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Recap: Toronto Raptors push through, beat Minnesota Timberwolves 122-112 – RaptorsHQ

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After an evisceration of the Washington Wizards on Friday night, the Toronto Raptors traveled straight to Minneapolis to face the Minnesota Timberwolves. After starting the year middling near .500, the Timberwolves have fallen out of the playoff picture with a record of 15-26 coming into the game, and on a four -game losing streak.

The Raptors, meanwhile, were finally feeling healthy. Prior to the game, Doug Smith of the Toronto Star announced the starting five:

After all the injuries, it was pleasing to see the Raptors starting the preferred lineup. Yet, the Raptors had held their own while those with injuries and they were looking to extend a short winning streak—their first consecutive wins in nearly a month—while continuing to get everyone back up to speed. Only a frisky Minnesota team, and perhaps some confusing officiating, stood in their way.

During the first quarter, both teams started hot from all over the floor. In particular, the Raptors were getting to the basket early and often as the defensive communication was off for the Timberwolves.

The Master Grifter Kyle Lowry had an excellent fake to get Shabazz Napier on his feet to draw a foul and frustrate Napier:

As the quarter neared its end, however, the defense from the Timberwolves tightened up and the shooting cooled for the Raptors, giving the Timberwolves a narrow 39-32 lead.

The hot shooting streak for the Timberwolves finally slowed in the second quarter and the Raptors slowly made their way back to a tie just under midway through the quarter. The quarter itself was mired with an increasing amount of whistles from the officials and calls that left both teams beside themselves.

At the very least, the Raptors stepped up their defense, but very little of it turned into transition baskets as the team only had two fast break points at the half.

Nearing the end of the quarter, both Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam were called for technical fouls after a couple of questionable calls and non-calls. Lowry, of all people, pulled the team aside after the exchange and got their emotions in check.

Despite the officials keeping the Timberwolves in the game—Minnesota was 15-for-18 from the line compared to the Raptors’ 5-for-6—the Raptors only trailed the Timberwolves by four at the half, 62-58.

Fred VanVleet and Jarrett Culver led all scorers with 16 points apiece. Pascal Siakam had ten and Lowry had 11, respectively.

The third quarter has been the quarter in which the Raptors have shined throughout the season and this third quarter was just the same.

The Raptors, particularly Lowry, started out with a vengeance.

Lowry hit two quick threes and suddenly they were up by a point. Additionally, the defense was homing in on Andrew Wiggins, stifling his ability to get space and forcing him to pass at times. Another three, this time from VanVleet, caused the Timberwolves to call a timeout near the nine minute mark.

The Raptors then weathered a Timberwolves run and started one of their own. It began with a three from Lowry after a quick rebound and dribble into the front court by Norman Powell. Then, Powell did some magic of his own in the lane and scored, making it 79-71. At that point, the Raptors had outscored the Timberwolves 21-9 in the third. They would go on to outscore them, 31-22.

Again, however, the Timberwolves stayed in the game and the quarter ended with the Raptors ahead 89-84. Kyle Lowry scored 17 points in the quarter and quickly became the spark in the Raptors’ offense.

In the final quarter, the Raptors continued to expand their lead as Minnesota began to collapse. Suddenly, the Raptors all started to click just as Minnesota was breaking down defensively and Toronto quickly made their way to a 20-point lead. They would lead by as many as 22 in the quarter.

VanVleet very much made his return worthwhile as he piled on the points in the fourth quarter. He finished with 29 points, four rebounds, two assists, and four steals. Furthermore, he finished with a team high plus-20 while shooting 7-for-8 from three.

Toronto finally buried Minnesota in the fourth and beat them 122-112 despite hometown officiating. Along with VanVleet, Lowry and Powell also hit the 20+ points mark, scoring 28 and 20, respectively. Siakam finished with 14 points, four rebounds, and three assists on a relatively quiet night from him.

After a high scoring game against the Wizards, the Raptors started out slow yet finished strong. Now that they are healthy, they can make a push for a higher seed in the Eastern Conference with a game against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, January 20th.

With the newfound health, we may finally begin to see just how high the ceiling is for these Toronto Raptors as they pass the halfway mark in the season.

