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Maple Leafs’ patience pays off against ‘wet blanket’ Islanders

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TORONTO – You want run-and-gun? Let’s go.

You want to clog it up? That’s fine, too.

Need our much-maligned backup to stand on his head? Well, that can be arranged.

On the burner, Sheldon Keefe’s Toronto Maple Leafs have ripped through the heart of the holidays — now 9-0-1 in their past 10 games — adapting to consecutive opponents as diverse as the fire-packing Jets and the wet-blanket Islanders looks as easy as setting a new benchmark for the most victories within the first 20 games as head coach of a 102-year-old franchise.

In defeating Lou Lamoriello’s New York Islanders 3-0 Saturday night, Kyle Dubas’s Maple Leafs improved to 15-4-1 under Keefe, whose early-career record surpassed a benchmark set by coach Hap Day way back in 1940-41.

The Islanders, staunch in their identity since early October, kept highlights to a minimum and pucks to the outside, gumming up the neutral zone, outshooting the Leafs, and doing their damnedest to sponge up as much of Toronto’s skill as possible.

“It’s pretty clear what the Islanders are good at. They’re very good at it,” Keefe said. “We’re going to have to try to make it so that the things that we’re good at and our strengths are coming to the forefront.”

So, credit Toronto’s patience. And its knack for finish.

Home of the Maple Leafs

Stream 56 Maple Leafs games this season with Sportsnet NOW. Get over 500 NHL games, blackout-free, including Hockey Night in Canada, all outdoor games, the All-Star Game, 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and more.

The Leafs didn’t get anxious enough to force the issue and pounced on the tiny windows New York allowed.

John Tavares, who’s captained both squads, considered just stingy his former club has become since his departure and Barry Trotz’s arrival.

“When I was there, we weren’t very good defensively to now probably being the best defensive team—extremely organized,” Tavares said. “They have a lot of trust in their back end.”

After 33 minutes and 25 seconds of goal-free, lullaby hockey, speedster Kasperi Kapanen dangled 13-game rookie Noah Dobson on the rush and set up linemate Pierre Engvall for a beautiful goal in stride.

“He’s been an offensive producer most of his life. Coming into pro hockey caught him off-guard a little bit when we tried to put him in defensive situations and penalty kill and checking against other teams’ best players. He’s always felt he had more to give offensively, and we agreed with that,” Keefe explained.

“Because of the way he skates and his strength, he puts himself in good spots to get shots off — and he has the ability to beat goalies.”

Even with injured forwards Trevor Moore (concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg) both back skating, we can’t foresee the gangly-smooth Engvall returning to the Marlies anytime soon.

“He can fly, that’s for sure,” Mason Marchment added.

“He’s a gazelle.”

Isles defenceman Johnny Boychuk came with a rung post of immediately tying the game, but the when the puck went the other way, Auston Matthews tipped a hard Mitchell Marner pass high in tight to give the home side a 2-0 lead that felt like more on a night so scarce on scoring chances.

Matthews 28th gives him nine in his past nine and surely brought a smile to his new BFF, Justin Bieber, who was in the house.

As pretty as the Leafs goals were, however, more impressive was their own defensive game, as they too limited the Isles’ Grade-A opportunities and let Michael Hutchinson’s right-handed catching glove gobble up the rest.

Surely, Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey will both be cursing that odd-handed trapper as they try to fall asleep.

The win marked Hutchinson’s third in row and was sound-tracked by jubilant “Let’s! Go! Hutch!” chants from the third-period crowd.

More important, the win arrived on the No. 2’s first start all season that wasn’t half of a back-to-back, supplying all-star Frederik Andersen with some extra rest ahead of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s annual trip into town Tuesday.

“We’re well aware of the fact that we need to get some more games out of our backup,” Keefe said.

“If we didn’t get Freddie a rest this week, there probably wouldn’t be one until after the break.”

At the pace the Leafs are charging up the standings, who needs a break

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UFC 254 results: Robert Whittaker outstrikes Jared Cannonier to win unanimous decision – MMA Fighting

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Robert Whittaker proved yet again at UFC 254 why he’s the No. 1 ranked middleweight contender in the world.

The former champion put on a technical striking showcase to avoid Jared Cannonier’s power for the better part of all three rounds before earning a unanimous decision in the co-main event on Fight Island. The judges all scored the fight 29-28 with Whittaker earning his second straight win after defeating Darren Till back in July.

“I’m very happy,” Whittaker said. “Obviously we got the result we wanted. It was a good fight, he’s a tough guy.”

The middleweight clash was really a display of speed and accuracy against a whole lot of power as Whittaker was fast with his hands and feet while Cannonier was looking for the knockout with almost every shot thrown. While Whittaker was connecting with better volume, Cannonier fired back with a series of thudding leg kicks that left a serious mark behind the former champion’s knee.

