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Maple Leafs’ Rielly-Sandin experiment exposed in ugly loss to Sabres –



TORONTO – Who cares if the assignment meant patrolling his weak side?

Lefty Rasmus Sandin saw his name scribbled to the right of Morgan Rielly on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top pairing and saw only the benefits.

“It’s a huge opportunity for me,” the 21-year-old said. “Our games could fit really well. He’s a guy I’m looking at and trying to take a lot of stuff from. In that way, we can read off each other very well. We’re probably going to know what the other guy will do with the puck and where he’s going to go when he doesn’t have it. It can be a really good pair.”

Intriguing? Sure.

Good? Not tonight.

With lefthanded top-four fixture Jake Muzzin (concussion) sidelined indefinitely and a run of six straight games against non-playoff teams kicking off Toronto’s March schedule, coach Sheldon Keefe has the leeway and the inclination to experiment with his D pairings ahead of the trade deadline.

Might as well see what you got, so you can determine what you need.

The lefty-lefty thing didn’t exactly wow us when Keefe tried Sandin with Muzzin last month. And the last time Keefe tried matching Rielly with another offensive-minded blueliner — Tyson Barrie in 2020 — that duo stumbled to the point of breakup.

Typically, “Green Light” Rielly’s most brilliant performances have come to the left of security blankets like Ron Hainsey and T.J. Brodie.

Linking him with emerging talent and power-play understudy Sandin would give a fresh wrinkle to the back end and a new challenge for the confident youngster.

“Now you’ve got them both and you can pair them with, say, the [Auston] Matthews line in offensive faceoffs and things like that,” Keefe had said Tuesday. “So, we’re curious to see how that plays out.”

Curiosity can be risky. Ask the cat.

The Rielly-Sandin combo played to some wholly concerning results in Wednesday’s ugly 5-1 loss to an offensively challenged Buffalo Sabres roster that pushed Toronto to the perimeter and feasted on its sloppiness.

“Terrible from start to finish,” Keefe summed up, tersely.

“Goaltender, defence, all four lines didn’t have it.”

Responding quickly to Jacob Bryson’s opening power-play marker, Sandin popped open in the O-zone to convert a crisp passing sequence by Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting to tie the contest 1-1 in the first period.

A fine start that would unravel to the point where the Maple Leafs got booed off Scotiabank Arena ice by their first full home crowd in 81 days.

The Sabres regained their lead in the second when Victor Olofsson outmuscled Sandin for position net-front and whacked one in.

Later in the same frame, it was Sabres leading scorer Tage Thompson outdueling Sandin in the slot, then firing a puck past Petr Mrazek.

[brightcove videoID=6299462350001 playerID=2540680026001 height=360 width=640]

Jeff Skinner burned Sandin on a solo rush in the third period and snapped a puck past Mrazek that essentially tucked the night away.

“Buffalo, no disrespect or anything, but I think that’s a team we should beat,” said Sandin, mentioning bad bounces but owning his mistakes. “Simple plays that went very wrong. I need to get rid of the puck in a better way.

“We can’t just close our eyes and just move on to the next one. I think we need to look at it. We need to look what we’re doing wrong.”

Sandin and Rielly each finished dash-2.


“It’s a complete mess all around him. Three forwards on ice, his partner, goaltender, it’s not much happening there,” Keefe said. “So, let’s not just focus too much on Rasmus.”

Keefe’s experiment blew up like a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano at a Grade 4 science fair.

Will the coach give the Rielly-Sandin pair another shot?

“Probably not.”

A thought: Perhaps the rugged Ilya Lyubushkin, a natural righty, should get a trial with Rielly to balance out the top four with some size and net-front nastiness.

We certainly won’t staple the entirety of Toronto’s loss to a lesser light on the configuration of the defence.

Buffalo did a fine job clogging middle ice, no Leafs forward scored, and the NHL’s top-rated power play extended its drought to a season-worst seven games. The boos and Bronx cheers felt justified.

“When you look at the effort, it’s disappointing,” Rielly said. “Good teams are able to look past the standings.”

The Maple Leafs have an acknowledged issue of delivering substandard effort against opponents miles out contention, and the Sabres arrived in town 34 points back of their hosts.

