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Maple Leafs’ businesslike approach paying dividends on road trip

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SAN JOSE – Sunshine and relaxation can be an alluring temptation when work allows you to escape the bitterness of late November in Toronto and the first hard bite of winter.

So, yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ coaching staff had considered giving their players Thanksgiving off Thursday. Had they gone that route, their generosity could be easily justified as a reward for the club’s hot streak.

Instead, they ducked out of the warmth and into the rink, where they’ve punched the clock daily during a California swing described plainly as “a business trip.”

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The team hunkered down together in their hotel Thursday night. They ordered in turkey, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts (Justin Holl’s personal favourite), watched a little American football, and secured a good night’s sleep.

Friday was a workday, after all. And free time, whenever that arrives, is a ton more fun when it feels well earned.

The Maple Leafs’ businesslike approach — so long, relaxed dress code, we hardly knew ye — has been translating to the ice throughout this four-game roadie.

Avenging the San Jose Sharks by a score of 4-1 Friday, Toronto has now outscored its opponents 13-3 on this trip, which concludes Sunday in Anaheim.

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Sure, one could dispute the quality of competition, but the Leafs have a history of playing down to weaker foes. And that, most certainly, has not been the case lately.

Despite skating without Ondrej Kase and dressing rookie goalie Joseph Woll (3-0-0) in his first non-back-to-back situation, Toronto was never in danger of letting the Sharks take over.

Heck, William Nylander made good on the night’s first shot. A silky backhand deke of James Reimer when the game was all of 32 seconds old busted Nylander’s seven-game goal drought and set the tone.

And while Nick Bonino responded with a double-five-hole snipe that beat both T.J. Brodie and Woll through the legs, the 1-1 tie was short-lived. Wayne Simmonds, filling in for the injured Kase, responded on the very next shift, tipping home a puck after a passing sequence with new linemates David Kampf and Nick Ritchie.

“We’re looking for him to not change really from what he’s done; Simmer’s done a really good job,” coach Sheldon Keefe said pregame of the promotion. “Like a lot of players that play lower in the lineup, you’re looking for a little bit more when it’s available — and tonight it’s available.”

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Auston Matthews notched his ninth early in the second period, and John Tavares drove the nail toward the conclusion of the Leafs’ first frighteningly in-sync power play.

On the flip side, the Maple Leafs’ vastly improved penalty kill limited the Sharks to a total of one shot during San Jose’s three power plays.

Toronto’s fourth on Reimer chased the ex-Leaf midway through the game. And although Adin Hill was solid in relief, the damage had been done.

Woll stood tall during a sloppy final 10 minutes, but the Leafs took care of business once again.

They’ve now won 13 of their past 15 games.

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Naturally, Saturday is another practice day.

Fox’s Fast 5

• With the Leafs rolling, Travis Dermott has been stuck getting the Holl treatment. Friday marked his fourth straight healthy scratch.

Coach Keefe is constantly communicating with his Group of Seven, knowing one will always be unhappy to sit.

“We believe having seven defencemen that can play is a strength for us as a team at this point, but it is certainly something we have to manage,” said Keefe, who encouraged Dermott to remain sharp after Thursday’s practice.

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“We thought Justin Holl was going to have to sit maybe one game. He ended up sitting five. Generally, we’ve tried to keep the lineup rolling here. It is a daily discussion. We have just felt that we want to keep it the same here for the last little bit.”

• Scary moment in the first frame as Morgan Rielly blocked a Timo Meier blast with the inside of his lower right leg. Hobbled, Rielly left the game temporarily but returned before the period ended.

• Keefe had a discipline chat with Ritchie heading into this season after the winger averaged 0.66 PIM per game last year in Boston. He’s up to 0.86 PIM per game in Toronto. Not a big deal when your team can’t lose and is killing off penalties with ease. But it’s something to monitor.

• Evander Kane, the Sharks’ leading scorer in 2020-21, will be eligible to return from his 21-game suspension after the weekend. The scuttlebutt here says he’ll hit the waiver wire. We’ll see.

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• Rielly flashed back to what it was like sharing a dressing room with Reimer:

“It was just his everyday smile and his demeanour. I used to think that his cheeks would get sore by the end of the day just from having a smile on his face for so long. That’s just the type of person he was. I was lucky to be around him when I was a young player, and I got to experience a teammate who just loved life that much. I think that’s a good influence to have.”





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Raptors open pre-season with win in front of playoff-worthy Edmonton crowd

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Edmonton – They like them. They really like them.

After a week spent in Western Canada – first in Victoria where the Toronto Raptors held training camp and now in Alberta where they hosted the Utah Jazz in their first exhibition game Sunday evening – it’s safe to say the enthusiasm for Canada’s lone NBA team extends well beyond the boundaries of the GTA or Southern Ontario.

This isn’t breaking news – exploding TV ratings and the proliferation of Jurassic Parks across the country during the Raptors’ championship run in 2019 made the case pretty convincing.