As time passed, Whittaker really started to establish his lead jab, which Cannonier was struggling to avoid. Whittaker continuously flicked out the jab and the straight punches were giving Cannonier problems as he looked for a way to counter.

While the leg kicks were still paying dividends for Cannonier, he just couldn’t keep up with Whittaker’s pace where he was throwing and connecting with much more regularity.

With Cannonier trying to find an answer to the punches, Whittaker set up a beautiful combination that he capped off with a staggering head kick. The shot glanced off Cannonier’s head and he was immediately rattled but he managed to survive the subsequent onslaught.

As the final round was coming to a close, Cannonier cracked Whittaker with a hard punch that wobbled the former champion momentarily but he wasn’t able to capitalize. The fight ended with both fighters launching shots at each other as the middleweights left everything in the cage.

After losing his title to Israel Adesanya almost exactly one year ago, Whittaker has now dispatched two top ranked middleweights in a row. With these past pair of performances, Whittaker may be looking at a rematch with Adesanya once both fighters are ready to return in 2021.

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Time check! Khabib Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje will fight at UFC 254 around 4:15 p.m. ET today – MMA Mania

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We are just hours away from one of the biggest lightweight battles in recent UFC history as undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov meets interim titleholder Justin Gaethje for the undisputed belt this afternoon (Sat., Oct. 24, 2020) at UFC 254 live on ESPN+ PPV from inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi.

Nurmagomedov, who is currently 12-0 in UFC competition, is hoping to push his overall MMA record to 29-0 with a win over “Highlight.” It won’t be easy, though, even for a dominant champion like Khabib. That’s because “Eagle” will be competing for the first time in over 13 months, the first time without his father by his side, and the first time in front of no fans. It will be a shock to say the least, but one that Nurmagomedov should be able to handle.

Gaethje, who destroyed Tony Ferguson this past May to claim the interim strap, is hoping to pull off the biggest upset in recent UFC history. The “Most Violent Man in the Sport” has all the ingredients to take it to Khabib and give him his toughest test to date, but it’s all going to come down to whether or not Gaethje can keep his back off the cage and feet on the ground. If he can do that and utilize his elite collegiate wrestling background then maybe Gaethje can actually pull it off.

It will be a lightweight title fight for the ages, but when exactly should fight fans expect Khabib and Gaethje to step inside of the cage on a loaded PPV card smack dab in the middle of the day?

With five other fights taking place on the PPV main card starting at 2:00 p.m. ET, Khabib vs. Gaethje is likely to begin sometime around 4:30 p.m. ET. The co-main event will showcase a middleweight scrap between former UFC champion Robert Whittaker and rising contender Jared Cannonier, which could very well end in spectacular fashion early. Mix in a heavyweight class between Alexander Volkov and Walt Harris, as well as a rematch between light heavyweight finishers Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba, and UFC 254 might move along quicker than anticipated.

If things run early/late Mania will be sure to provide an updated start time for today’s Khabib vs. Gaethje main event.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 254 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 11:00 a.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+/ESPN2 at 12 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

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Dodgers rake in any count, and other takeaways from their Game 3 win – theScore

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The Los Angeles Dodgers retook control of the World Series on Friday, besting the Tampa Bay Rays 6-2 in Game 3 behind a brilliant effort from Walker Buehler and more timely hitting from their potent lineup en route to a 2-1 series lead. Here are a few takeaways from their Game 3 victory.

Dodgers hitters excel in any count

The Dodgers’ preposterously deep and star-studded lineup excels in so many ways. No team, for instance, hit for more power than Los Angeles during the abbreviated 2020 regular season. No team made quality contact at a higher rate, either. And no team did a better job hitting with two strikes.

Highest weighted-on base average (wOBA) with two strikes, 2020

TeamwOBA
LAD.271
SF.268
ATL.253
SD.252
NYY.250

(Courtesy: Baseball Savant)

The club’s collective knack for two-strike hitting has been on display throughout the postseason – half of Mookie Betts’ hits through Game 2 of the World Series came in two-strike counts, as did Cody Bellinger’s go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the NLCS – but never more so than in Friday’s victory.

Of the Dodgers’ 10 hits in Game 3, all but three came with two strikes, including all four of their most impactful hits by win probability added: Justin Turner’s solo shot off Charlie Morton in the first; Max Muncy’s two-run single in the third; Betts’ run-scoring single in the fourth; and Austin Barnes’ unexpected, lead-padding homer off John Curtiss in the sixth. The bulk of that damage was done off Morton, who allowed just one run through his first three postseason starts, and, more germanely, held hitters to a .170/.207/.284 line in two-strike counts this year.

