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Maple Leafs survive ‘dirty’ hit, ugly 5-on-3 in ‘character-building’ win

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TORONTO – So precious are the tiny windows of opportunity the Tampa Bay Lightning allow over 60 minutes that if you miss one, well, it might be your only one.

The threepeat-hunting champions have learned the hard way to execute the type of structured, poised and opportunistic brand of hockey to which the Toronto Maple Leafs aspire.

When they sense a tight game, the Bolts begin hording scoring chances like Stanley Cup rings.

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Which is why two egregious bang-bang penalties by the visitors and two atrocious minutes of 5-on-3 play by the home side nearly snuffed out the Maple Leafs’ win streak Thursday night.

“We gotta recognize those key moments,” coach Sheldon Keefe instructed his out-of-sync superstars after a limp first period concluded with a passive two-man advantage.

Yes, the Maple Leafs wasted their best chance to claw back into a game controlled by the Lightning, a group that jumps into every shift with purpose.

But in rallying for a dramatic 2-1 overtime victory, the big guns found a way to steal not one point but two against a divisional threat.

“Just a good character builder. Just a good feeling,” said captain John Tavares, whose fingerprints were all over the comeback. “You found a way to get it done when you didn’t have your best.”

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Positionally sound and dialed in from the jump, Tampa rang two posts within the first five minutes of action and gave Toronto little in the way of Grade-A looks in a dominant first period.

So, when depth winger Pat “Threepeat” Maroon dusted a troubled Jake Muzzin on a 2-on-1 rush to cash in his first goal of the season, there was a sense that a 1-0 lead might even be enough.

With Tampa choking away speed through the neutral zone and space in the interior of the ice, the Maple Leafs needed a break.

Then… they got one.

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Mitch Marner chipped a puck past Victor Hedman at the Leafs’ blue line and gained two steps on the perennial Norris contender.

Hedman hooked Marner something fierce, desperately trying to prevent a breakaway. And with the official’s hand already raised and Marner bearing down through the hook for a chance on Andrei Vasilevskiy, Mikhail Sergachev glided in from the blindside and delivered a nasty headshot.

The type that will surely get replayed in the league office, even though Sergachev was whistled for an illegal check to the head.

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“I thought it was dirty,” said Tavares, who charged toward the Tampa defenceman in the ensuing fracas.

“I thought Mitchy was pretty exposed and no chance to really protect himself or see it coming. Just didn’t like it at all. Hit him right in the head. We want that stuff out of our game. Certainly should be at least talked about.”

Should Marner have been granted a penalty shot? Perhaps.

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Should the Maple Leafs have at least threatened to tie a tight game with both Sergachev and Hedman in the box for a full two minutes of 5-on-3? Absolutely.

In what could’ve been a game-defining moment, the Maple Leafs loaded top unit, but had no plan and no quality attempts.

“Our execution was poor,” Tavares said. “Sluggish.”

“Just bad,” Nylander agreed.

Keefe called them out in the first intermission, their response was strong, but Tampa appeared ready for the pushback.

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The Lightning are not the directionless Blackhawks, rebuilding Red Wings, or injury-ravaged Golden Knights. And their Conn Smythe–winning goaltender is acting world-class all over again.

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They don’t give you much.

As they proved last summer, the Lightning have grown content with 1-0 victories.

And were it not for Jack Campbell standing on his head, again, they would’ve had one.

But with Campbell pulled in desperation, the Leafs’ money-makers were granted a second man-advantage opportunity in the final minute at 6-on-5.

Tavares leapt in the air to glove down a Hedman clearing attempt, worked a tic-tac-toe with Auston Matthews and Marner, and converted with 41.1 seconds left in regulation to force a fourth period.

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“He’s back to the way he has been playing his entire career,” Nylander said. “He’s been flying out there, making great plays, and scoring a huge goal for us today.”

Added Keefe: “That’s a big-time shot he scored there tonight. That’s not an easy shot, to get that into the top of the far side of the net with the pass coming from that angle. That’s what he’s capable of doing. He’s been getting rewarded because he has worked.”

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Tavares’ work didn’t relent in overtime, as he drove the net, Hedman was called for slashing, setting up two minutes of 4-on-3 and a redemption shot for the group that punted its 5-on-3 chance earlier.

This time, however, they took charge.

Nylander one-timed a Matthews pass for his third game-winner of the season.

From the captain on down the line, confidence has been gradually mounting as the Maple Leafs’ star forwards are finding their footing.

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Gather enough game-breakers, lean on great goaltending, and a four-game losing skid can spin into four-game win streak in a blink.

