Connect with us

Sports

Maple Leafs quarter-mark report: The great, the meh and the questions – Sportsnet.ca

Published

 on


TORONTO — No hockey team gets scrutinized, dissected or deconstructed on a daily basis than the Toronto Maple Leafs. One poor effort can ignite a bad week’s worth of chatter in this market. One dominant evening, and it’s dust off the parade maps.

So, it’s worthwhile to zoom out — 14 games into a season Frederik Andersen dubbed “a sprint and a marathon” — and take stock of how it’s going.

The Maple Leafs are surely benefitting from 2021’s realignment.

And while it’s difficult to judge just how good they actually are when they’ll never get a measuring stick like Tampa or Boston, Washington or Vegas, Toronto’s welcoming of this All or Nothing pressure is off to a promising first episode.

WHERE THEY ARE RELATIVE TO EXPECTATIONS

Any critique of the NHL’s top team (11-2-1) feels like picking nits off a thoroughbred, particularly during a nine-game points streak.

The Maple Leafs’ best players are putting up Nintendo numbers. The much-publicized veteran-slash-leadership acquisitions — Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian — have all met or exceeded expectations. And Toronto has finally taken its long-awaited defensive leap.

“We have a great vibe on the bench,” beams Justin Holl, another feel-good story from Q1.

The majority of Canada’s organizations would kill for the Leafs’ early woes (injured backup goalie, in-flux bottom six, promising D-men forced to be healthy scratches).

The best news is about Toronto’s record is that, to a man, the Leafs still don’t believe they’re firing on all cylinders quite yet.

Puck possession is a priority for any Sheldon Keefe–helmed squad, and this is one area the coach believes his charges can improve.

“That’s a huge part of our philosophy, for sure. I don’t think we were very good in that area, to be frank, in the first 10 games, but we’ve shown progress,” Keefe says.

“While we are known for our offence and our scoring and had a bit of a breakout here in the last couple games, our offence wasn’t the reason why we’re winning games in the first 10 games of the season.

“We were winning because of our power play and because of the fact that we were defending better, in my opinion. That carried us through a lot of those really tight games.”

TOP-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: A+

Mitch Marner has 21 points and just wrapped an eight-game point/assist streak.

Auston Matthews ran an eight-game goal streak, has points in 12 of 13, and has lit more lamps (11) than anyone in hockey.

Keefe knows exactly what he’s getting from Zach Hyman every night, and it’s all good.

William Nylander and John Tavares both believe they have another level to reach in terms of 5-on-5 production. And yet they’re firmly in point-per-game territory thanks, largely, to a double-barrelled power play driven by the Leafs’ Core Four forwards.

When healthy, old newcomers Thornton and Simmonds have complemented the young stars nicely.

“They’re obviously very talented up front,” says Montreal goalie Carey Price, who’s lost twice to Toronto. “That group of forwards thinks the game very well.”

Less obvious is the step Matthews and Marner have taken defensively. There is less cheating for offence among the top six, which lends an honesty to the gaudy offensive stats.

Matthews, in particular, is off to the type of campaign that will thrust him into the conversation for hardware — and we’re not only talking about the Rocket Richard Trophy.

“He’s a special player,” says Jason Spezza, “who’s putting together an MVP-type season.”

BOTTOM-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B–

A concern for the duration of 2019-20, the revolving door to the bottom of the Leafs’ forward group keeps on spinning.

The absence of a pre-season and an influx of fresh faces has prompted Keefe to extend role-player tryouts into February, as the coach searches for the best mix to tread water — or, better still, chip in — when his all-stars catch their breath.

It’s been a mixed bag.

For every Jason Spezza hat trick, we get an Alexander Barabanov, who doesn’t look NHL ready. For every fearless Simmonds’ scrap or pretty redirect goal, we get a snake-bit Ilya Mikheyev or a Nick Robertson injury.