“We’ve maybe played down to their level at times,” admitted Justin Holl, between listless losses to Montreal and Buffalo.

“You’re going to have dips in your play, and you can talk about it, but sometimes you need a real slap in the face to kind of get it dialed in — and that’s how I felt about [the] Montreal game,” Keefe said Wednesday morning.

Whereas Keefe saw transitional breakdowns and odd-man rushes as his club’s undoing last week at Bell Centre, this loss had a different flavour.

“No real urgency. No competitiveness,” Keefe said.

“This is more a reflection of our competitiveness as a team, individually and collectively.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• For those jacked up about the possibility of the Maple Leafs calling Columbus and renting a certain legendary Leaf’s son by the trade deadline to complement their second line, consider this.

Max Domi: $5.3 million cap hit, nine goals, 16 assists, 25 points, minus-1

Alexander Kerfoot: $3.5 million cap hit, eight goals, 30 assists, 38 points, plus-13

(And, yes, the Blue Jackets were among 10 teams scouting this game in-person.)

• John Tavares’s goal drought has stretched to 14 games and is now the longest since his rookie campaign (2009-10).

• Holl, coming into this game having exploded for five points in his past two: “I’ve been making good plays, but it’s probably not sustainable.” A self-aware chuckle.

• Nick Robertson’s ice time shrunk to 5:28 during Monday’s win in Washington. He was up to 11:29 Wednesday but still lowest among all forwards. This begs questions.

If the goal is to develop the 20-year-old prospect, would he not be better served skating in all situations in the American League?

And if the goal is to showcase the shooter’s talents for a potential trade, is that being accomplished with limited fourth-line duties and no power-play time?

“I am happy with his attitude,” Keefe said. “I am happy with the game he played in Detroit. That is what made us want to keep him in the lineup again…. However the minutes shake out, for a young guy like him, it is just about soaking up the whole experience and getting a taste of the NHL again.”

• Count Sabres head coach Don Granato among those who believe Matthews deserves votes for the Selke Trophy this season.

“Even when he entered the league, he did have an appreciation for that side,” noted Granato, who coached the Leafs star with the U.S. National Team Development Program. “I had no problem using him at the U18 World Championship against [Patrik] Laine, [Sebastian] Aho, [Jesse] Puljujarvi and on and on, guys at the tournament who were prolific.

“He wants to win. And part of winning is just shutting a guy down, and he’s always had that. Winning a face-off has always been important to him. He should be talked about in that light.”

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Families of Flight PS752 victims call for cancellation of soccer match with Iran – CBC News



Families who lost loved ones in the destruction of Flight PS752 are demanding that Canada Soccer abandon its plan to host Iran for a men’s soccer friendly next month in Vancouver.

The families call the planned match a slap in the face and say they want the federal government to refuse to grant visas to Iranian soccer players and those travelling with the team.

“They have no understanding, they have no sympathy, they have no hearts, in my opinion, Canada Soccer,” said Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing families. His wife and 9-year-old daughter died on the flight.

“I feel betrayed by the organization and betrayed by the government … This is a way to normalize the relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s called sports-washing.”

South Korea’s Son Heung-min, centre, fights for the ball with Iran’s Shojae Khalilzadeh and Ali Gholi Zadeh, left, in Seoul, South Korea on March 24, 2022. Families of those who died when Iranian forces shot down Flight PS752 say they want to see a planned match in Canada with Iran’s team cancelled. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the Ukrainian jetliner with a pair of surface-to-air missiles shortly after takeoff in Tehran in 2020, killing all 176 people onboard, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents. 

Iran has blamed a series of human errors for the downing of the commercial plane. Canada’s own forensic analysis found that the IRGC’s “recklessness, incompetence, and wanton disregard for human life” was to blame.

A UN special rapporteur went further, accusing Iranian authorities of multiple violations of human rights and international law in the lead-up to the missile attack and its aftermath.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp fired two surface-to-air missiles at Flight PS752, killing all 176 people onboard on Jan, 8, 2020. (Reuters)

Since then, victims’ families have faced intimidation, harassment and threats from “threat actors linked to proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” according to a CSIS report.

The families say this soccer match opens up the border to the IRGC and they wonder whether Iranian intelligence agents will travel with the team to Canada.

