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Maple Leafs’ Matthews-Nylander combo yet to maximize potential

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TORONTO – Nicolas Roy, with his 12 career NHL goals, looked at the Vegas Golden Knights’ steadily swelling injured reserve — Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Alex Tuch, Nolan Patrick, Mattias Janmark, Zach Whitecloud, and now William Karlsson — and painted his team as a “David” Tuesday morning in Toronto.

Thing is, the club one dressing room down is hardly stomping around with the swagger of a Goliath.

“We’re seeking consistency here as a group — and we’re not there yet,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said, accurately.

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Another night for the erratic Maple Leafs to build on the “signs of life” (Keefe’s phrase) they showed against the Detroit Red Wings in Saturday’s 5-4 victory.

Another night against an offensively depleted opponent.

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Oh my, the luck: the Leafs have recently been dealt the tired Sharks playing their third game in four nights; the Penguins minus Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Kris Letang; the Blackhawks without Patrick Kane, who would later erupt for a hat trick in his return game; and the Red Wings sans Tyler Bertuzzi.

Yet the more talented side on paper has either lost those tilts or scraped by on good goaltending and nail-biting finishes.

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Nine games deep, we’re still waiting for the Maple Leafs to dictate hockey on their terms for a full 60 minutes. For Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to bring their A-game on the same night. For the mix-and-match D pairings to gel. For the NHL’s most expensive power-play unit to strike fear.

“I think our second unit has been doing a really good job,” William Nylander smiled. “First unit hasn’t been buzzing as of late. So that’s something we need to improve on, that’s for sure.

“Just gotta get dialed and score.”

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Toronto’s power play (26th overall, 14.8 per cent), offence (27th, 2.33 goals per game) and defence (21st, 3.22 goals allowed per game) all rank bottom-third in the league.

A shaky showing at home in a week like this one — regular Western Conference finalist Vegas Tuesday, two-time champion Tampa Bay Thursday, mortal nemesis Boston Saturday — and the foothold gained from back-to-back wins over the Blackhawks and Red Wings could cause more quakes in Leafland.

Conversely, a dominant showing could propel the Leafs upward.

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That begins with what should be a gigantic advantage for Toronto up the middle.

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With Karlsson confirmed out for four to six weeks with a broken foot, Vegas’s usual bottom-six winger Brett Howden (16 career goals) of all people gets the promotion to top-line centre duties between Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault.

Centre Michael Amadio, whom the Knights scooped off the waiver wire from the Leafs, goes from healthy scratch in one room to third-line pivot in the other.

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“Not real familiar, but I have seen [Amadio]. I saw him in L.A.,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer says. “I actually called his old coach, Sam Butler, who is a friend of mine, coached him in North Bay. Sam filled me in on him with a real good report.

“I like the idea of some of the things that he’s capable of doing, and one thing he’s going to get here is an opportunity to do that because of the injury situation we’re in.”

The Leafs’ one-two punch of Matthews and John Tavares should feast.

Right?

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Keefe is challenging the Matthews’ line work as hard without the puck as the newly formed Alexander Kerfoot–Tavares–Mitch Marner trio did Saturday.

“My rhythm and everything is still coming back. Touch and feel is still a work in progress. Just trying to make good on some of these chances I’m getting. It’s frustrating when they’re not going in,” Matthews says, “but as long as I continue to get them, I mean, I believe in myself, and they’re going to start to drop.”

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The Michael Bunting–Matthews–Nylander combo has been outscored 2-0 since its formation.

“They’ve had some good opportunities to score offensively. I think they’ve been a little bit disconnected defensively. And as a result, [they’ve] spent more time on our half the ice than we’d like them to,” Keefe says.

“I don’t really think we’ve seen it play to its potential here yet. And I think part of it is the line coming together, and part of it is the three players playing at their best.”

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On the flip side, the Golden Knights will rely on a healthy and active defence corps to pick up some of the slack that comes this crazy rash of ailments up front.

“Hopefully,” Smith says, “we just make it through a game without another new injury.”

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One-Timers: Jack Campbell gets the start in net for Toronto despite Petr Mrazek’s win Saturday…. Justin Holl will be healthy-scratched in favour of Timothy Liljegren for a second consecutive game… T.J. Brodie plays game 700 tonight…. And Ilya Mikheyev (thumb) is back skating but not handling pucks yet. He’s still four weeks away from his projected return.





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LeBron James on whether Kyrie Irving can help Lakers: 'Duh'

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LeBron James has no doubt that Kyrie Irving would make the Lakers a contender, but he noted that he’s not in the team’s front office.



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NBA Roundup: Gilgeous-Alexander drops 42 in Thunder win; Clippers top Knicks in OT

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 42 points and Oklahoma City set a Thunder record for points to rout Houston.

Oklahoma City surpassed the 150 it scored in a win over the Boston Celtics last month.

