ST. PAUL, Minn. — Belief.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are cooking with gas as the calendar turns over to 2020 and the biggest reason for their dramatic in-season turnaround is the spirit in the dressing room. They’ve morphed from a talented group that was underachieving to a confident pack that simply wins out of habit during a tumultuous 41-game stretch.
And as they hit the halfway mark Tuesday with a comfortable 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild, they had every reason to believe that even better things lie ahead.
“We’re just going to keep playing,” said captain John Tavares. “I mean obviously things are building. The confidence is getting better.
“I think we’re starting to have a really good feel of the way we want to play.”
They were sitting below the playoff cut-off line when Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock on Nov. 20, and have been the NHL’s best since — topping the league in wins, points, point percentage and goal differential.
Now some of that can be chalked up to a softer schedule, but it’s easy to spot other key factors as well.
Most notably, the big-money forwards are all producing commensurate with their pay cheques. That is the linchpin to this entire operation. Keefe has shuffled the deck by playing Mitch Marner alongside Auston Matthews, and William Nylander alongside Tavares — experiments his predecessor rarely, if ever, tried — and it’s resulted in those players spilling ink all over the score sheet.
“To be honest, this one here has really happened sort of organically,” said Keefe. “I mean I had it in the back of my mind, just to see what Auston and Mitch, and what John and Willy would look like. But it happened organically just in a game and then it clicked and we’ve just stayed with it.
“Hopefully stick with it for a bit.”
There’s no reason to consider a shakeup when it goes this good.
Tavares is fresh off being named the NHL’s third start of the week and made a great set up on Alexander Kerfoot’s opening goal against the Wild, before hitting an empty net late.
Nylander picked up his sixth goal in as many outings before finding Matthews with a pass so good the Leafs sniper didn’t see it until it was on his stick — reacting quickly to score his 27th of the season and his 11th in 11 games.
“I just saw him back door and I kind of knew he would be open so I just tried to get it over there,” said Nylander, now on pace for a career-best 34 goals and 70 points.
Matthews is building a monster campaign that is bound to put him in contention for league-wide hardware if it continues. We are officially on 50-goal watch in Toronto for the first time in more than a quarter century now that he’s smashed through the halfway point on pace for 54.
Then there’s Frederik Andersen, who turned aside 26 shots in Minnesota one day after he was named to the NHL all-star game for the first time. Most important to him is the league-best 20 wins he’s managed to this point, which is a sign that he’s wavered a little less than many of his teammates.
“I think we’re just finding ways to win,” said Kerfoot. “I mean we’ve got a belief in our group right now where, whether we’re up in a game or down in a game, we believe that we can beat anyone and we believe that we’re going to find a way no matter situation we’re in.
“When you’ve kind of got that attitude and you’ve got that belief it can go a long way.”
The success has been fuelled by a change to the team’s game plan — with players encouraged to hold on to the puck for long stretches in the offensive zone and be selective with their shots.
But as Tavares noted it also comes down to the high-end players performing as they’re expected to, which didn’t always happen in the fall either because of injury or other factors.
They’re rolling now.
In the last two weeks the Leafs have come back from two-goal deficits to earn a victory over Carolina and get a point against the New York Rangers. They rallied from 4-3 down in New Jersey to win in overtime.
And they’ve occasionally been in control from start to finish — which is how things felt on a festive New Year’s Eve inside Xcel Energy Center.
“We’ve handled all sorts of situations, right?” said Keefe. “A lot has happened in the short amount of time that I’ve been here, but I think all of that will serve us well.”
“If anything, there’s more of a belief,” veteran Jason Spezza said this week. “‘OK stick with it. What we’re doing works. Stick with it.’ The Rangers game, I don’t think we get a point there maybe a month ago. Like even the start of with Keefer, the belief wasn’t there.
“Now we believe that we can come back in games, you never feel like you’re out of it. Like that game felt like we were going to tie it up. It felt like it was only a matter of time.”
With a new year and a second half still to be played, everything suddenly seems possible.
