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Maple Leafs’ OT thriller proves why you invest in offensive stars – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Perhaps it was after Connor Hellebuyck lost his stick, yet still scrambled to deny Mitch Marner right at the blue paint.

Maybe it was when the reigning Vezina champ stoned one of the three Toronto Maple LeafsWilliam Nylander, Zach Hyman and Pierre Engvall — on their clear-cut breakaways.

Or when Paul “Bunyan” Stastny lumberjacked Morgan Rielly’s stick to shards in overtime, a slash that went uncalled, and three Winnipeg Jets forwards closed in on Frederik Andersen’s crease, sniffing another victory.

But at some point prior to Thursday night’s storybook climax — as Toronto generated its 45th high-danger chance (to the Jets’ 11) and Hellebuyck made his 70th save through two games — a thought flashed through Sheldon Keefe’s mind.

What if we dominate play but come up empty, again? What if this skid extends to four and Winnipeg creeps within striking distance of the division lead? How do I convince my room that they’re on the right track?

“We very easily could have been on the other side of this one here tonight,” said Coach Keefe, after a roller-coaster 4-3 win that required four periods and line juggling and the kitchen sink.

“How do you frame that? How do you stay with it [considering] the fact you’re not getting the results and all of that?”

Zach Hyman says the Maple Leafs will be served well by this recent bout of adversity.

Nylander, who could be seen firing a puck at the boards during a TV timeout, believes, sometimes, frustration is a good thing: “I like it.”

Embrace the suck.

Or, as Joe Thornton said, wisely: “It’s a long year. You’ve got to enjoy the process. There’s going to be downs, but you fight through.”

Ostensibly, the sage old Leaf was talking about hockey. But on the anniversary of the pandemic shutting down sports and so much more, Jumbo could well have been speaking for all of us.

An earlier edition of this same Maple Leafs core might have wilted every time Hellebuyck windmilled the leather or tracked another cross-seamed pass perfectly.

They might’ve made passive-aggressive comments about whistles that went unblown or condemned their puck luck.

Or fell out of sync once Keefe mixed his top nine on the fly, trying Thornton alongside John Tavares and William Nylander.

So, it is saying something that the Leafs’ top-end talent never stopped pushing through their mini slump.

Morgan Rielly notched two assists, bringing his total to 19. Marner’s 11th even-strength goal vaulted him into a tie for second overall in that category. Tavares drew three defenders on an up-the-gut rush, then dished to Nylander for a beautiful one-timer. Hyman, Marner, Nylander and Auston Matthews — contributing another two-point night with a hurting hand — each registered a minimum of five shots on goal.

“We were generating a lot. It just felt like a matter of time before it would go in for us. I thought the guys were really working,” Keefe said, letting pride encroach his relief. “To get rewarded with a win certainly feels good.”

Nylander, in particular, shone bright, generating his own breakaway with a rare shot block, stripping pucks in the neutral zone, and pumping a game-high six shots.

“Willy Nylander had his best game of the season today,” Keefe enthused. “He was outstanding. It was great to see him get rewarded with a goal, because he certainly earned it with how he was playing. I’ve been really encouraged.

“He just looked determined — determined to score, determined to make a difference.”

A win like this, general manager Kyle Dubas would argue, is why you invest tens of millions in the difference-makers.

Quadruple down on talent.

Give enough looks to enough skilled players and, eventually, they’ll solve even the hottest goaltender.

Which is precisely what Matthews did, 59 seconds into a hectic overtime. Bum wrist and all.

Funny how the hockey gods taketh and giveth.

When Stastny chopped Rielly’s stick in sudden death and no penalty was called, Marner hit the deck to break up the Jets’ chance while Rielly fetched a fresh twig.

“There was a lot of yelling going on in that D-zone when Mo did break his stick. Me and Tone [Matthews] were kind of snow-angeling down there, playing whatever we could,” Marner described.

Marner head-manned the puck to Rielly, now in fine position to spring a gasping Matthews, who faked shot and roofed a buttery backhand deke for his league-leading sixth game-winner.

The move?

“I think it’s difficult for a lot of people; it’s not difficult for Tony [Matthews]. I’ve seen him pull it off a lot of times,” Marner said. “No one’s really surprised by it, regardless of how he’s feeling.”