Travis Boyd is revealing himself a fine find; the jury is still out on Jimmy Vesey and Pierre Engvall.

And while there’s plenty to like about the feisty Alexander Kerfoot, who is much more engaged this season, he has been prone to penalties — and, unfortunately, his mere presence is a reminder to Leaf Nation that they lost a pure two-way centreman via the Nazem Kadri trade.

DEFENCE GRADE: A–

If I were to tell you prior to the season that the Maple Leafs would post a below-median save percentage and still be among the NHL’s elite, surely you would assume they’ve been winning games by scores like 6-4.

But that’s far from the case. Toronto’s first seven wins were all grind-’er-out, one-goal affairs (sometimes plus an empty-netter). In nearly every case, they had to lock things down in their own end, weather a storm, and hold a lead like a grudge.

This group is much better equipped to do so. With a top four of Morgan Rielly–T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin–Justin Holl trusted to match the division’s elite top-sixes and depth well beyond Zach Bogosian on the third pairing, we dare say this is the most balanced Leafs blue line of this century.

That said, Toronto’s penalty kill (76.5 per cent) remains in the bottom third of the league, where it’s been stuck for years.

The early returns on the seldom-noticed Brodie (this is a good thing) are fantastic, and he deserves partial credit for a healthy 11-point burst out the gates from Rielly.

Meanwhile, Mikko Lehtonen, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin are all inspired to give A+ effort every night just to prove they’re worthy of dressing.

In his five years a Leaf, Frederik Andersen has never been so sheltered.

“The biggest reason why our shots on goal have reduced is we just don’t allow teams into our zone with near the same level of frequency, and the number of odd-man rushes have dramatically decreased against,” notes Keefe. That message was drilled into all skaters, forwards included, from Day 1 of camp.

“We’ve seen great strides in that area. It’s a credit to the players for how they’ve bought into it,” Keefe adds. “When the puck changes hands… and it starts moving towards our net, our guys have been really committed to making sure we’ve got numbers above it. We can kill plays before it before they have a chance to get to our goalie.”

GOALTENDING GRADE: B+

After zero tune-up games and a just-OK start, Andersen has settled nicely into a groove during this critical contract year.

Toronto’s undisputed No. 1 has posted a .924 save percentage over his past 10 starts. He outright stole Monday’s 3-1 victory over Vancouver and outduelled Price with a season-best 33-save performance on Wednesday.

Andersen’s ability to rise to the occasion is all the more valuable considering the double-whammy the Leafs’ goaltending chart has been dealt below him.

Third-string insurance guy Aaron Dell was scooped off the waiver wire before he could stop one puck for the team that signed him. And backup Jack Campbell, who shone in his two starts (2-0-0, .923), has been sidelined indefinitely with a leg injury suffered Jan. 24 in Calgary. That Campbell isn’t even skating yet is a concern.

Health willing, we expect Keefe to ride Andersen. Michael Hutchinson, originally signed to be the club’s fourth-string netminder, could make his NHL debut during next week’s back-to-back versus Ottawa.

A BIG QUESTION FOR THE SECOND QUARTER: Where does Zach Hyman slot in?

Hyman has been the silent contributor to arguably hockey’s hottest duo, doing the dirty work for Matthews and Marner. No one disputes that he fits well on Toronto’s top line because, honestly, Hyman fits well anywhere he’s thrown.

But with a healthy Joe Thornton (rib) set to return next week and eventual top-six left winger Nick Robertson (knee) not too far behind, it will be interesting to see how Keefe arranges the pieces to his forward puzzle.

The Leafs ultimately desire a consistent third line with an identity, one that is hard to play against. Injuries have tossed a wrench into those plans. Let’s see if Hyman, with help from Kerfoot, can drive a third unit on their own.

Bonus questions for Q2: When will Campbell be ready? Who ultimately locks up the 6D job, Lehtonen or Dermott? And will GM Kyle Dubas actually pull the trigger on a depth forward trade?

