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The Edge of Lori: NHL season’s end

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise The NHL regular season comes to an end on April 14. With a handful of games remaining, some playoff positions are already determined. In the Atlantic Division it has been inevitable since American Thanksgiving that the Toronto Maple Leafs would face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The only mystery was who would finish with the most points of the two and win home ice advantage. Toronto is in control of their own fate in this area having taken a bit of a points lead. It’s never smart to bet against the Lightning, but they are more vulnerable this year than they have been in a very long time. This may be the year for the Leafs, but a lot may be riding on their goaltending situation and that was entirely predictable. At the 2022 Draft in Montreal, rumours began to circulate that the Leafs were trying to trade for Matt Murray and, as the idea spread, jaws were dropping. Why would GM Kyle Dubas, desperate to win one playoff round while his team’s contention window was wide open, gamble on an injury-prone goalie? But gamble he did, and once again Murray is questionable for the playoffs. Murray left a game last Sunday against Detroit after he was taken off his feet by Lucas Raymond and landed on his head. With his concussion history, the Leafs are watching symptoms and Murray may be watching from the press box when Round 1 begins. It looks likely that Ilya Samsonov will be backed up by an AHL call-up. The Boston Bruins will win the President’s Trophy by a large points margin, and they are awaiting the outcome of the wild card race to learn their opponent. The Islanders, Penguins and Panthers are all competing to see who will get to be eliminated by the Bruins in the first round. The Bruins are undeniably the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes, Devils and Rangers are all confirmed participants from the Metropolitan Division, but positioning will come down to the wire. Out West, the Vegas Golden Knights are the favourite to win the Pacific Division. The Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings are nearly confirmed for the first round matchup, but home ice is still to be determined. On Tuesday night the Oilers and Kings faced off for their last meeting of the regular season, and the Oilers came out on top with a 3-1 win. I like Edmonton’s chances to come out of the Western Conference this year. The race is tight in the Central Division with Dallas, Minnesota and Colorado skating neck to neck. Positioning will likely be undetermined until the final games. The Kraken look to have a hold on the first wild card spot, and the second seems to be a Canadian competition. Winnipeg has held the position for much of the season, but the Calgary Flames finally seem to be getting it together and hope to sneak in late. Here is my prediction – if the Jets make it they will be eliminated in the first round, but if the Flames sneak in they’ll take at least one round. The regular season is not even over and already conversations are shifting to what teams might do in the off-season. The NHL Amateur Draft is the first major event on the off-season agenda, and pundits are speculating about trades involving first round picks. The Columbus Blue Jackets are reportedly prepared to trade one of their first rounders to improve their team immediately. The Montreal Canadiens also have two first rounders, and there is suspicion they may try to pull off a trade similar to the deal they made for Kirby Dach at last summer’s draft. The most obvious candidate is Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Winnipeg Jets who has made it known he would like to play in Montreal.

Raptors Racket The NBA schedule has wound down and as of press deadline the Toronto Raptors were still in position for the play-in tournament. For newer Raptors fans, NBA playoff positioning includes a play-in tournament. The top six teams in each conference are guaranteed playoff spots. Teams in the seven through ten spots have a chance to earn a playoff spot through competing in a play-in tournament. For the Raptors, this outcome is disappointing despite the potential that remains for them to make it. When the season began, Toronto fans hoped their young team could build on last season’s surprising successes. But here we are, and the Raptors are against the wall. In the midst of this race, Coach Nick Nurse raised some eyebrows in a presser last week. He said he would take a few weeks at the conclusion of the season to consider whether he would return to the Raptors. In a decade with the team, Nurse has a winning record and led the Raptors to their first NBA championship. That’s a presser that sounds more like an end-of-season post-mortem than a coach in a push to make the playoffs. Should Nurse choose to leave the Raptors, he will leave behind some big shoes to fill.

Blue Jays Babble The opening of the 2023 season for the Toronto Blue Jays has not exactly been mind-blowing. The Jays opened their regular season on March 30th with a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite a rough outing for Pitcher Alek Manoah, they managed to win 10-9, and then lost the next two. Newcomer Chris Bassitt, who was acquired in free agency, was banged up badly in his first game with the Jays, giving up nine runs in just three innings. From there the Blue Jays headed to Kansas City for a four-game series against the Royals. In the opening game of the series, Jose Berrios gave up eight runs in five innings and a bit in another loss. Yusei Kikuchi took the mound in the second game of the series and continued his strong showing from spring training. He allowed just one run in five innings pitched and the bullpen was solid in a 4-1 win. After one trip through the starting pitching rotation just Kikuchi and Kevin Gausman had strong outings. It’s way too early and that sample size is way too small to panic, but it’s not too soon to cross our fingers that the Jays have not entered another season not having done enough in the pitching department.

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