“They’re huge players for us, and everybody knows it,” said Campbell, all smiles. “They work so hard. A lot of pressure’s on those guys, and those big dogs are coming to play. It’s great to see — and we’re gonna need it.”

They’ll need it again Saturday, when the Boston Bruins roll into the city.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Justin Holl was healthy scratched for the third consecutive time.

• Stamkos, the NHL’s most recent 60-goal man, says the pandemic cheated Matthews out of some magical numbers: “He’s probably next on the list to score 60.”

• Keefe was asked Thursday morning if he’s happy Jack Eichel got traded out of the Atlantic Division. The coach waited a beat, smiled, and shrugged: “Sure.”

(I’m sure the Eichel trade is the last thing he’s worrying about these days.)

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• Nylander has already spent more time on the penalty kill in 11 games this season (7:39) than his entire prior six seasons in the league combined (6:51).

• Pierre Engvall fondly recalled the time, during a February 2020 game, he burst past Hedman shorthanded for a scoring chance.

“He’s fast. He’s a good skater, too,” Engvall said of his more decorated countryman. “But [going wide] is probably the best shot to beat him.”





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Fantasy Football Rankings 2022: Busts from analytical model that called Julio Jones’ disappointing season

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Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris was one of the top Fantasy football breakouts last season, rushing for 1,667 yards on 381 carries during his rookie campaign. Harris has told multiple media outlets he is prepared for an even heavier workload this season despite leading the NFL in touches last year. Does his volume make him one of the safest 2022 Fantasy football picks? Harris will be one of the first players off the board in most 2022 Fantasy football rankings, but can you trust him in an unproven offense or will he become one of the biggest 2022 Fantasy football busts? As you begin your 2022 Fantasy football draft prep, be sure to check out the 2022 Fantasy football cheat sheets from the proven computer model at SportsLine.

Last year, SportsLine’s model accurately predicted that Titans wide receiver Julio Jones was being dramatically overvalued. He was being drafted around in the fifth round on average, but SportsLine predicted he wasn’t even close to being one of the top 20 wide receivers. Jones wound up turning in an incredibly disappointing stat line, catching 31 passes for 434 yards and one touchdown. 

The same model has a proven track record providing Fantasy football tips, also identifying A.J. Brown as a sleeper in 2020 and JuJu Smith-Schuster as Fantasy football bust last season. It also nailed Jonathan Taylor’s big season and was all over Jaylen Waddle to outperform his Fantasy football ADP. Additionally, it’s called past Fantasy football sleepers like Derrick Henry in 2019, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara in 2018, and Davante Adams in 2017. Anybody who banked on players like those made a run at their league title.

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The model is powered by the same people who generated projections for all three major Fantasy sites, and it beat human experts last season when there was a big difference in ranking. The projections update multiple times daily, so you’re always getting the best Fantasy football advice.

Now, SportsLine has simulated the entire NFL season 10,000 times and released its latest Fantasy football rankings 2022, along with plenty of sleepers, breakouts and busts. Head to SportsLine now to see them

Top 2022 Fantasy football busts

One of the 2022 Fantasy football busts the model is predicting: Cardinals running back James Conner. Arizona was happy with what it got out of Conner last season, re-signing him to a three-year, $21 million contract this offseason. He is being paid like a top-10 running back despite ranking outside the top 25 in rushing yards last year.

Conner is being overrated in Fantasy football drafts because he finished second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns (15) last season. Owners should be wary of drafting a player who is reliant on scoring touchdowns at a high rate, as there is plenty of variance. SportsLine’s model has Conner finishing behind Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey in production this season, even though both are available one round later, on average. 

Another bust that SportsLine’s Fantasy football rankings 2022 have identified: Commanders running back Antonio Gibson. He is coming off a solid season, finishing 10th in Fantasy points among running backs, which put him ahead of players like Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook. Gibson set career-highs in most statistical categories, including carries and rushing yards.

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There were disappointing signs as well, including the fact that Gibson scored fewer than 12 points in PPR leagues seven times. Washington’s backfield is going to be more crowded this year, as the team selected Brian Robinson in April’s draft. Gibson is being drafted before D’Andre Swift, Josh Jacobs and Elijah Mitchell, but that trio is projected to finish ahead of Gibson in SportsLine’s Fantasy football rankings 2022.

How to find proven 2022 Fantasy football rankings

SportsLine is also extremely low on a running back coming off the board in the third or fourth round on average of 2022 Fantasy football drafts. The model ranks him outside its top 24 running backs for 2022 and expects him to see major regression after a breakout season in 2021. You can only see who it is, and the 2022 Fantasy football rankings for every player, at SportsLine.