Let’s block ads! (Why?)



Source link

Continue Reading

Sports

Venezuela battle inner demons ahead of Copa America

Published

 on

Last November, players of Venezuelan first division football team Trujillanos took to the pitch with a banner demanding their long unpaid salaries and then stood still for a minute in protest once the game kicked off.

Since then, the head coach has left to manage the U-20 national team and their three best players moved to clubs in Brazil, Colombia and Canada for next to nothing.

In the first four games of the new season, the 2014 league runners-up have shipped 15 goals without reply, non-payment persists, and they play in a stadium 200 km (125 miles) away after their own failed to meet minimum standards.

“The past year has been very difficult and hard for everyone, but I have never lost hope,” Trujillanos midfielder Jair Andara told Reuters on the bus back from a 2-0 loss away to Deportivo Tachira.

“Here we say ‘bad things don’t last forever’. It’s a great pride to represent the team of my city.”

It is a familiar story across Latin America, where the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with sport, but matters are acutely exacerbated in Venezuela by economic crisis and political strife during President Nicolas Maduro’s rule.

Despite such domestic chaos, the national team are hopeful as they head into next month’s Copa America 10 years on from their greatest ever finish in the tournament: a semi-final penalty shootout exit to Paraguay.

“It’s been 12 very weird months, but an opportunity to grow and evaluate,” said defender Roberto Rosales, who played on that historic night in 2011 and will almost certainly be in the squad again in June, now aged 32.

“We couldn’t play the Copa America last year, but now it has special significance on top of what it means to wear the shirt, which for me is a dream I keep living.”

FIFA INTERVENTION

As it stands, Venezuela will begin the Copa with a leaderless federation. Jesus Berardinelli, then Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF) president, died in police custody on Aug. 5 last year, with the cause recorded as acute respiratory failure and COVID-19.

Authorities were investigating him at the time for alleged misuse of public funds, but his family rubbished the accusations and lamented that his death deprived them of a chance to defend him.

His arrest came days after he denounced the possibility of “government intervention” on local radio, referencing the dual occupation of Pedro Infante as Maduro’s minister of sport and FVF vice president: a combination prohibited by world governing body FIFA.

A month later, after calls from former national team manager Dr. Richard Paez and other prominent figures, FIFA appointed a normalisation committee to take charge of the federation and hold elections for new directors by June 30, 2021.

Eight months on, an election date of May 28 has only just been set and Paez believes nothing has changed.

“There is nowhere to turn,” he said from Texas, having left Venezuela at the height of the pandemic.

“Faced with this abnormal situation, we in the Movimiento Venezuela Vinotinto (lobby group) have decided not to endorse or participate … We only hope that the wisdom of the leadership will overcome the immaturity and ineptitude of the past.”

Often in spite of off-field obstacles, however, Venezuelan football has been on the ascendancy for much of the 21st century. From a low of 129th in the FIFA World Rankings in November 1998 to a high of 25th in November 2019, the national team transformed themselves from the mockingly-nicknamed “Cinderella” to a new proud epithet of “The Red Wine.”

No longer were they last to the ball or first to go home. Full-bodied performances in their burgundy shirts became the new norm.

Although La Vinotinto’s standing on the world stage does not always mirror the strength of Venezuela’s league, small but incremental markers of progress are never too far apart, and 2021 began with a quick succession of them.

Two-time World Cup participant and 2011 Copa America winner Alvaro Pereira of Uruguay was a marquee signing for Estudiantes de Merida; Telasco Segovia (Deportivo Lara) and Yerson Chacon Deportivo Tachira) were named in a global list of the top 20 “most promising youngsters” born in 2003 by Swiss-based research group the CIES Football Observatory; and Darwin Machis and Yangel Herrera reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League with Granada CF, only the fifth and sixth Venezuelans to do so.