“He’s a star. That’s what they do,” Keefe added.

“The condition of his hand and stuff aside, he was quite tired there, too. That was a long shift. A long shift in overtime. Overtime shifts are difficult. Just to have the energy to get up the ice and put himself in that spot amongst the chaos of the broken stick and all of that nonsense that was happening. That’s big-time stuff.”

Big-time talent.

Big-time slump bust.

Big-time rubber match, Saturday.

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In ever-evolving NBA, Raptors’ length and athleticism opens doors on defence – Sportsnet.ca

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Under head coach Nick Nurse, the Toronto Raptors have always worked to stay abreast of league trends, or even push the envelope on what might be next.

As an assistant coach, Nurse received a considerable amount of credit for overseeing an effort to inject more spacing, ball movement and player movement into an offensive approach that had grown too reliant on DeMar DeRozan’s mid-range isolations. The result was a team-record 59-win season in 2017-18. Nurse also had his fingerprints on the “bench mob” – the high-tempo, aggressive defence-first group that was a big part of the Raptors’ regular-season success.

Since becoming head coach in 2019-19, Nurse’s defensive focus has been more apparent, with the Raptors embracing liberal switching on the perimeter as well as a growing reliance on zone defences – tactics that were less common across the league than they quickly became.

But basketball’s pace of change hasn’t stalled. You can only pay so much attention to games that don’t matter, but it’s hard not to notice that in pre-season play the Golden State Warriors are putting up an astounding 55 three-point shots a game. Four other teams – Sacramento, Denver, Utah and Oklahoma City are averaging 45 three-point attempts.

For context the only teams in league history to average 45 three-point shots a game were the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Houston Rockets, with James Harden at his gun-slinging peak. A decade ago NBA teams averaged 20 three-point attempts a game. Last season it was 34 and still climbing apparently.

“I don’t know if any of us sat here at some point and said the amount of threes are going to be double … or whatever the number is,” said Nurse. “… It does evolve pretty quickly though.”

Given the value of those shots, a team that wants to be effective defensively must have a plan to discourage them being taken, or at least make them more difficult.

One of the benefits of a roster rounded out with so many players in the six-foot-six to six-foot-nine range – the Raptors only have four players in training camp shorter – is the pressure they can put on perimeter shooters.

The Raptors got a taste of it last season, when six-foot-nine Chris Boucher led the NBA with .84 blocked three-pointers a game and was ranked fourth in the league in the percentage that opponents shot when he was the closest defender. Pascal Siakam ranked second in the league in the number of three-pointers contested after leading that category in 2019-20.

As a whole, the Raptors weren’t especially good at defending the three-point line – opponents shot 37.9 per cent from deep, which was above league average and ranked them 24th overall – but given the range of mitigating circumstances they faced last season it’s probably not something to dwell on. The Raptors led the NBA in that category in 2019-20 when the set a franchise record for winning percentage.

This is a different team with plenty of new faces, but maybe having a roster full of athletic, agile guys in the mould of Boucher and Siakam could pay dividends in a league where it looks like more teams are going to be hoisting threes than ever before.

Raptors rookie Dalano Banton has certainly had the importance of getting to three-point shooters impressed upon him in his weeks-old NBA career, and as a nimble six-foot-nine guard, he can play the part.

“Shot contesting is one of our pillars that we go off of on defence as well as pressuring the ball so guys don’t get easy shots so, running them off the line,” said Banton after practice Friday. “In this league guys make shots and they make it at a high clip so I feel like just doing the best you can to run out at every shot that gets put up by the other team is big for us and being in our defensive stance, just showing length and just discouraging them from making plays they’d make if we weren’t in our right spots.

“…Just being in the right spot is just the biggest part of the battle and showing your hands. Once you’re there, it puts your whole team in a better position to play defence.”

Selling out on three-point shooters takes trust. Actually blocking a shot is rare and smart teams and players will look to pump fake on careless closeouts and look for a side-step three, a chance to penetrate the paint for layups, generate kick-outs to open shooters or simply swing the ball to take advantage of a scrambling defence.

It’s not enough to run at a shooter, it has to be done properly.