Kambiz Foroohar, a journalist and strategic consultant focusing on Iran, has written that in recent decades most sports clubs in Iran have been “taken over by political or security-military organizations, with former Revolutionary guards holding the top positions.”

“Because of football’s popularity, there is significant involvement by regime insiders,” he wrote on the Middle East Institute’s website.

‘It wasn’t a very good idea’ — Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC News that arranging the game was not a good idea and that Canada Soccer needs to explain itself. Asked whether the federal government might refuse to grant visas to the visiting Iranian team, Trudeau did not answer.

“This was a choice by [Canada Soccer],” Trudeau told a press conference in St. John’s. “I think it wasn’t a very good idea to invite the Iranian soccer team here to Canada, but that’s something the organizer’s going to have to explain.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a statement that it could not comment on any specific visa requests “without written consent” due to privacy rules. It said that all visitors are “carefully screened” before coming into Canada and can be considered inadmissible for violating human or international rights, or if there are security concerns. 

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to news of soccer match with Iran

Trudeau says Canada hosting Iran for soccer match was not a ‘very good idea’

15 hours ago

Duration 0:28

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was Canada Soccer’s decision to host Iran for a men’s friendly on June 5 in Vancouver, and that the organizers would have to explain their choice.

On Tuesday, Canada Soccer issued a statement defending the decision to stage the match in Canada.

“At Canada Soccer, we believe in the power of sport and its ability to bring people from different backgrounds and political beliefs together for a common purpose,” said the statement.

“Iran is one of 32 participating member associations at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and Canada Soccer continues to follow all international protocols in staging this match.  We are focused on preparations for our Men’s National Team to compete on the world stage.”

The destruction of Flight PS752 isn’t the only source of questions about the planned June 5 soccer match at B.C. Place Stadium.

Discrimination against women at soccer matches

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, ordered Iran in 2019 to allow women to access its stadiums without any restrictions. Iran promised to end its roughly 40-year ban and changed the rules on paper.

But Human Rights Watch reported that Iranian authorities stopped dozens of women on March 29 from entering a soccer stadium to watch a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifying match between Iran and Lebanon.

A video on social media appears to show women in front of the stadium alleging pepper spray was used to disperse them after they already had purchased tickets to the game in the city of Mashhad.

The Iranian Football Federation later issued a statement saying that, “due to a lack of preparation,” they couldn’t accommodate women at the game and that fraudulent tickets were given out by fans. 

Iranian soccer fan Sahar Khodayari, nicknamed Blue Girl, died after setting herself on fire outside a court in Tehran in 2019. Khodayari had been charged after trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.

‘My daughter Reera loved soccer’

Esmaeilion questions why a Canadian government that takes pains to present itself as feminist would want to have anything to do with this team. 

“This government claims they are a defender of women’s rights,” he said. “They invite Iranian football federation here. They have no respect for women’s rights.”

His wife Parisa Eghbalian and 9-year-old daughter Reera Esmaeilion died on Flight PS752. Reera played for the Richmond Hill Soccer Club.

Reera Esmaeilion, age 9, playing soccer. She died on Flight PS752 in January, 2020. (Submitted by Hamed Esmaeilion )

“My daughter Reera loved soccer and played the sport every week,” he said. “My memory of her love for this game makes this situation even more confusing and difficult to process.”

He said there’s a double-standard at work in the soccer realm that encourages countries to sanction Russia through sports, but not Iran.

Victims’ families have written letters to Canada Soccer and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly. The families say they have not received a response yet. They’re also calling on Canadian players to push back against the game.

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Oilers and Flames alumni recall Battle of Alberta from playoffs past – TSN



Marty Gelinas saw the Battle of Alberta from both sides over a number of years but there’s one memory that stands out above the rest.

On April 14, 1991 during overtime of Game 6 of the Smythe Division Semifinals, Calgary Flames forward Theo Fleury picked off a Mark Messier pass in the neutral zone and beat Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr to tie the series at 3-3.

Gelinas was just 20 and in his third season as a left-winger with the Oilers, in the last playoff series they played against the Flames, back in 1991. There were plenty of goals, fights, and penalties in that seven-game series, but the former first-round draft pick will never forget Fleury’s celebration after he scored in OT to end Game 6.

