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TRAIKOS: It’s all-or-nothing for Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas

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Kyle Dubas didn’t pick the title of the Amazon-produced docuseries that has been following around the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. But if he did, chances are the team’s general manager would have chosen something far blander and more ambiguous than All or Nothing.

Maybe “All or Something.” Or “All or Next Year.” Or “How to Find a Silver Lining After Losing in the First Round (Again).”

Any of those would have been a more reasonable title for a team that has gone 17 years without winning a playoff round and last won a Stanley Cup in 1967. Instead, it seems as though the Leafs have not only set their sights on winning a championship this year, they fully expect it.

It’s the Stanley Cup or bust. It’s all or nothing.

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And despite what Dubas believes, it’s time that everyone acted that way.

“I don’t know that the title of the series is really the be-all and end-all for where we’re at as a team,” Dubas said in his mid-season state of the union zoom conference on Tuesday. “We’re looking to be a team that performs at a high level year-in and year-out. And that starts in the regular season, with being a top regular-season club and letting the regular season build our habits going into the playoffs. We feel that if we do that consistently year-in and year-out, that will lead us to our ultimate goal, which is to win.

“But it’s so hard in any sport to look at it and say: ‘It’s X or bust.’ I know that there’s a lot of talk about winning a playoff round or bust, or winning the Stanley Cup or bust, but I don’t … it’s about trying to build a program that can be a team that has a high level of performance every single year and that’s really the goal from my end.”

Unfortunately, “A Team That Has a High Level of Performance Every Single Year” isn’t quite as catchy a title as All or Nothing.

Nor is it as realistic.

Dubas might not want to admit it, but this team should have loftier goals than just being consistently good. That would have been a fine goal several years ago, back when Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were just getting their feet wet. But the time of taking baby steps has come and gone for a Leafs team that has chronically underachieved when it matters the most.

This is Year 3 for Dubas. Based on where the Leafs finish, it could be his last.

As the team’s architect, he has gone all-in on skill and devoted a large chunk of the salary cap to his top four forwards. So far, the grand experiment hasn’t led to playoff success. And whether you want to blame that on bad luck, bad coaching, brutal competition or whatever else has stood in Toronto’s way, the time for making excuses is over.

For Dubas, it’s all or nothing.

The Leafs might not have to win a Stanley Cup this year. But they have to at least get close. Finishing first in the North Division isn’t going to cut it. If Dubas is going to hang on to his job, they also have to win a couple of rounds and get into the conference final.

After all, it may never be this easy for the Leafs to do so.

For one year only, Boston is in the East Division and Tampa Bay is in the Central Division. That leaves Toronto lumped in with the other six Canadian teams in what might be the weakest division in the NHL.

For one year only, there exists a clear path to the conference final. And with Toronto clinging to first place in the North, it’s Dubas’ job to ensure the team stays on that path.

There are three weeks to go until the April 12 trade deadline. That gives Dubas 11 games to evaluate the team and figure out what — if anything — the Leafs need to not only beat the other Canadian teams, but also to match up against what’s potentially lurking behind the corner in the other three divisions.

What do the Leafs need to get past Winnipeg? How about Edmonton and Calgary? Or Montreal? What about the great unknowns of Tampa Bay, Vegas and the New York Islanders?

A couple of weeks ago, you might have said ‘nothing’. This was considered by and large the best team in Canada. With the way the Leafs were playing at both ends of the ice, some were calling them the best team in the NHL.

You wouldn’t have wanted to touch the roster after Toronto swept Edmonton in a three-game series, in which they held Connor McDavid and Leon Drasaitl to one total point. But that was before the Leafs tripped over their feet and lost five of their past six games to Vancouver, Winnipeg and Ottawa.

Now? They don’t so much look like Stanley Cup favourites. They look like a team that could use Mattias Ekholm or David Savard on the penalty-kill, and someone like Nick Foligno, Mikael Granlund or Eric Staal to play in the top six.

Frankly, they look like a team that could lose again in the first round.

Maybe that’s why Dubas said he would be willing to trade a top prospect — such as Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin or 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov — if it improved the team. Such a trade would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. But for Dubas, there is a sense of urgency that previously didn’t exist.

It’s all or nothing.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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Netherlands, Senegal advance out of Group A after wins on final match day

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Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly, right, celebrates with teammates scoring his side’s second goal during the World Cup group A soccer match between Ecuador and Senegal, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (Francisco Seco/AP)

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly put his team into the last 16 of the World Cup by volleying home the winner in a 2-1 victory over Ecuador on Tuesday.

Koulibaly scored three minutes after Moises Caicedo had evened the score at 1-1.

In a must-win match for the African champions, Senegal took the lead after a first-half penalty by Ismaila Sarr. Caicedo scored his goal in the 67th.

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At 1-1, Ecuador would have advanced from Group A and Senegal would have been eliminated.

The Netherlands beat Qatar 2-0 in the other match to win the group. Senegal finished second while Ecuador and Qatar were eliminated.

Senegal last advanced from the group stage at the 2002 World Cup, when the team reached the quarterfinals in its tournament debut.

