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Hurt, heartbreak and hope

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist NHL Noise NHL hockey fans got their appetites whetted with some pre-season action this past week and a few more developing storylines. A trio of defensemen drew some attention. On Wednesday night, Sept. 27, Montreal Canadiens top pair defenseman Mike Matheson was due to play a preseason game against the Ottawa Senators but was pulled shortly before game time with a minor injury. Coach Martin St. Louis said it wasn’t serious and if it was the regular season Matheson would have played. That commentary brings Habs fans no comfort. Playing through injury — and making things profoundly worse in so doing — has gotten them in trouble in the past. With the crew of youngsters on the Montreal blue line, the Habs need their veteran to stay healthy. This will be a file to keep an eye on. At the other end of the ice, defenseman Mathieu Joseph was having a heck of a game for Ottawa. Joseph has been rumoured to be available by trade to free up cap space for the Senators to sign centreman Shane Pinto. Scoring two beauties, the young blue liner was either making a case to stay or selling himself to interested buyers. Giving up on a young offensive defenseman is a tough price to pay for the Sens. In Toronto, summer acquisition John Klingberg was removed from a game against the Sabres, as a precaution, when “something tightened up on him”. The Maple Leafs are counting on Klingberg to regain form as an offensive weapon from the back end. He’s off to a screaming start. The Tampa Bay Lightning also got some tough injury news this week. On Thursday they announced their star goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky underwent surgery to address a lumbar disc herniation. He is expected to miss the first two months of the season, and that might leave Habs GM Kent Hughes remorseful for trading Casey DeSmith so soon. Vasilevsky’s absence may be enough to have the Lightning in trouble by American Thanksgiving if they’re not able to pick up a replacement option. It might be enough to open the door for a team like the Sens to sneak into the playoffs. At the other end of an injury, Patrick Kane is recovering from offseason hip resurfacing surgery. His agents released a video of him training last week, and that was enough to fuel speculation about which team would sign the playoff-proven veteran goal scorer. One shoe finally dropped for the Calgary Flames as they were able to extend forward Mikael Backlund to a two-year deal worth $9 million and carrying an annual cap hit of $4.5 million. Backlund was entering the final year of his current contract, and his new deal has him committed to the Flames until the end of the 2025-26 season. When announcing the new contract, the Flames also named Backlund the franchise’s 21st captain. The 34-year-old was a first-round draft pick in 2007 by the Flames and he has played his entire NHL career in Calgary. This contract potentially takes Backlund to retirement to make him a lifelong Flame. He had 19 goals and 56 points in 82 games last season — a career year — and is the consummate third-line 200-foot centreman that every team covets. Upon signing, Backlund said he “felt like this is where I belong.” With a long list of players entering the final years of their current contracts, GM Craig Conroy is hoping that feeling is contagious. The Flames family lost a valued member this week. Assistant General Manager Chris Snow, who has been a public inspiration while battling ALS, went into cardiac arrest on Wednesday and was not expected to recover. On Thursday, his wife Kelsie Snow posted to social media. “Tests yesterday confirmed that Chris will not wake up. In life, Chris offered his body to a clinical trial to help others. In death he will do the same. He remains on life support while organ donation is arranged. We are so proud of him.” Along with hockey fans across the country, our thoughts are with the Snow family. Blue Jays Babble Last weekend the Toronto Blue Jays were on the road for a series against the Tampa Bay Rays, with the whole season coming down to the wire. On Friday night the Jays claimed a big 6-2 win, with Chris Bassitt pitching a solid 6 and two-thirds innings, and the bullpen holding. With the win, Bassitt became just the second 15-game winner in the American League, delivering even more than the Jays expected when they acquired him last summer. Toronto lost a 7-6 heartbreaker on Saturday night with the Rays walkoff single in the ninth inning. Then in Sunday’s rubber match, George Springer was a beast on both sides of the game. Springer hit an inside-the-park homerun in the game and made two stellar defensive plays in a 9-5 win. The Jays had Monday off before heading home to greet the New York Yankees for a three-game series. The Yankees are well out of playoff positioning but entered the series happy to be the spoilers against their American League East rivals. On Tuesday night, an ace pitching performance from Kevin Gausman was wasted in a 2-0 loss. Gausman allowed three hits in seven shutout innings, and Erik Swanson held in the eighth. Going into the ninth with a scoreless tie, Manager John Schneider sent out his closer, Jordan Romano, and he blew the save allowing two runs on two hits – a single followed by a homerun. The bats were unable to recover in the bottom of the ninth. The division rivals were at it again on Wednesday and the Blue Bats were still impotent in a 6-0 loss. On Thursday the Blue Jays were trying to salvage something from the series, and lucky for them the Yanks sent a lesser pitcher to the mound. The bats got going, and Bassitt hit another milestone, pitching seven and two-thirds shutout innings to reach 200 innings pitched on the season, and the result was a 6-0 win. The season came down to a weekend home series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Jays went into the weekend with a magic number of two. That meant if they won two of the three games against the Rays, they were in the playoffs. Alternatively, any combination of a Jays win, and one loss from either Seattle or Houston would send the Blue Birds flying to the postseason. On Friday night, Toronto took control of their own destiny with a convincing 11-4 win over the Rays. Seattle and Houston also won, so the magic number was reduced to one. A win by the Jays or a loss by one of the others would seal it. The Jays were unable to get it done on Saturday, suffering a 7-5 loss in a game that went to extra innings, but they got a little help from the Texas Rangers who beat Seattle. That combo was enough to get it done. The Jays are going to the playoffs! Of course, with the off-season additions made by the Jays, any other outcome would have been a huge disappointment. Now we wait to see if they can win their first playoff game since Jose Bautista left town.

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