Fleury slid on his knees across centre ice at the old Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, an iconic celebration that still makes highlights reels three decades later. For the home team Oilers that night, however, Fleury’s celebration was motivation for Game 7, which Edmonton won with an overtime goal of its own by Esa Tikkanen.

Gelinas, who now works in player development for the Flames, still remembers – 31 years later – the impact Fleury’s celebration had on his underdog Oilers team.

“I remember Theo Fleury coming in our building in Edmonton and he scored a goal in overtime and went the full length of his ice and got on his knees and celebrated,” Gelinas recalled. “You know, those things fuel up the opposite team and it fuelled us up. We went there to Calgary in Game 7…that goal [by Fleury] stuck with us.”

Gelinas, now 51, spent parts of five seasons with the Oilers (and was part of the return for Wayne Gretzky when No. 99 was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988), and also scored several big goals for the Flames during their 2004 run to the Stanley Cup Final.

In the old Smythe Division, postseason Battles Of Alberta were not once-in-a-generation events, but almost an annual rite of spring. Between the 1982-83 and 1990-91 seasons, the two teams met in the playoffs five times, with the Oilers winning four of the meetings. 

“I think it was more or less the cities that were excited that the two teams were always facing off back then,” Joel Otto, who was a big rugged centre for those Flames teams, told TSN.

“Having bragging rights is a big thing out here in Alberta. Unfortunately Edmonton got the better of us more often than not, but they were some memorable series and we are all looking forward to this round. It’s been a long time coming.”

In those days, the Alberta rivals would play each other up to 16 times during the regular season – and that built-up animosity would carry over into the postseason. For the now 60-year-old Otto, the physicality of those rounds stands out.

“I do remember the ‘91 playoffs was very physical,” he said. “I kept saying after the fact that I’d never been hit that hard so many times. Edmonton had a pretty big defence. That was how the game was played.”

He isn’t alone.

“There was a lot of hate involved,” former Flames goalie Mike Vernon said. “I was fortunate enough to play in the ‘86 series and it was just mayhem. Even the trainers got into it, hopping over the glass to get a stick that was thrown in the crowd. There was a lot going on. It was probably a lot more physicality.”

“It was a jungle out there,” said Gelinas. 

While the games were raucous on the ice, the fans were cordial off it.

“The fans were very respectful,” Otto said. “They were awesome…the passion from the fans for the most part was the same, it’s just the stakes are higher during the playoffs.”

Vernon agreed, although he did have one intense experience involving Flames fans in Edmonton.

“One time, I made the mistake on an off-day of going to the golf course and hitting some balls on the range,” he said. “My own fans were like, ‘Shouldn’t you be practising? Shouldn’t you be doing this? Shouldn’t you be doing that?’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m out of here.’”

Vernon, now 59, also remembers the gamesmanship.

“The coaches don’t say much, they hide things, they say things that are off the wall, and you’re scratching your head,” he said. “It’s all about keeping your team focused in what their job is on the ice.”

Vernon, being from Calgary, felt the extra pressure of shining against the provincial rivals.

“There’s a lot of excitement about it but there’s also that pressure,” he said. “Grant Fuhr was the same way [growing up in Edmonton]. Patrick Roy played for the Montreal Canadiens and he grew up in Montreal. It adds a lot of pressure, there’s no doubt. That’s just part of the game. That’s what drives us a bit and maybe forces us to play better. Us three, we had longevity in the NHL. It also pushed us to be better players, I believe.”

Alumni from both teams will no doubt be watching as this second-round series unfolds starting Wednesday in Calgary, and a new chapter of the Battle Of Alberta is written. 

“I anticipate good hockey but very physical,” Vernon said. “I think that with the two-referee system, you can’t get away with anything on the ice. I think discipline is going to be a big key in this. Teams don’t want to be in the penalty box. Both teams have great power plays…I think both teams are going to play very cautiously from that standpoint so you’ll just see good hits. You’ll see great hockey. It’s a given.”

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Six years of harsh reality be damned, the Maple Leafs are sticking to their plan –



TORONTO – Stay the course. Stick to the plan.

We’re painfully close. Closer than it appears.