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Olympic diplomatic boycott: PM says decision coming today – CTV News

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OTTAWA —
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says there will be an announcement later today on the government’s decision about whether to proceed with a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

Speaking to reporters on his way into a caucus meeting on Wednesday, Trudeau said it’s important to align with allies – many of whom have chosen not to send government officials to the Games, but allow athletes to continue to compete.

“For the past many, many months we’ve been talking about our approach with allies around the world. We know that on issues like this it’s important to make sure that we are working with our allies…we will have an announcement to make later today,” he said.

The U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott on Monday as a means of protesting against human rights abuses in China towards the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the U.S. has a “fundamental commitment to promoting human rights” and that it “will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”

Since then, Australia and the U.K. have followed suit.

China has denied those allegations and says the boycott violates “the principle of political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter and runs counter to the Olympic motto `more united,”‘ Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters.

Many former diplomats and international security analysts suggest Canada should go further and enforce a full boycott, withdrawing all Canadian presence, including athletes.

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly also commented on the issue on Wednesday, noting that Canada is acting in a “diligent” manner.

“The most important thing for Canada right now is to make sure that we can have a strong voice on the question of human rights in Xinjiang in China,” she said.

With a file from The Associated Press.

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Nick Ritchie finally scores his first as the Leafs get the jump on the Blue Jackets – Toronto Star

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In the understated words of Nick Ritchie: “It had been a while.”

On a night of highlight plays from Michael Bunting and Jack Campbell, and a scoring streak continuing for Auston Matthews, it finally happened for Ritchie.

It took 27 games and 40 shots but the $2.5-million-a-year free-agent signing finally got his first goal with the Maple Leafs in Toronto’s 5-4 win Tuesday night over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“It felt good, helping the team, scoring a goal at home, and a win after a couple of losses,” Ritchie said. “It had been a while. Two months. A lot of games. As long of a (drought) as I’ve had in hockey. Feels good to get one. Hopefully I can build some confidence.”

The crowd was particularly supportive when public address announcer Mike Ross announced it was Ritchie’s “first goal as a Maple Leaf” and his teammates seemed happier than Ritchie.

“That’s almost better than scoring, seeing how much your team cares,” he said. “We have a tight team and everyone gets excited for little things.”

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Ritchie had proven himself as a goal scorer, with 15 last year in a shortened season in Boston. He wondered sometimes why he was having trouble scoring in Toronto.

“It’s not an easy league to score in,” he said. “You have to get lucky, too. I had a couple of good chances the last little while. I just had to stay with it. I knew eventually it would finally go in for me.”

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said he predicted Ritchie would score Tuesday, but admitted he’s been predicting it would be Ritchie’s night for a while.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Keefe said. “I started calling it, then I stopped. It was his birthday the other day. But in the coach’s room before the game, I called it. I thought it would be on the power play.

“I can’t take a lot of credit for it, because I’ve been calling it and calling it. I did feel strongly that today was going to be the day. He’s been very quietly putting up points in the past five games. You could see it coming. He’s had good chances. I’m thrilled for him.”

About the game: Ritchie’s goal, the team’s offence and the play of Alex Steeves and Kristians Rubins. both of whom got into their first NHL games. was about all Keefe liked about the game. But it was a fun one to watch.

Matthews ended the night with two goals and an assist, Morgan Rielly had four assists, William Nylander had a goal and an assist and John Tavares also scored in a game in which the outcome never felt in doubt despite a late-game push by the Blue Jackets.

Olivier Bjorkstrand scored twice for Columbus. Sean Kuraly and Max Domi scored late for Columbus — Domi with one second left — to make the result look more flattering for the Jackets than the game really was.

“I didn’t like much about the game in any period,” Keefe said. “We found ways to strike offensively, whether it was on the power play (Nylander, Tavares) or off the rush (Matthews, twice) but, in terms of how we like to play, I don’t think there was a lot to like about the game.

“I’m happy the third period caught up to us, because it should have. Not a good game for us, but a good result. Needed to get back on the right side of it.”

Getting rest: Keefe thought the team was simply tired. They’d been out west for three games, came home for one, and then went back west for two, so it felt like a long trip. Plus the roster was in flux.

Mitch Marner missed his third game with a shoulder injury, suffered in practice Friday. Rasmus Sandin was out with the effects of knee-on-knee injury suffered Sunday in Winnipeg. Travis Dermott, too, was sidelined with a shoulder issue. And Jason Spezza missed the first-game of a six-game suspension for his knee to the head of Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk, whose knee injured Sandin.