Netherlands 2, Qatar 0

AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — The Netherlands finished off the worst showing by any World Cup host nation by beating Qatar 2-0 on Tuesday.

The Dutch advanced to the round of 16 by winning Group A while the Qataris, who were already eliminated, became the first host to lose all three of its group matches at soccer’s biggest event.

Cody Gakpo put the Netherlands ahead midway through the first half with his third goal in as many matches and Frenkie de Jong doubled the advantage five minutes into the second half.

The Netherlands is a three-time runner-up at the World Cup, and also finished third in 2014, while Qatar was making its tournament debut.

The Dutch failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The Netherlands finished with seven points at the top of the group. Senegal, which beat Ecuador 2-1 in the other group game, advanced in second place with six points. Ecuador was eliminated with four points and Qatar ended with zero.

The attendance at Al Bayt Stadium, which also hosted Qatar’s loss to Ecuador in the tournament opener, was given as 66,784 — nearly at full capacity. There were small pockets of orange-clad Netherlands supporters, and Qatar fans behind one of the goals who chanted in unison and jumped up and down.

At one point during the second half, Qatar fans held aloft a large Palestinian flag that said “Free Palestine” on it.

In the 26th minute, Gakpo took control outside the area, dribbled forward and unleashed a powerful side-footed shot between two defenders that entered inside the right post.

Gakpo became the fourth Dutch player to score in three consecutive World Cup games after Johan Neeskens (1974), Dennis Bergkamp (1994) and Wesley Sneijder (2010). He also became only the second player to open the scoring for his team three times in the same group stage after Alessandro Altobelli for Italy in 1986.

De Jong’s goal came when he sprinted forward uncontested to knock in a rebound from close range following a shot from Memphis Depay.

A possible third goal for the Netherlands by Steven Berghuis was waved off following a video review for a handball in the buildup.

Berghuis then hit the bar in added time.

While the Netherlands dominated the possession and created many more chances, Qatar did push forward on occasion and there was a nervy moment for the Dutch when goalkeeper Andries Noppert had trouble collecting a long-range shot from Ismael Mohamed after Gakpo’s goal.

TOP SCORER

Gakpo drew level with France standout Kylian Mbappé and Ecuador veteran Enner Valencia atop the tournament scoring chart.

For club and country in all competitions this season, Gakpo has been involved in 35 goals in 29 appearances with 17 goals scored and 18 assists.

That should make the 23-year-old PSV Eindhoven forward the target for an expensive transfer in the upcoming months.

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'We came to make history': Canada hoping to achieve more firsts at World Cup – Sportsnet.ca

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World Cup Iran-US: Why Iran gave the US players flowers in 1998 – BBC

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Amid harsh barbs and heated geopolitics, the last World Cup match-up between Iran and the United States began with an unlikely gesture – bouquets of white flowers.

The flowers, Iran’s coach later said, were meant as a symbol of peace ahead of the 1998 showdown in France.

Two decades later, political tensions were again high ahead of the Iran-US game in Qatar.

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The latest meeting, however, went without any friendly gestures.

The previous match, held in Lyon, came 20 years after diplomatic relations between the two nations were severed as a result of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and subsequent 444 day hostage crisis.

Just one month before kick-off, the US State Department labelled Iran the world’s “most active” state sponsor of terrorism, while several high-level Iranian officials kept up a steady drumbeat of anti-US rhetoric.

Despite the tensions evident in the halls of the United Nations and in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s players – led by California-based manager Jalal Talebi – decided to start the match with a signal that the only competition between the two would be on the pitch.

“We decided to make something special,” Mr Talebi said in an oral history of the match produced by ESPN.

“Let us go inside and give them nice flowers to say that we are here for peace. We are not here for fighting or anything.”

The US team reciprocated, giving their opponents US Soccer Federation (USSF) pennants. Together, the squads posed for a group picture, with many of the players smiling ahead of the high-pressure match.

Iranian and US players in 1998

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“I thought that was great,” Cobi Jones, then a midfielder for the US team, said in the ESPN report.

“It’s just like a sign of like sport trumping politics and all that. That was very important and having the mixed photo was great.”

The days leading up to the World Cup rematch on Tuesday between the two teams were once again marked by tensions, coming amid widespread anti-government protests in Iran and just after the USSF removed the emblem of the Islamic Republican from the flag it posted in online graphics.

The pictures were later deleted, and US manager Gregg Berhalter apologised, saying that “sometimes things are out of our control” and that he and the US team were only focused on football.

The US team went into the match hoping to avoid a repeat of the 1998 game, which ended with a 2-1 victory for Iran, though both countries were eliminated from the tournament after the game.

Alexi Lalas, a Fox Sports commentator who was a member of the 1998 team, told the Associated Press that the current US team would be well advised not to ignore the wider geopolitics surrounding the current match.

“Understanding the importance of this game, not just from a soccer perspective but from a cultural perspective, I think is crucial for the United States,” he said, addressing what would motivate the US on the pitch.

The US-Iran match in Qatar ended 1-0 in the Americans’ favour after a goal from Christian Pulisic in the 38th minute.

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