Ultimately, Game 3 further evinced how difficult the Dodgers’ lineup is to navigate for opposing pitchers, not only due to its abundance of All-Stars and former MVPs, but because the team’s hitters, almost to a man, are comfortable hitting while behind in the count. Even with two strikes on them, they refuse to expand the zone, continuing to get off quality swings and produce.

Turner gets his moment

No player embodies the Dodgers’ ongoing futility in October like Clayton Kershaw. But Justin Turner, their venerable third baseman, has also been around for most of the recent heartbreak. And just like Kershaw had his moment in Game 1, and his memory to savor should the Dodgers finally end their championship drought this year, Turner has made his mark, too, following a 2-for-5, two-run effort highlighted by that first-inning homer, which tied him with Duke Snider for the most (11) in Dodgers postseason history.

Prior to Friday, Turner’s postseason had been somewhat of a disappointment. Through his first 14 contests, the Dodgers’ No. 3 hitter in each of those games had slashed just .216/.328/.353, a far cry from his robust regular-season numbers. Meanwhile, Turner had recorded a negative win probability added in all but four games, a byproduct of his struggles during run-scoring opportunities. To date, he’s hitting just .118 with runners in scoring position this postseason, and the veteran has driven in only three runs in 17 such at-bats.

Suddenly, however, Turner’s postseason is no longer a disappointment. He’s now poised, should the Dodgers pull this off, to be one of the heroes, which would be well deserved considering how important the 35-year-old has been to this powerhouse franchise.

Arozarena struggling with offspeed diet

Until the ninth inning of Game 3, the Dodgers had all but silenced Randy Arozarena, the rookie phenom who hit .382/.433/.855 with seven home runs through the first three rounds of the postseason. Much of that damage came off fastballs, and he’s generally experienced far more success against fastballs than any other pitch type throughout his nascent career.

So the Dodgers decided to feed the prodigious 25-year-old a steady diet of offspeed and breaking pitches. Through the first two games of the World Series, as Arozarena notched just one measly infield single in six at-bats (albeit with three walks), fastballs accounted for less than a quarter of the pitches he saw.

SplitFB%wOBA
WC + LDS + LCS41.5%.513
WS Gms 1+224.1%.281

That approach continued to pay dividends for the Dodgers in Game 3. Walker Buehler’s fastball is electric, but he threw Arozarena just four heaters over three plate appearances (and only two inside the strike zone), resulting in a three-pitch strikeout, a flyout to deep center, and another strikeout. And that fourth-inning flyout, which rocketed off Arozarena’s bat at 100.5 miles per hour and produced an expected batting average of .760, came off a fastball.

Yet, with two outs in the ninth inning and a four-run lead, deposed closer Kenley Jansen deviated from the plan that had been so effective to that point in the series, throwing Arozarena six straight fastballs while trying to secure the game’s final out. He failed.

Jansen opted to just let it eat, as he does – nine out of every 10 pitches Jansen throws is some kind of fastball, either a cutter or a sinker – and got burned for it, serving up a poorly located 3-2 cutter that Arozarena deposited into the left-field seats for his record-tying eighth postseason home run. It was also the game’s hardest-hit ball, with an exit velocity of 111.3 mph.

And as disheartening as it might’ve been for Jansen, it was an instructive at-bat for Los Angeles. Not only did it validate the Dodgers’ game plan and reinforce how untenable it is to throw Arozarena fastballs in the zone right now, but it also illustrated why Jansen is a poor matchup for the burgeoning star. His one-dimensional repertoire makes him particularly vulnerable against Arozarena, and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts should avoid using him in high-leverage spots for the remainder of the series if the outfielder is due up.

Bold strategy, Dave

The vulnerability of the Dodgers’ bullpen looms large over this series. As such, it was a bit curious to see Roberts use three of his most trusted relievers – Jansen, hard-throwing rookie Brusdar Graterol, and ground-ball extraordinaire Blake Treinen – to close out a somewhat lopsided game, potentially limiting their availability (and/or reducing their effectiveness) over the next couple of games.

On one hand, neither Graterol nor Treinen had pitched since the NLCS finale, and Jansen hadn’t appeared since Game 6 of that series, so they were overdue for some work. However, one or more of them could now be asked to pitch on three consecutive days after not doing that during the regular season, which generally seems ill-advised, especially with the three-batter rule in place.

This may end up being a non-issue, but if any of those three falter over the next couple of days, it’ll be hard not to look back at Game 3 and wonder why, say, Victor Gonzalez, Jake McGee, and/or Dylan Floro weren’t asked to handle the late innings with the Dodgers staked to a comfortable lead.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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