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Tkachuk-Muzzin fireworks add new chapter to Flames’ growing rivalry with Leafs – Sportsnet.ca

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CALGARY – On his knees at the final buzzer, crushed by the Flames’ second loss in a row, Matthew Tkachuk had hockey’s version of sand kicked in his face.

Standing a few feet away from the Flames agitator, Jake Muzzin turned and deliberately flipped the puck at Tkachuk’s chest, punctuating the Leafs’ 4-3 win with a big ol’ middle finger.

Given Tkachuk’s penchant for perturbing, there aren’t many players in the league who wouldn’t love sending a similar message his way.

Fair enough.

Infuriated at the disrespect, Tkachuk sprung to his feet and immediately launched into the Leafs veteran, doing his best to square off with Muzzin while other Leafs and an official stepped in to separate them.

For his efforts, Muzzin was handed a meaningless unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, while an enraged Tkachuk stormed down the tunnel to the dressing room, attempting to smash several water bottles along the way.

What a shame these two don’t play again until Feb. 22.

Not just because it’s now clear the Leafs really did take exception to Tkachuk’s fall on Jack Campbell’s back a game earlier after all, but because the two just engaged in a whale of a see-saw battle.

Now we know there’s some juice in this matchup.

All it really ever takes is a little familiarity with Tkachuk for an opponent to start digging in against him. The Leafs and Flames are now building that animosity, with a full seven games left in their season series.

Don’t forget who Muzzin played alongside for many years in Los Angeles – yes, the man who Tkachuk has had a very public, running feud with: Drew Doughty.

You can bet that Doughty’s evening ended with a text to his old pal that included a string of supportive emojis.

As bush and symbolic as a puck flip into an opponent’s chest is, it sets the stage for more wonderful theatre and storylines when the two next meet. That’s what this North Division could – and should — be all about: vitriol, animosity, payback and passion.

On Tuesday, the game itself was entertaining, and that can normally carry the day. But the NHL is in the entertainment business and few things in sport are more entertaining than conflict.

As far as the game went, the Flames pulled another first-period no-show, outshot 10-1 and lucky to trail just 2-0 thanks to their new nightly saviour, Jacob Markstrom.

The Flames flipped the script in the second, outshooting the visitors 18-5 to set up a third period in which they bridged their 3-2 deficit with a tying goal from Johnny Gaudreau, his second of the game.

Although league scoring leader Mitch Marner would eventually break the deadlock with a snipe from the high slot that won the game with eight minutes left, nobody was feeling it more than Gaudreau on this night.

As part of a solid start to his season, Gaudreau had his first two-goal game since Dec. 12, 2019.

Alas, as usually happens when the Leafs win, Toronto’s big boys were the difference. Marner and Matthews both had a goal and a helper to clinch a two-game sweep over a Calgary club that spent the bulk of both games playing catch-up.

“First period was awful for the whole team, other than Marky,” said Gaudreau, slumped in his chair.

“We just didn’t show up in the first. Not the way we’re going to win games.”

The Flames can take solace in the fact that for the third time this season they followed up a horrific period with a doozy. But there wasn’t much else to take away from a game in which Geoff Ward’s defensive demands were ignored with regularity.

“We didn’t start on time, that’s for sure,” said Ward. “We got outworked early and we were really porous. We looked like we’d never tracked before in our life. Everything we do has to come from the fact we can check. You can’t give up four goals in this league regularly and expect to win games. We have to be committed to being good away from the puck.”

But nobody will be talking about that on Wednesday, as the Flames make their way to Montreal to play the red-hot Habs.

They’ll discuss the pettiness of a puck flip, the possibility of payback and the reality that we may just get playoff-type hostility long before the post-season begins.

For that we can thank Mr. Muzzin and Mr. Tkachuk, who’s next time together in the sandbox is already being discussed.

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Blue Jays snag Marcus Semien on one-year deal for infield upgrade – Toronto Sun

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The Blue Jays continued their pursuit of moving towards serious playoff contention on Tuesday by signing free agent Marcus Semien to bolster their infield.

Once again showing they mean business, the Jays reached agreement with the veteran shortstop, who most recently held that position with the Oakland Athletics. A source told the Toronto Sun that the one-year deal is worth $18 million US, pending a physical.

Semien is one season removed from the best campaign of his career when he hit .285 with 33 home runs and finished third in 2019 American League MVP voting. Presumably that offensive flash was attractive enough for the Jays to overlook a regression in 2020 when Semien got off to a tardy start and never recovered, batting just .223.

