defence looks overexposed right now, with Jake Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren both absent with injuries. That’s two of the usual top six (or seven) out of the mix, including the second-best defender (T.J. Brodie is tops at this point) on the team.

The Leafs have no choice but to continue to lean on a struggling Justin Holl until Liljegren returns next month. They’ll have to find an external replacement for Muzzin if he doesn’t return this season.

(D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports)

Keefe didn’t think changing up the pairs would fix the issues the Leafs were having, but it’s something worth contemplating even if the options aren’t exactly obvious.

First, would be splitting up Morgan Rielly and Brodie in the name of balance.

Option 1: Hand Brodie, the most reliable defender the Leafs have, over to Holl.

But then who plays with Rielly? Rasmus Sandin on his off side?

Option 2: Reunite Brodie and Mark Giordano.

Again though, who plays with Rielly?

Option 3: Keep Rielly and Brodie together, but swap Sandin for Giordano.

Is there enough mobility and puck-moving ability in a Giordano-Holl combo with Holl struggling like he is at the moment? Can the Leafs play Sandin and Mete together?

Option 4: Split up Rielly and Brodie, but go extreme in sliding Rielly over to the right side until Liljegren is ready to play. Rielly, remember, spent time on the right during training camp as well as the offseason.

Giordano – Rielly
Brodie – Holl
Sandin – Mete

Like we said, not a lot of great options there.

It’s evident the Leafs feel there’s only so much they can throw at Giordano. He was supposed to play more in Muzzin’s absence. He’s ended up playing less. That might need to change.

Another issue is that the Leafs’ power play has yet to get going, though Matthews’ one-time blast was encouraging.

About the most positive development of the early season has been the play of Ilya Samsonov. There aren’t a lot of players off to roaring starts. Keefe has felt the need to press hard from Day 1.

It’s been a checkered start, certainly.

It is still October, still 74 games to go, still early. And the Leafs started in similar fashion last season before turning things around.

“It’s not an excuse, right?” Kampf said. “The season started already, so we have to be ready from the start of the season.”

Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

(Photo: Kavin Mistry / NHLI via Getty Images)

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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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