“Just playing the game the way you practice — running guys off lines and the next guy helping and making the next play,” says Banton. “So, it’s just about the offence having to make the next play, not giving them that shot or that layup, having to make them make that extra pass. The guy behind you is gonna help, we’re all playing defence in one line together so we’re all trying to work in a tandem and move where we have to move and rotate to the right spots.”

It’s music to Nurse’s ears. The goal of his scheme, he says, it to challenge every shot, everywhere.

“It’s kind of icing on the cake when we get a block [on a three-pointer],” he said. “I think I’m really more concerned that we’re making a heavy contest. Obviously the block is the heaviest of all contests. We just want to make sure we make it contested. It goes to hustle and hard play: You’ve got to keep playing the whole possession. Sometimes you’ve got to fire out, fire out, fire out.

“Every now and then you get put in rotations and some teams are really good in making you do it. But you’ve got to do it. That’s just an effort and hustle thing that we want the heavy contest. Chris [Boucher] has certainly got a knack, incredible timing on that stuff. I’m not sure it’s teachable or transferable … What we teach and what we drill every day is heavy contesting.”

Changing times call for changing measures – and maybe a lot of long, athletic guys flying around at the three-point line like never before.

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Blue Bombers beat Elks to clinch playoff spot – TSN

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EDMONTON — Zach Collaros threw two touchdown passes as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks 26-16 on Friday night to become the first CFL team to clinch a playoff berth.

Winnipeg (9-1) captured its seventh straight victory and improved to 7-0 within the West Division. Collaros finished 15-of-24 passing for 210 yards with an interception to remain the CFL’s passing leader (2,565 yards) but is also tops in TD passes with 15.

This marks the fifth straight season that Winnipeg, the defending Grey Cup champion, has made the playoffs.

Edmonton (2-7) suffered its fifth straight loss and dropped to 0-5 at home this season.

Edmonton’s defence forced a safety at 9:31 of the first quarter, then came up big five minutes later as Trumaine Washington intercepted Collaros in the end zone. The Bombers closed out the opening quarter with a 37-yard Ali Mourtada field goal.

The Elks responded with Sean Whyte’s 34-yard field goal at 11:22 of the second.

Winnipeg took the lead with three minutes left in the first half as a 47-yard completion to Kenny Lawler set up Collaros’s five-yard TD strike to Andrew Harris. But Harris appeared to suffer an injury to his right knee and did not return as Brady Oliveira finished up with 105 yards rushing on 16 carries.

Whyte kicked a 25-yard field cut Winnipeg’s half-time lead to 10-8.

Mourtada converted from 27 and a career-high 43 yards to start the third. Edmonton tied it 16-16 on Taylor Cornelius’s 11-yard TD toss to Shai Ross. Backup quarterback Dakota Prukop added the two-point convert.

Rookie Cornelius got the start as incumbent Trevor Harris was a healthy scratch.

Moments after Elks defender Aaron Grymes couldn’t hang on to an easy interception opportunity, Collaros hit Rasheed Bailey on a 48-yard completion before finding him on a five-yard scoring strike six minutes into the fourth.

Mourtada cemented the win with a 23-yard field goal with 50 seconds remaining.

Winnipeg hosts the B.C. Lions next Saturday while Edmonton has a bye week before returning home against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Oct. 29.

NOTES: Harris being sidelined while healthy has led to speculation the Elks are actively shopping their veteran quarterback on the trade front… Lawler returned to the lineup after being suspended by Winnipeg for its last game for an impaired driving arrest… The actual attendance appeared to be far beneath the announced 24,276 fans.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

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With a timely home run, Carlos Correa delivers Game 1 of ALCS to Astros – Sportsnet.ca

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HOUSTON — Carlos Correa paused a few seconds at the plate, tapping the spot on his wrist where a watch would be, after hitting a tie-breaking home run in the seventh inning that propelled the Houston Astros over the Boston Red Sox 5-4 Friday night in the AL Championship Series opener.

“It’s my time,” he screamed before trotting around the bases.

That it is.

And if his time with the Astros runs out at the end of this season, the star shortstop sure is making this an October to remember.

Correa teamed with Jose Altuve to do just enough to overcome the heroics of Kike Hernandez, who starred with his bat and glove for the wild-card Red Sox.

Altuve tied the game with a two-run shot in the sixth before Correa connected off losing pitcher Hansel Robles with two outs in the seventh to put the Astros ahead 4-3.