The 30-year-old has spent most of his career at shortstop, which will make for some interesting decisions for manager Charlie Montoyo. The likelihood in Toronto, however, is that Semien — who the team feels will be a plus-defender — is to play at second and shift Cavan Biggio to third base.

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Maple Leafs benefiting from Marner’s new shooting mentality – Sportsnet.ca

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For three winters now, pass-first Mitchell Marner has vowed to adopt a shooter’s brain, knowing full well that becoming a double threat would keep goalies guessing and the Toronto Maple Leafs winning.

“You’ve got to respect both the shot and the pass option,” goaltender Frederik Andersen explains. “The better you can be at both, the more it’s going to help you.”

Sounds simple enough.

But on a night when your team has coughed up 2-0 and 3-1 leads on the road, when the game is tied, and the tide has turned, and your centreman plants one on your tape with under eight minutes left… you still gotta bury the sucker.

Which is precisely what Marner did Tuesday in Calgary, drifting into a quiet space in the high slot, pounding a one-timer past Jacob Markstrom, and delivering Toronto its sixth nail-biting victory in eight games.

“I’ve really been working on that shot with Matts. If I can try to find that shot more, I know Matts can find me there,” said Marner.

For years now, Auston Matthews and Marner have routinely been the final two Leafs to glide off the ice during pre-game skate, using every last second of warm-up to feed each other one-timers until the buzzer sounds, the lights dim, and the music stops.

“It’s just trying to get it off my stick quickly and on to the net, for a chance on net, for a rebound or something,” Marner said. “I’m trying to get more of a shot mentality in there, trying to be more of a threat. It was a great dish by Matty, and that’s a big goal.”

Indeed.

Marner’s strike completed an eight-point swing in the North Division standings in favour of the Leafs over the Flames in the rivals’ first two-game miniseries.

Marner’s fifth multi-point effort and second game-winner also vaulted the winger into a tie with Connor McDavid for the NHL points lead with 12.

Critics may be quick to point out that Marner has a league-high two empty-netters or that his 31.3 per cent shooting percentage is unsustainable. Fair. But there is little doubt Marner has embarked on a mission to make his impact felt after a disappointing experience in the 2020 post-season bubble.

“A real differentiator for the true great players, the truly elite players of the league: they’re not satisfied,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “When you see Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander out on the ice every day, practising and working on different things and spending their off-season trying to add different layers to the game, if you’re a player that is not at their level, there’s no excuses.”

Instrumental to both the Leafs’ top power-play and penalty-kill units, Marner has seen his average ice time climb to 23:33, tops among all NHL forwards.

In effort to convert his muffin to a missile, Marner has bulked up his body and stiffened his stick flex. He’s also tried to rethink his options when he gets within striking distance.

“The last two years I’ve been trying to work on it. I feel like it’s a mentality thing,” Marner said. “I feel like I really want to try and make an extra play most of the time, but this year around, trying to be more of a threat. More of a guy that can be a more consistent shooter on net, kind of change things up on goalies — and that’s what I did tonight.”

Andersen faces Marner’s shot daily in practice and believes it’s an “underrated” weapon, noting that placement can trump power.

“He’s good at picking spots and being pretty elusive and tricky about where he’s going to go,” Andersen said. “He wants to be more than an incredible passer and playmaker. I know he wants to add to his game, and I think he’s done that throughout the years I’ve played with him.”

Much of the juicy morning chatter around the Leafs’ 4-3 win will be about Jake Muzzin flipping the game puck into Matthew Tkachuk’s logo at the buzzer and Tkachuk blowing a gasket in response to the unwelcome souvenir.

But Muzzin’s take-that gesture would not have been possible had the Maple Leafs not received contributions from their bottom six — taxi-squad graduate Travis Boyd notched his first as a Leaf, and Wayne Simmonds is now running a two-game goal train — or a double dose of the Matthews-Marner connection.

“It just looks like he’s flying,” Morgan Rielly says of Marner. “I know he’s pretty motivated, and he’s in a good place right now. He’s just having fun with it, and it’s great to be around him at the rink when he’s feeling like that.”

New Leafs T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian have both had their eyes opened by Marner’s elite ability to make reads and contribute defensively.

“So, he’s the total package,” Bogosian says.

Even higher praise for Marner came from Leafs president Brendan Shanahan when addressing the club’s season-ticket holders in a Leafs Nation Network interview earlier this month.

“He’s got an energy that the players all love. He laughs at himself. He’s self-deprecating, but he’s also very serious about his job and the pressure that he puts on himself,” Shanahan said.

“He just cares. He cares a lot. This is a guy that I hope plays his entire career in Toronto. And if he does, I have no doubt he will bring us success. And I have no doubt that he’s going to have a statue outside of the arena one day.”

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