Gilgeous-Alexander shot 7 for 23 in a loss to the Rockets on Wednesday night. He bounced back to make 14 of 23 field goals in the rematch, falling two points short of his career high. The first-time All-Star also made 14 of 15 free throws and had six assists.

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Josh Christopher and TyTy Washington each scored 20 points for Houston.

NETS 125, WIZARDS 123

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NEW YORK — Cam Thomas scored a career-high 44 points off the bench and short-handed Brooklyn overcame a 23-point deficit to beat Washington.

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Edmond Sumner also set a personal best with 29 points. Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving was out with what the team said was right calf soreness a day after he told the Nets he wants to be traded.

The Nets, who also played without Kevin Durant (right knee MCL sprain), T.J. Warren (left shin contusion) and Ben Simmons (left knee soreness), also lost Seth Curry (left adductor) and Markieff Morris (sore left knee) in the game.

Kristaps Porzingis led the Wizards with 38 points.

SUNS 116, PISTONS 100

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DETROIT — Deandre Ayton had 31 points and 16 rebounds to help Phoenix beat Detroit.

The surging Sungs have won eight of 10 games, including a victory at Boston on Friday night, and have help on the way with Devin Booker nearing his return. The three-time All-Star guard has been out since Christmas with a groin injury, but dunked in warmups in another sign that he’s close to coming back.

Chris Paul had 14 assists for a balanced offence that didn’t need him to make shots, finishing 0 for 7 and without a field goal for the first time since March 18, 2017, when he helped the Los Angeles Clippers beat Cleveland by 30 points.

Mikal Bridges scored 24 points, Cameron Johnson had 20 points and Torrey Craig added 14 points for Phoenix. Saddiq Bey had 25 points for Detroit.

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BUCKS 123, HEAT 115

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had a triple-double with 35 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists and Milwaukee beat short-handed Miami for its seventh straight victory.

Jimmy Butler scored 32 points and Tyler Herro added 24 for the Heat, who had just nine available players. Notable injured Miami players included Kyle Lowry (sore left knee) and Victor Oladipo (sprained right ankle).

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Antetokounmpo had his third triple-double of the season and 32nd of his career. The 11 assists matched his season high.

Antetokounmpo’s latest triple-double came two nights after he scored 54 points in a 106-105 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. During the Bucks’ six-game winning streak, Antetokounmpo is averaging 39.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists.

WARRIORS 119 MAVERICKS 113

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SAN FRANCISCO — Stephen Curry had 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds before injuring his left leg defending a drive and Golden State beat an undermanned Dallas team missing injured star Luka Doncic.

The Warriors said X-rays for Curry were negative, and he will have an MRI exam.

Draymond Green added 17 points, nine rebounds and nine assists for Golen State.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 25 points for Dallas. Doncic bruised his right heel in the third quarter of 111-106 home victory against New Orleans on Thursday night.

PELICANS 131, LAKERS 126

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NEW ORLEANS — LeBron James moved 36 points away from breaking the NBA career scoring record in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 131-126 loss to New Orleans on Saturday night that ended the Pelicans’ losing streak at 10 games.

James had 27 points to go with nine rebounds and six assists as he continued to close in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record total of 38,387 points.

Brandon Ingram scored 35 points for the Pelicans.

CJ McCollum had 23 points, highlighted by a late 3 to help New Orleans close out the final 3:14 on a 9-5 run that kept the Lakers at bay.

Anthony Davis had 34 points and 14 rebounds for the Lakers.

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CLIPPERS 134, KNICKS 128, OT

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NEW YORK — Kawhi Leonard scored 35 points, Paul George added 30 and Los Angeles beat New York in overtime.

After the Clippers lost a 17-point fourth quarter lead, Nicolas Batum’s 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer tied it at 115.

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The Clippers scored the first four points of overtime and never relinquished the lead. Leonard connected on all of his eight free throws in the extra session, finishing 12 for 12 from the line.

Norman Powell added 24 points for the Clippers and Marcus Morris Sr. had 17. Los Angeles has won seven of nine.

Jalen Brunson, who returned after missing a game due to a non-COVID illness, led the Knicks with 41 points. Julius Randle had 28.

BULLS 129, TRAIL BLAZERS 121

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CHICAGO — Zach LaVine scored 36 points, DeMar DeRozan had 27 and Chicago topped Damian Lillard and Portland.

Nikola Vucevic added 23 points and 11 rebounds as Chicago won for the third time in four games, erasing a 17-point deficit in the second half.

Lillard scored 40 points for Portland, and Anfernee Simons had 27. But the Trail Blazers looked a little tired in the second half of their third game in four nights. Portland had won five of six, including a 124-116 victory at Washington on Friday night.

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Tre White's 22 points leads USC to hard-fought 80-74 victory over Washington

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Tre White led the USC Trojans to the hard-fought 80-74 win over the Washington Huskies. White led all scorers on the night with 22 points and added eight rebounds on the night.



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