So which 2022 Fantasy Football breakouts should you be targeting? And which RB will fail to live up to expectations in 2022? Visit SportsLine now to get 2022 Fantasy Football cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that told you to avoid Julio Jones in 2021, and find out.



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NFL 2022: McCaffrey, Young, Ramsey among key players returning from injuries

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Christian McCaffrey and Chase Young are among NFL stars returning from injuries. Dr. Matt Provencher breaks down what to expect.



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Why Kevin Durant’s ultimatum to the Nets requires just a one-word response from owner Joe Tsai

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Give Kevin Durant this much credit: The man isn’t afraid to go to the mattresses.

But let’s let the praise, awe or understanding end there. Durant’s move this week to reportedly sit with Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai and lay down a me-or-them ultimatum is the latest proof that the only thing Durant may excel at more than basketball is an uncanny knack for turning tone deafness into an art form.

He’s a diva-may-care. And Tsai has to tell the man the same word Nets general manager Sean Marks did, as we suggested here when news of Durant’s trade demand first surfaced, the word that has led to all this huffing and puffing to blow Tsai’s team down: No.

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No, Kevin, you’re not in charge.

No, Kevin, we won’t blow up our team, or trade you, or — cue Durant’s latest would-be power play — fire all the adults in the room because they didn’t treat your tantrum like the world’s most sagacious reaction to difficulty. 

Let’s hone in on why, in London, Durant reportedly told the Nets owner he must either trade him — or fire head coach Steve Nash and Marks.

It’s not, as Shams Charania reported for The Athletic, because Durant is “transparent and professional,” the description of the supposed mood of the high-powered confab. This is all happening, including the timing and tone of this news story, because Durant has too often made a habit of being neither transparent nor professional.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read this piece from Charania, a world-class NBA newsbreaker who himself has been transparent at times about his willingness to carry water for the sources who allow him to offer such accurate and valuable information, and deduce that Durant or those near him leaked the reporting in exchange for casting all this in a favorable light.

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Thus, KD’s latest me-me-me-me move gets sold as an above-the-board powerbroker handling such difficulties with aplomb and maturity. Don’t buy it for a second.

Strip away the quid-pro-quo that is the heartbeat of breaking sports news, and “does not have faith in the team’s direction” actually translates to: Didn’t do my bidding.

As in: Durant demanded a trade, Marks said no, and the superstar, unaccustomed to that word, has responded with a next-level move. The choice now that it’s either him or them. Despite the details that, you know, exactly one year before the Tasi meeting, Durant signed a four-year, $198 million contract extension.

Durant isn’t just saying keep me or keep them. He’s saying, regardless of how newsbreakers try to present his latest diva-demand, either trade him — or make him the boss.

Look, Durant is a basketball player of otherworldly talent and dedication. His talent borders on the miraculous, and his love for the game is clear. He is also, when not going full diva, by all accounts a great guy. Human beings are complicated, and we can be many things at once: Talented, dedicated, hungry, kind, interesting, insightful, and full of petty grievances and insecurities. 

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None of this is to say Durant is a bad person, as if that has any place in a sports column. It’s to say that many all-time great players are remarkably awful string-pullers and would-be GMs. Look westward, Tsai, to the Los Angeles Lakers and one LeBron James for a real-world, real-time reminder.

Trade Durant (for the right price), or don’t. Believe in him, or decide you’ve had enough. But don’t allow Durant to burn everything down because last year was tough. Don’t let him hold you hostage because he didn’t get his way in demanding a trade that would devastate the Nets without a fair return. Don’t let him end the run of Marks, who has proven himself a great general manager, nor that of a Hall of Fame player in Nash who deserves more time to show what he can or can’t do as a head coach.

This is scorched-earth stuff. Things went bad, let me leave. You won’t just give me away, fire everyone. You won’t fire everyone, fine, time for the public-news-bomb-pressure campaign. 

That’s the other part of this.

It’s beyond credulity to entertain the idea that Tsai or those around him leaked this news. There’s no need. The Nets owner doesn’t need to leverage himself by leaking a blockbuster bit of news in order to pressure himself. He’s the decision maker. So if this report from Shams came from Durant and the people around him — as seems quite clear, especially given the rosy presentation of Durant’s end of things — then KD went in 24 hours, straight from asking Tasi to fire Nash and Marks, to trying to publicly pressure Tasi to do it.

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That’s a tantrum. Or hardball. Or both. But either way, it’s bad business, and there remains one word in response, either to trading a generational talent like KD for less than what you want in return, or in firing the GM who won’t do so, along with his hand-picked head coach:

No. 

No, Kevin.

No.

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