“We’re a tired group that needs time,” said Keefe, who gave his team Wednesday off. “We’re a team that needs to regroup itself.”

Quick start: Nylander, Matthews and Ritchie got the Maple Leafs off to a 3-0 lead in a first period they dominated. The led the shot-clock 18-9 after 20 minutes.

Nylander scored on the power play, and Matthews made it 2-0 on a nice feed from Michael Bunting who, with a defenceman draped all over him, pulled off a between-the-legs pass to Matthews, who had an easy tap-in to extend his goals streak to seven straight games. Tavares and Matthews scored seven seconds apart in the final two minutes of the middle frame.

Matthews is on a tear, with 10 goals in his last seven games and 17 on the season. He has rejoined the conversation for the Rocket Richard Trophy, putting himself within striking distance of NHL goal leaders Leon Draisaitl and Alex Ovechkin, who had 21 and 20 as the games began Tuesday.

The new guys: Steeves and Rubins are feel-good stories.

Rubins, who is on Latvia’s short list of potential Olympians, is 23 and worked his way up the Leafs system. Undrafted out of the Medicine Hat Tigers, he started with the Newfoundland Growlers in 2018. He’s six-foot-five and cuts an imposing figure on the blue line.

“Dream come true, just a special night for me,” he said, after being paired with Timothy Liljegren and going minus-1 in 13 minutes and 40 seconds.

Steeves was a standout at Notre Dame last year who kept up his scoring ways with the Marlies, despite missing camp with an injury. Steeves had seven goals in 12 games with the Marlies.

“It was super special, really happy we got the win,” said Steeves, who was minus-1 while playing 8:28. “It was a tangible goal of mine to play for the Leafs this year. I didn’t really have a set date. To get the call this early was special. It wasn’t something I was really thinking about, but I just knew I wanted to get here.”

Roster notes: Veteran defenceman Alex Biega was also among the call-ups, as insurance, due to the litany of injuries. He was scratched for Tuesday’s game … Forward Joey Anderson was returned to the Marlies … Jake Muzzin left the game briefly in the first period after taking a shot off his foot.

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Maple Leafs support Spezza’s appeal, but must ‘press on’ after suspension – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — The way Jason Spezza practised Tuesday morning is the way he always practises.

Smiling and laughing with his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates, you’d have no idea the veteran was only hours away from a significant suspension.

Spezza was slapped with a six-game ban midway through the Leafs’ win over the Columbus Blue Jackets for kneeing Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk in the head Sunday.

Through his 19 years and 1,203 games in the league, this marks the first time the 38-year-old Spezza has faced supplemental discipline.

And he is appealing the Department of Player Safety’s ruling.

“Look,” coach Sheldon Keefe said Tuesday night. “I think everybody in this room, everybody in the game knows the character and integrity that Jason Spezza has through his entire career. We do and always will support him. He’s going to weigh his options that he has in this process.

“But from our perspective, it’s important that we just press on here. That’s all we can do.”

Spezza’s initial appeal will arrive on the desk of commissioner Gary Bettman, who seldom overrules his own safety department. Next, Spezza and his camp could take their objection to an independent arbitrator.

These steps take time, and Spezza is available to return to action for the Leafs on Dec. 19 in Seattle.

During Spezza’s in-person (Zoom) hearing, the Maple Leafs argued that (a) this was not kneeing, (b) Pionk was eligible to be checked on the play, and (c) Spezza could’ve delivered a legal check had Pionk not fallen further toward the ice before contact.

Player safety agreed only that Pionk was eligible to be hit. Even so, the department maintains that the onus is on Spezza to get lower to deliver a clean hit and avoid head contact.

Player safety described Spezza’s actions as “reckless and retaliatory” for Pionk’s knee-on-knee hit of Rasmus Sandin earlier in the game, describing the Spezza hit as a “forceful retribution on a player who is in a vulnerable position.”

The department also weighed Pionk’s injury; the Jets announced the defenceman is in concussion protocol.

Though they disagree with the ruling, the Maple Leafs wish to avoid excuses or finger-pointing while Spezza sits.

“We’ve got to have guys come in and play and accept more responsibility,” Morgan Rielly said. “And I think we’ve got the depth to do that.”

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