What Joey Moss and those in similar roles contribute to sports locker rooms – Sportsnet.ca
One thing I’ve been blessed to see over the course of my life is how a circumstance of inclusion helps both parties, and to a degree few people seem to understand.
The life of Joey Moss makes everyone even tangentially related feel good, and so it should. So often when hearing his story, though, people consider the great life that hockey and football seem to have provided for him, while understating just how valuable his daily presence was to others. What most see is someone simply getting to spend time with a pro team, when a line from the piece Mark Spector wrote after Moss’s passing more accurately sums up the immediate relationships at play:
“In the heartless world that pro sports can be, Joey became the goat in the horse barn, putting an arm around a player that had just been released, assuring him better days lie ahead, and leaving an impression that no coach, GM or teammate possibly could.”
“The goat in the horse barn” is nothing but a compliment, as it’s a very real thing (seriously, google “comfort goats” — it’s amazing).
So let me frame what I’ve seen and learned given my somewhat-unique experience around those in roles like the ones Joey Moss held.
I’ve been in dressing rooms my whole life, first with my Dad’s teams and then in my own career both playing and coaching. It’s not at all uncommon for a team to employ a helper of sorts. These helpers maintain a variety of titles and duties depending on their age and capabilities, and almost all of whom are beloved if they have any run of time at all with the team. Some of these people are physically disabled, some intellectually; some are just kids, and some are seniors. But make no mistake: There’s a lot of work to be done to keep a pro hockey team clicking along at max capacity, and these are the people who help them get from 99 per cent to 100.
I also have a brother who’s active in the disability community and has been his whole life. Being from Kelowna, B.C. – a good-size town but not exactly a metropolis – meant that growing up I was a full-time member of wheelchair basketball teams, and a participant on numerous other wheelchair teams, given finding enough people between a reasonable age range with comparable limitations can be tough without a huge population to draw from.
I was around when the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL got my brother involved, and heard numerous stories of team experiences that have been provided to those within the disability community.
I’ve seen the benefits to both parties here in the immediate, from the person getting the opportunity (the value of the confidence and sense of purpose is immeasurable), to the team getting the help, both tangible and emotional.
It’s the value of that “emotional” part I don’t think many teams fully understand or even appreciate, given it’s rarely anywhere near the focus of often stressful in-season days.
It wasn’t until I took my role with the Marlies that I was really able to step back and process the true value someone like Joey Moss would’ve provided, and that’s because we had Pistol Pete Flagler. Sportsnet featured the Marlies’ locker-room attendant a couple years back:
You can follow Pistol on Instagram here.
Pete has a very real job working with the team, but he also moonlights in a kind of voluntary advisory role. One day Pete had me set up a laptop so he could go through the shifts of a Marlies centreman to help find him more ice time. He regularly campaigned to Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe for more opportunity for his favourite players, which included a group of … basically everyone who was nice to him, which was pretty much everyone (extra love here for Connor Brown, Justin Holl and Rich Clune). He even addressed the full team on multiple occasions, and when he did he could wipe away tension in a way no player or coach ever could.
He earned his jewelry:
Here’s the thing with a pro hockey locker room. With the exception of those who’ve made it to the highest level and have long-term deals and no-move clauses, almost every day and every interaction is vaguely competitive. It’s exhausting. The players are trying to climb past the players beside them with their performance on the ice.
But part of being put in good positions with linemates and ice time to do that means impressing upon staff on a daily basis that they deserve the best opportunities, which means for those more-unestablished players, even the most random conversations matter. Players aside, coaches have to juggle giving direction with keeping players happy, and how they do that is judged by the players and other around them. The evaluation rarely stops for anyone.
To go with that, every day exists in the shadow of the previous game. Players who underperformed are held to vaguely higher standards whether that’s spoken or not. There’s handwringing over team shortcomings. And if the team lost (or is generally losing a lot), the strain of each day becomes immense. Blame is just floating around, looking to land on the most inactive of the team members in the room.