‘ALWAYS PROUD TO PLAY’

Yet the national team’s current FIFA ranking of 30th is fragile. If they drop lower, work permits to play in Europe’s top leagues become harder to obtain and many players are left at the mercy of access to a European passport to achieve their dreams.

It would be a worrisome predicament for a league less scouted than many of its neighbours, and places an extra need for the national team, for the first time likely to be made up exclusively of footballers playing abroad, to do well in next month’s tournament co-hosted by Colombia and Argentina.

This makes the recent signing of an international TV deal with Florida-based GOL TV all the more important.

After 18 months without an overseas broadcaster, for the first time every league game is being shown live, televised in 16 countries and available to stream worldwide, except for the United States.

Along with much needed revenue, which local media put at $1 million per year, it demonstrates the league’s desire to showcase its talent, as does the recent successful bid from the FVF to host the delayed U-20 South American Championships later this year, originally given to Colombia.

“For us, it’s an honour to host this tournament,” U-20 head coach Martin Carrillo told Reuters. “In this generation, we don’t just have quality, but quantity, too.

“It’s important to give them this international participation so that they can compete and show themselves at a national level to then take a step forward to the senior team or take advantage of this stage to find a foreign club.”

The next six months are full of opportunity for Venezuelan football. With vital World Cup qualifiers, the Copa America, and the U-20 championship, success cannot be expected in all three.

A good showing in one, however, could be enough to keep its profile growing abroad.

“We need to do our best because we do not have much margin for error,” Venezuela international goalkeeper Rafael Romo said from Belgium. “To be in the national team is a pleasure for me, I will always be proud to play for Venezuela, so I will go (to the Copa) and be ready.”

 

(Reporting by Jordan Florit; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Continue Reading

Sports

Warriors top Grizzlies for No. 8 seed

Published

 on

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 46 points en route to his second NBA scoring title and Jordan Poole stalled a rally with a late 3-pointer Sunday afternoon as the Golden State Warriors held off the visiting Memphis Grizzlies in San Francisco for a 113-101 win to claim the No. 8 position in this week’s play-in tournament.

With Curry scoring 17 of his 46 points, the Warriors appeared to take command of the game in the third quarter, but Dillon Brooks led a Memphis comeback. Before fouling out, Brooks contributed 13 points to a 22-5 flurry that made it 91 all with 6:32 still to play.

The Grizzlies went up by two twice after that, before Poole nailed his momentum-changing 3-pointer.

The loss ended Memphis’ five-game winning streak and landed the Grizzlies in the No. 9 spot in the play-in, where they will host 10th-seeded San Antonio on Wednesday.

Lakers 110, Pelicans 98

LeBron James scored 25 points as Los Angeles won in New Orleans on the final day of the regular season, but was unable to avoid the play-in round.

James left the game midway through the fourth quarter, slightly favoring the injured right ankle that sidelined him 26 games down the stretch.

But the victory wasn’t enough for the defending NBA champions to avoid the Western Conference play-in tournament. Portland defeated Denver to claim the sixth seed so the seventh-seeded Lakers will host eighth-seeded Golden State in a play-in game Wednesday.

Jazz 121, Kings 99

Jordan Clarkson scored 33 points and made six 3-pointers and Bojan Bogdanovic added 18 points to lead Utah past Sacramento and the league’s best regular-season record.

Rudy Gobert added 13 points and 16 rebounds. Mike Conley chipped in 11 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Utah clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Terence Davis scored 20 points to lead the Kings. Damian Jones chipped in 19 points. Buddy Hield added 13 points, nine assists and seven rebounds for Sacramento, which rested several key players: De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes

Timberwolves 136, Mavericks 121

Anthony Edwards closed his push for NBA Rookie of the Year with 30 points, and Minnesota dominated Dallas nearly wire-to-wire for a season-ending win in Minneapolis.

Edwards capped his debut season with his eighth game of 22 or more points over the final nine. He is in contention to be Minnesota’s first Rookie of the Year since teammate Karl-Anthony Towns, who won the award in 2016.