In the wake of their sixth consecutive opening-round postseason defeat, the Toronto Maple Leafs will septuple down on the Shanaplan, the blueprint.

They have seen enough progress within this sad string of playoff disappointments to not only believe in their strategy but believe harder. Six years of harsh reality be damned.

“Certainly, as we look forward to next year, there’s always going to be new faces. That being said, we will not be making changes just simply for the sake of saying that we made changes,” said Brendan Shanahan, entering the eighth year of his reign and still hunting Round 2.

“In spite of the fact that we were not able to finish Tampa off in Game 6 and Game 7, I saw a different team and a different approach.”

There is no whiff that the off-ice approach, at least publicly, will alter.

History will dictate whether Leaf Nation is rewarded for this regime’s loyalty and belief or foiled by stubbornness and hubris — and left with a diminished pool of picks and prospects.

During the club’s locker cleanout Tuesday, Shanahan gave Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe a firm endorsement for 2022-23.

Dubas not only backed Keefe but said the idea of dialing up experienced free agents Barry Trotz and Peter DeBoer hadn’t crossed his mind.

“I only think Sheldon is going to continue to get better,” Dubas said. “And I think when we speak of Sheldon in 10, 15 years from now, it’ll be in the same way that you [speak about] those two great coaches. And I think that’ll be played out here in Toronto.”

On the surface, no one is lighting a fire under anyone.

Maybe that’s just smart PR.

What would be troubling, though, is this: Maybe it’s complacency.

The air of disappointment, the vows to dig deeper, the sombre tones as the Leafs packed their belongings for the summer… it all felt so familiar. Just part of the cycle.

“As much as winning can bring people together,” Shanahan said, “learning how to deal with the heartbreak and devastation of falling short, depending on what kind of relationship you have, can bring you closer as well.”

What if, for these regular-season superstars, Round 2 has become the new Stanley Cup, the way RFA has become the new UFA?

“I don’t think playing in any passionate hockey market will allow for comfort to seep into a group,” Shanahan defended.

Thing is, plenty of supporters seem content with giving this another go, essentially, as is. Run it back. Hope the Maple Leafs are 100 per cent healthy again, that they draw an easier opponent, and that next time they will have learned their lesson for real.

I threw up a Twitter poll Monday to gauge whom the fans would like to see pay for another long golf season, and 66.9 per cent of 27,200 voters are happy to run this core back with minor changes on the fringes.

While his actions this summer will speak louder, Dubas says he is still content with allocating an inordinate percentage of his cap space to four forwards (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander) and an offensively gifted defenceman (Morgan Rielly).

Even after losing multiple do-or-die games to organizations that invested more in goaltending, defence and bottom-six depth.

“The contracts to those players that you’re referencing, I think they’re providing us great value in the way that they’re producing, in the way that they continue to evolve as they go through their contract. So, I don’t regret those at all,” said Dubas, ready to go money-balling for 2023’s David Kämpf and Michael Bunting.

“It’s the reality in the league right now that you’re probably not going to be able to spend as much as you want on those depth pieces. And you’re really going to have to do a great job of finding value, whether that’s someone that’s coming off injury, someone that hasn’t been given great opportunity, [or] someone coming off a bad year that you see something in.”

In a game of goal-line reviews and phantom high-sticks, the Maple Leafs believe they are simply “one shot away,” as captain John Tavares put it.

No need for major surgery.

Just a few more bargain-bin gems, a couple extra hours in the gym. A few less careless penalties, convert on a couple more power-plays.

“We’re slowly understanding the way we need to play,” William Nylander said.

“There’s significant buy-in here, which I don’t think you get everywhere.” Jason Spezza added. “We need more just — that stubbornness of not accepting to lose a game. It’s in the room. It definitely is in the room. These guys, they’re learning how hard it is.”

So are Shanahan and Dubas.

The brass will do their best to sell steady veteran Mark Giordano on the Spezza salary program. They’ll explore a Jack Campbell extension but also alternatives in the goalie market. The fringe forwards will be juggled and a few let loose.

But to hear the decision-makers tell it, mostly what the Maple Leafs need is a seventh playoff shot.

That should do the trick.

And they’ve done a shrewd enough of a sell job to get one.

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