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But it’s still interesting to get a flavour of it in person. The crowd at the intrasquad scrimmage in Victoria was as loud and enthusiastic as possible for the type of event it was – a live practice with a bit of goodwill and community building baked in.

In Edmonton, Rogers Place was jammed to the rafters, and it seemed like everyone in the building was wearing official team merchandise. A playoff worthy ‘let’s go Raptors’ chant broke out before the ball went up and every Raptors basket from the opening tip to the final horn was greeted like it meant something.

“It is always a great reception,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on Sunday.

“That place couldn’t have been any more full for an intrasquad game out in Victoria the other day … normally for these [Canadian exhibition] games the reception is great, the crowd is into it. It’s their one chance to see some of the home talent in their home area. They usually bring it. It’s cool because there are a lot of pre-season games you have zero energy, almost tipping toward negative energy in some of those games. We don’t have to go through that. It’s fun. … I think it’s great for basketball in Canada as well.”

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What to glean from what turned out to be a 114-82 blowout?

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Well, not all that much. Nurse had said beforehand that the game would be light on minutes for starters and heavy on opportunities for those in the middle of his rotation.

The starters turned it over a lot and looked a little rusty – Pascal Siakam was 1-of-6 in the first quarter with four giveaways all on his own. But Scottie Barnes looks like he’s ready to pick up where his rookie-of-the-year season left off as he had eight points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 17:31 of floor time.

Precious Achiuwa looked quick off the dribble, and calm and collected in transition, suggesting he’s not about to regress to the early-season awkwardness he started with early last season. He led all Raptors scorers in the first half with 10.

But there was little for the established players to prove. More interesting was what was going on elsewhere on the roster.

“You could sit here and say a Wednesday practice at training camp is very low stakes,” said Nurse. “But when you’re fighting for position or fighting for rotation minutes, you’ve got to play well. You’ve got to play hard, and you’ve got to play well.

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“… We’ll see what translates from practice to the game floor. It’s the same things I always say: First and foremost are you going to give great effort? Are you going to compete? Are you going to play winning basketball? Are you going to do the schemes right? Are you going to fill a role? The list is pretty long, but those would be some broad-stroke ideas that would be helpful to guys to make the team.”

Early in the second quarter Raptors fans got their first glimpse of rookie big man Christian Koloko.

The seven-footer from Cameroon made a few nice plays: finishing off a clever pass from Siakam for his first bucket and looking comfortable shooting from the baseline on another, though the ball didn’t drop. He got to the free-throw line after making an adventurous drive to the rim from the perimeter, though only made 1-of-2 shots there. His highlight was a putback dunk off an Achiuwa lay-up late in the first half that sparked the Rogers Place crowd.

More interesting was that defensively – which will be his ticket to a steady role in the NBA – he was directing traffic, communicating, and consistently engaged. He looked comfortable guarding pick-and-roll actions on the perimeter as well.

“He’s handled things very well. He falls into the category of ‘you just don’t see him making very many mistakes’,” said Nurse. “He’ll block a shot, he’ll get a tip in, he’ll move the ball, he’ll get an extra possession with an offensive rebound; those things all add up and there’s not a whole lot of takeaways from what he does or things that take away from the team.

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“So to me, he’s looked very good, very solid, a guy we can use for sure.”

The Raptors led 50-49 at the half, setting the stage for a 31-point runaway in the second half.  But by then Nurse was committed to seeing new faces and combinations. Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby were all done for the night. In their place, alongside Barnes and Gary Trent Jr., were Chris Boucher, Khem Birch, and Juancho Hernangomez. They pushed the lead to 12 before Barnes and Trent Jr. sat down in place of Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton.

It would seem there is a path to some steady playing time for either one of Flynn or Banton, with the Raptors’ stated goal of cutting back on VanVleet’s minutes, especially since another stated goal is for Toronto to get to the rim more this season.

Flynn in particular is at a stage where he has to prove his worth as he heads into his third season. He opened some eyes in the summer as he put up some hard-to-miss stat lines in some pro-am games, including a 73-point outing in a game this July in a Seattle game hosted by Jamal Crawford.

“I just feel good,” said Flynn. “I put work in in the summer. So just going off of that. Just ready to compete and have a good year.”

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It looked like his night might be cut short when he briefly had to leave the floor after taking a hard knock to the side of the head from Jazz guard Colin Sexton. He was fine in the end and ended up chipping in eight points in the second-half route.

Banton was in good form too, as he galloped through the open court for nine points, three rebounds and two steals. The bench – even the deepest corners of it – overwhelmed the Jazz. Toronto took an 82-64 lead into the fourth quarter and was lifted to the finish line by the energy of the ‘home’ crowd whose enthusiasm never wavered.

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Ross Chastain after his fourth place finish at Talladega

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Ross Chastain after finishing fourth: “My stomach hurts just from agonizing in the car over the wreck that I knew was going to happen. It was incredible we all made it.”



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William Byron on the racing at Talladega

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William Byron didn’t have the day he was looking for with a 12th-place finish and no stage points.



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