Dallas, which locked up the No. 5 seed and will play the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, shot 16-of-38 from 3-point range, including Kristaps Porzingis making 4 of 5. Porzingis finished with 18 points.

Heat 120, Pistons 107

Precious Achiuwa had 23 points and 10 rebounds to lead Miami to a road win over Detroit in the regular-season finale.

With little to no incentive to win the game, each team rested several starters. Miami already had the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs clinched going into the game, while Detroit was looking to clinch the league’s second-worst record and enhance its odds of winning the first pick in the NBA draft lottery.

Saddiq Bey scored 22 points and Josh Jackson scored 17 points off the bench for Detroit.

76ers 128, Magic 117

Tyrese Maxey had 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists to lift host Philadelphia over Orlando in game in which the 76ers rested all of their starters.

Since the Sixers have had already secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Danny Green, Seth Curry and Tobias Harris sat the game out.

Isaiah Joe scored 17 points, rookie Paul Reed added season highs of 17 and 12 rebounds, and Shake Milton contributed 15 points and nine assists for the Sixers, who improved to 49-23. George Hill added 14 points.

Nets 123, Cavaliers 109

Kevin Durant totaled 23 points, a season-high-tying 13 assists and eight rebounds in three quarters as Brooklyn Nets secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a wire-to-wire win over Cleveland in New York.

The Nets ended the season on a five-game winning streak and edged out the Milwaukee Bucks for the second seed. A loss by Brooklyn and a Milwaukee win over the Chicago Bulls would have pushed the Nets into the third seed due to losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bucks.

Kyrie Irving added 17 points on 7 of 11 from the field for the Nets and became the ninth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line.

Knicks 96, Celtics 92

RJ Barrett scored a game-high 22 points as New York completed a resurgent regular season and clinched the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference by hanging on for a win over visiting Boston.

The Knicks, who are headed for the playoffs for the first time since 2013, will open the quarterfinals at home next weekend against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.

The Celtics already were locked into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference and the first seed in the play-in tournament. Boston, which needs to win just once to advance to the playoffs, will play the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards on Tuesday.

Pacers 125, Raptors 113

Canadian-born Oshae Brissett exploded for a career-high 31 points against his country’s displaced team, and Indiana earned a home game in the NBA’s play-in tournament with a thrashing of host Toronto.

Brissett completed a double-double with 10 rebounds, while Domantas Sabonis had one of his own with 25 points and 16 rebounds, as the Pacers snapped a two-game losing streak to clinch a tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

Indiana assured it would finish tied with either Charlotte or Washington, who were playing each other in a contest that finished after the Pacers-Raptors game had ended. The Wizards secured the win 115-110 over the Hornets.

Wizards 115, Hornets 110

Bradley Beal made a go-ahead layup with 2:53 remaining as host Washington beat Charlotte to secure the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Russell Westbrook collected 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists and Beal added 25 points in his first contest after a three-game absence for the Wizards.

Robin Lopez posted 18 points and Rui Hachimura had 16 for Washington, which will visit the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics in the play-in round on Tuesday. Charlotte, which owns the No. 10 seed, will face the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday in Indianapolis.

Suns 123, Spurs 121

E’Twaun Moore poured in 22 points, including the deciding 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds to play, to lift visiting Phoenix past San Antonio.

Phoenix was without Devin Booker (rest), Chris Paul (rest) and Deandre Ayton (knee) as the Suns opted to keep key players on the bench despite the chance to earn the top spot in the Western Conference.

San Antonio pulled its starters at the end of the third quarter, allowing the two teams’ bench players to decide the contest. The Suns’ reserves had just enough to secure the win that forced Utah to win in Sacramento later Sunday in order to finish atop of Phoenix in the West.

