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The Edge of Lori: Dramarama

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise As the NHL season wound down this past week, drama was on the rise as teams were competing in pressure-packed games with their seasons on the line. On Monday night, April 10, the Calgary Flames were officially eliminated from playoff qualification. The Flames struggled all season, perhaps a reflection of a team that underwent significant off-season changes. GM Brad Treliving recovered after losing Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. He added coveted free agent centreman Nazem Kadri and dealt Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers for a package that included Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weeger. Simply put, the roster was good enough for a playoff appearance. On Monday, the Flames welcomed the Nashville Predators in a game they had to win. The contest went to a shootout, and it was the Preds who came out on top. The question that loomed after the elimination was why on earth Tyler Toffoli was left sitting on the bench in a shootout. Toffoli led the team in goals by ten this season and was 50 per cent on the year in the shootout. It was a bizarre call from Coach Darryl Sutter in a season where we have seen a few incidents that rattled around bonkers territory. Sutter is the kind of old school coach that is known to have a very defined shelf life, and it may be time for Flames leadership to turn Sutter bottom up and take a gander at his expiry date. In better news for the Flames, two of their promising prospects made their NHL debuts this week. Goalie Dustin Wolf and forward Matt Coronato got their first shifts in a meaningless game against the San José Sharks. The pair will be hopefuls to make the team next season. The Toronto Maple Leafs had an entirely different flavour of drama swirling around them. They are confirmed for home ice advantage against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. On Saturday night, April 8, playing a meaningless game against the Montreal Canadiens and with Matt Murray injured, the Leafs had signed an emergency back-up goalie to face the Habs. Late in the game with a 7-1 lead, Coach Sheldon Keefe chose to make a goalie change to give Jett Alexander the experience of a lifetime. It did not sit well with some of the Canadiens players. The Habs have lost a lot this year. The players can’t be expected to be jolly losers all the time. Then on Sunday the Leafs signed prospect Matthew Knies, following the end of his NCAA season, to his three-year entry-level contract that begins this year. The Leafs were interested in getting Knies into some games before the playoffs begin and they have been able to do so. He recorded his first assist on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Leafs are hoping this is an omen. In the meanwhile, the goaltending situation remains a bit of a riddle. Murray has been day to day with a head injury after leaving a game on April 2nd. The timeline for his return to action is unknown, and that has been the story of the season. But on Monday, GM Kyle Dubas announced both Murray and starter Ilya Samsonov would miss the final two games of the season due to injury. Joseph Woll was recalled from the Marlies to close out the season as the Leafs starter. The severity of Samsonov’s injury is unknown – he may have bumps and bruises and the Leafs are playing it safe with the playoffs on the line. But if it becomes something more, the Leafs would be in dire straits where their net is concerned. Wednesday saw the end of an era in the NHL. With a New York Islanders win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs after 16 consecutive appearances. The Crosby-Malkin-Letang window may be officially closed. Sidney Crosby was 19 years old the last time the Pens didn’t make the playoffs. Settle in. The fun part of the season is just beginning.

Raptors Racket While one Toronto team is just getting started, another is shutting down. The Toronto Raptors finished the regular season in ninth place in the Eastern conference. That finish was enough to get them into the play-in tournament. On Wednesday night the Raptors hosted the tenth place Chicago Bulls. It was a do or die game, with the loser eliminated from the play-in. The Raptors were in control for much of the game, at one point leading by 19 points. But in the fourth quarter the Bulls mounted a comeback and with six and a half minutes left they tied the game at 91. The Raptors were down 105-102 with 28.7 seconds left when Coach Nick Nurse called timeout. A dunk from Pascal Siakam left the Raptors trailing by one. A foul and a couple of free shots later, the Bulls were ahead 107-104 and the Raptors called timeout again. Pascal Siakam was fouled taking a three-pointer and went to the line for three free throws and a chance to tie the game. He missed two of three, and the game ended in a 109-104 loss for the Raptors. They had a 19 point lead at home and lost. That’s rough. Now we wait for the post-mortem from management, and to get a sense of what will come next.

Blue Jays Babble On Tuesday the Toronto Blue Jays held their home opener, welcoming the Detroit Tigers for a three game series. The bullpen and the bats came up big in the opening game of the series, and the Jays entertained fans with a 9-3 win. In game 2, Kevin Gausman allowed three runs in five innings, and that was enough for the Tigers to take a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. The Jays quickly loaded the bases, and sacrifice flies from Whit Merrifield followed by Alejandro Kirk tied the game. Extra innings were necessary, and in the bottom of the tenth George Springer was the hero hitting a single to drive in the winning run. Chris Bassitt was due to take the mound for the third game of the series on Thursday. The Jays returned to Toronto following a 10-game road trip to open the season with a 6-4 record. We learned a few things about the 2023 Blue Jays on that road trip. We learned that some of the big gamers from last season have picked up right where they left off. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Matt Chapman were brilliant at the bat to kick off the season, while filling their roles in the infield. We also learned that some of the new guys come as advertised. Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier have fit like a glove, bringing diversity to the batting order and delivering on the defensive side in the outfield. We’re still waiting to figure out the pitching puzzle, but it’s still early and the Jays are still finding their rhythm after significant off-season changes. Size is way too small to panic, but it’s not too soon to cross our fingers that the Jays have done enough in the pitching department this season.

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