Having someone like Pistol Pete, or Joey Moss, or anyone who exists somewhat outside that competitive ecosystem creates the opportunity for everyone to talk to without pressure. In the midst of the darkest times, there’s a ray of light. And if you’re ever so misfortunate as to be stuck in a cave at night, you’ll come to see just how much you can appreciate a single candle.
So while I know Joey and Pistol and their cohorts benefit from their roles, I know the players and staff benefit, too — and I don’t think either side realizes how much. When the medical staff has that ray of light around, that candle, they’re often put in better mental frames to do their job, and that trickles down to those they work on. The coaches benefit, the extended staff and management benefits — even if just in small amounts. But those small bits, for everyone, accumulated, can have a profound effect on a locker room. I believe the whole of the operation makes larger gains than any one person may feel them.
For those teams in development leagues, these relationships also provide younger players an opportunity to learn about compassion and kindness.
If there are teams out there not offering a role like this up to someone from their community, they’re missing out. Missing out on making someone’s life better, but also missing out on helping their team grow, both on the ice and off. Guys like Joey and Pistol Pete are proof of the impact that can be made in those jobs, and in turn, the positive effect that can be had on so many people.
Justin Turner tests COVID-positive at World Series, hugs teammate after win – CBC.ca
Star player tested positive in 6th inning
The Los Angeles Dodgers just won their first World Series in 32 years, but the big win comes with a serious foul.
An hour after securing a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night, star player Justin Turner stepped onto the field to celebrate with his team, despite testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the game.
Once on the field, Turner hugged longtime teammate Clayton Kershaw and pulled his mask down to sit front and centre for a team photo, potentially putting his team at risk of catching the coronavirus.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and third baseman Justin Turner, with the red beard, pose for a group photo after the Dodgers’ World Series win. (Image credit: Eric Gay/The Associated Press)
Turner’s result, which came during the game’s sixth inning, was Major League Baseball’s first positive test in 59 days.
Test results can sometimes be wrong, and follow-up testing is needed to confirm a false positive.
In a post-game tweet, Turner didn’t comment on potentially having exposed his teammates to the coronavirus.
Turner’s teammate and World Series MVP Corey Seager sympathized with Turner, who has waited years for the win, only to test positive for COVID-19 during the final game.
“It’s gut-wrenching … If I could switch places with him right now, I would. That’s just not right.”
Turner is L.A.’s career leader in post-season home runs, with 12, including a pair in this series, in which he hit .364.
What happens next?
It’s unclear whether Turner will face any repercussions for his actions, but MLB is expected to make a statement in the coming days.
Despite the sour moment, the night was still a massive triumph for the Dodgers, who now have a total of seven World Series wins.
With files from The Associated Press
TOP PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Jairaj-USA-TODAY
MLB to investigate Turner's actions during World Series celebration – TSN
Major League Baseball, through the Commissioner’s Office, is beginning a full investigation into Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner’s actions following the conclusion of the World Series on Tuesday, the league has announced.
In a statement, the league says Turner was removed from Game 6 and separated from everyone on the Dodgers following a positive COVID-19 test, but returned to the field during the championship celebration and refused to leave when he was asked to by MLB officials.
“Immediately upon receiving notice from the laboratory of a positive test, protocols were triggered, leading to the removal of Justin Turner from last night’s game. Turner was placed into isolation for the safety of those around him. However, following the Dodgers’ victory, it is clear that Turner chose to disregard the agreed-upon joint protocols and the instructions he was given regarding the safety and protection of others. While a desire to celebrate is understandable, Turner’s decision to leave isolation and enter the field was wrong and put everyone he came in contact with at risk. When MLB Security raised the matter of being on the field with Turner, he emphatically refused to comply.”
“The Commissioner’s Office is beginning a full investigation into this matter and will consult with the Players Association within the parameters of the joint 2020 Operations Manual.”
The league also says that nasal swabs were conducted on the Dodgers’ travelling party on Tuesday and that both the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays were tested again on Wednesday. Both team’s travel back to their homes will be determined after it is approved by the appropriate authorities.
Turner was pulled from Game 6 in the eighth inning after Los Angeles learned of his positive COVID-19 test.
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