Correa, who has been with the Astros since being selected first overall in 2012, becomes a free agent at season’s end and it seems likely that he won’t remain in Houston.

Correa has a history of big hits for Houston that includes 18 postseason home runs, several of them in key, late situations.

“Playoff time, baby,” Correa said.

“We want to be in the spotlight,” he said. “We want to be in the moment.”

Hernandez, who won a World Series with the Dodgers last year, homered twice among his four hits and likely saved multiple runs with two terrific catches.

His second homer came off closer Ryan Pressly to start the ninth and cut the lead to 5-4. But Pressly retired the next three batters to get the save.

Game 2 is Saturday in Houston.

Ahead 4-3, the Astros loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth when Hirokazu Sawamura plunked Martin Maldonado. Houston added some insurance when Yuli Gurriel slid in just before the tag to score on a sacrifice fly by Altuve that made it 5-3, beating a terrific throw by Hernandez.

Hernandez has been red hot for the Red Sox this October, with 13 hits in his last four games to set an MLB record for most hits in a four-game span in one postseason. He passed Billy Hatcher (1999), Marquis Grissom (1995), Hideki Matsui (2004) and Randy Arozarena (2020), who all had 11.

“Enrique is en fuego,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.

Chas McCormick singled with one out in the sixth before Altuve became the fourth player in MLB history to hit at least 20 postseason homers with his shot to left-center off Tanner Houck that tied it at 3.

Hernandez opened a three-run third with his soaring homer to centre field to tie it at 1-all.

Xander Bogaerts walked with one out and Rafael Devers singled. J.D. Martinez hit a grounder to Altuve for what should have been a routine play. But the ball grazed his glove and rolled between his legs to allow Martinez to reach and Bogaerts to score to put Boston up 2-1.

Hunter Renfroe then hit an RBI double to left field to extend it to 3-1 before Houston’s two brightest stars came through late.

“Experience matters,” Correa said.

Altuve and Correa, connecting again for a team trying to reach the World Series for the second time in three years. The Astros also won the championship in 2017, a crown tainted by the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Both teams leaned heavily on their bullpens after both Boston starter Chris Sale and Houston’s Framber Valdez were chased in the third.

Ryne Stanek got the last out of the seventh for the win.

“We stay in the moment. You win, you turn the page, you prepare for tomorrow. You lose, you turn the page, you prepare for tomorrow,” Cora said.

“We lost the first three games of the season to Baltimore, and we felt like Game 4 against Tampa was the season, to be honest with you. We’ve been living like this for a while, so we’ll be ready for tomorrow,” he said.

Sale, who was tagged for five runs in one inning in his previous start against Tampa Bay in the AL Division Series, permitted five hits and a run in 2 2/3 innings Friday. Valdez gave up six hits and three runs — two earned — while also getting just eight outs.

The Astros led 1-0 after Altuve scored on a sacrifice fly by Yordan Alvarez in the first.

For the next few innings it looked like it wouldn’t be the Astros’ night.

Houston loaded the bases with one out in the second, but Altuve struck out before Sale escaped the jam with a huge assist from Hernandez in center field. Hernandez, whose MLB debut came when he subbed for Altuve late in a game in 2014, sprinted to rob Michael Brantley with a diving catch in shallow center to end the inning.

The Astros had runners at first and second with two outs in the fifth when Hernandez struck again. He made a back-handed grab in right-center on a ball hit by Kyle Tucker to leave them empty-handed once more.

Hernandez even seemed surprised he made the grab, contorting his face into a shocked look after the ball hit his glove.

UP NEXT

Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi (1-0, 2.61 ERA) will have a homecoming of sorts Saturday when he starts opposite rookie Luis Garcia (0-0, 16.88). Eovaldi grew up in the Houston suburb of Alvin, also home to Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, and visited the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park often growing up.

“It’s definitely one of my favorite ballparks to pitch in,” Eovaldi said.

Saturday will be his third start this postseason. He struck out eight in 5 1/3 innings and got the win in the wild-card victory over the Yankees. He also started Game 3 of the ALDS but did not factor in the decision in a 6-4 Red Sox win.

Garcia struggled in a Game 3 start in the division series, permitting five runs in just 2 2/3 innings of a 12-6 loss.

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