Hawks 124, Rockets 95

Led by rookie Onyeka Okongwu’s career bests of 21 points and 15 rebounds, Atlanta tuned up for its first trip to the playoffs since 2017 with a win over visiting Houston in the regular-season finale on Sunday.

Okongwu, who posted his second double-double, was 10-for-13 from the field and added three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. The Hawks had eight players in double figures, including Skylar Mays with 16, John Collins with 15 and De’Andre Hunter with 14. Trae Young (sore big right toe) was limited to 16 minutes and scored 10 points with nine assists.

The Hawks will be the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and face off with the No. 4 New York Knicks in the first round.

Bulls 118, Bucks 112

Thaddeus Young finished with 20 points and seven rebounds to help host Chicago finish its season with a victory over playoff-bound Milwaukee.

Young was one of six Bulls who scored in double figures. Coby White totaled 19 points, five rebounds and five assists, and Lauri Markkanen had 17 points and five rebounds.

Locked into the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference after the Brooklyn Nets’ victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier in the evening, the Bucks rested all of their starters — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday and Donte DiVincenzo.

Thunder 117, Clippers 112

Aleksej Pokusevski scored a career-high 29 points to lead Oklahoma City to a win over Los Angeles in the final night of the NBA regular season.

The loss sent the Clippers to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. They’ll face Dallas in the first round of the playoffs.

Pokusevski got off to a hot start and then hit a 3-pointer to break a tie in the final minute and snap the Thunder’s nine-game losing streak. He hit his first six shots and finished 10 of 19 from the floor, hitting six 3-pointers.

Trail Blazers 132, Nuggets 116

CJ McCollum scored 24 points and Portland clinched a Western Conference playoff spot with an easy victory over visiting Denver.

Damian Lillard recorded 22 points and 10 assists and Jusuf Nurkic added 20 points and 13 rebounds in the wire-to-wire victory that allowed Portland to avoid the play-in round and claim the No. 6 spot in the West.

Nikola Jokic scored 21 points in the first half before exiting for the Nuggets, who landed the third seed in West despite the setback because the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Denver owned the tiebreaker with the Clippers.

–Field Level Media

Continue Reading

Sports

Djokovic outlasts Sonego to set up Rome final with Nadal

Published

 on

Defending champion Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal will clash for the Italian Open title after the top two seeds advanced to the final of the Masters tournament on Saturday.

Djokovic, who beat Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas 4-6 7-5 7-5 in a rain-delayed quarter-final earlier in the day, was also stretched to three sets in the semi-final before overcoming local favourite Lorenzo Sonego.

Sonego, the first Italian to make the semi-finals in Rome in 14 years after he beat world number seven Andrey Rublev earlier on Saturday, had his dream run ended by Djokovic who triumphed 6-3 6-7(5) 6-2.

Djokovic failed to convert two match points in the second set that lasted 91 minutes as Sonego forced a tiebreak, where the Serb lost a 4-2 lead.

However, the world number one controlled proceedings in the decider and advanced after Sonego’s return on match point found the net.

Earlier, Nadal beat Reilly Opelka 6-4 6-4 to move into the final in Rome for the 12th time.

The match was Nadal’s 500th on clay where he has a formidable 458-42 record and the Spaniard advanced after twice breaking the big-serving American.

“When you play these kind of matches, you know it’s not going to be a beautiful match… you’re not going to find rhythm in the match. You’re going to have just a few chances to break,” Nadal told reporters.

“It’s important not to suffer much with your serve because if you are… you feel the stress all the time. So the positive thing today, I just faced break points in one game during the whole match.”

Djokovic was trailing Tsitsipas 6-4 2-1 when Friday’s quarter-final was halted by rain but the Serb raised his game at key moments to twice come back from a break down in the deciding set.

Djokovic has a 29-27 career record against Nadal but the Spaniard has won five of their eight matches in Rome.

(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru and Sudipto Ganguly in Berhampore, India; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Ed Osmond)

Continue Reading

Trending