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The Edge of Lori: On to Round 2

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is already well underway. The Toronto Maple Leafs began their series against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, May 2, and on Wednesday the Edmonton Oilers faced off against the Vegas Golden Knights to kick off their second round. With a formidable foe eliminated in each conference, the road to the Stanley Cup Final got a little less daunting. It’s time to consider some of the biggest stories from the first round. The Colorado Avalanche will not repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Last Sunday the Avalanche lost the seventh and deciding game to the Seattle Kraken and were eliminated. Two factors led to the undoing of the Champs. After winning the Cup last year, the Avalanche were unable to keep the band together. Core pieces of that winning team are currently wearing another jersey. Andre Burakovsky is now with the Kraken who, ironically, eliminated the Avalanche. Nazem Kadri left for the Calgary Flames in free agency, and the second line centreman role was never filled. The Avalanche were hoping Newfoundlander Alex Newhook could step up, but the youngster wasn’t quite ready for that level of responsibility. As the trade deadline approached, it was suspected that a deal might materialize between the Avalanche and the Montreal Canadiens, and that Sean Monahan may make his way to the mountains to fill the hole left by Kadri, who was added by the Flames to replace Monahan. Musical chairs, anyone? Unfortunately, Monahan’s season was cut short again due to injuries. That brings us to the second storyline for the Avalanche – injuries. Their captain, Gabriel Landeskog, did not play a single game this season. Others played through injuries. After a long season last year, the Avalanche were tired and banged up, and missing some core pieces, and it finally became too much. The Seattle Kraken pulled off the upset. With Colorado eliminated, that’s an avalanche sized hurdle the Edmonton Oilers will not have to clear. The Oilers are through to the second round after eliminating the Los Angeles Kings last Saturday night. It took them six games. Their second round matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights is expected to be a bigger challenge. Another giant upset was accomplished last Sunday. The Boston Bruins, who won the President’s Trophy following the best regular season in NHL history, could not get it done in the post-season. Like the Avalanche, injuries were a factor for the Bruins. Captain and first-line centreman Patrice Bergeron missed several games due to injury and was not up to capacity when he returned. At the end of the series, we learned he was suffering from a herniated disc. Goaltending was also an issue for Boston. Linus Ullmark was the starter on all but one night, and it was learned after the series that he had been playing through a painful injury. The coach inexplicably waited until the final game to start Jeremy Swayman, who had performed well for the Bruins all season. Neither managed a save percentage above .900 – that’s not a winning formula for the playoffs, and the wins and losses column doesn’t care if you’re injured. The Florida Panthers, who are familiar with strong regular seasons followed by disappointment in the playoffs, were the clear underdog in the series. They had undergone significant changes last summer and spent much of the early season outside of a playoff spot. But they peaked at the right time, were able to scrape into the last wild card berth and did what no one expected them to do. The Toronto Maple Leafs should be grateful to the Panthers for taking down a bear that would have been tough to overcome. Speaking of the Leafs, they have finally won a playoff round! After losing the first game in the series they won three straight games against the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning. The Leafs had three chances to eliminate the Lightning and make it to the second round. Game 5 in Toronto was the first opportunity, and the result was a loss. Game 6 in Tampa Bay was the perfect setup for a Saturday night playoff game. It was a tight match, with only Auston Matthews and Steven Stamkos hitting the score sheet in regulation time. Captain John Tavares was the hero, scoring at 4:36 of the extra frame to throw the monkey off Toronto’s back with a 2-1 overtime victory. This win marks the first time the Leafs have won a playoff series since 2004 – nearly two decades! The core of Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly has finally made it past the first round and, in doing so, may have saved their general manager’s job. Leafs fans can see a pathway to the Stanley Cup. Last year’s champions have already been eliminated. Their bitter rival, the Bruins, have been eliminated. They have already made it past the intimidating Lightning. The Panthers are their current stop and, if successful, they would face one of the Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils. Making it to the Cup Final seems do-able. A final storyline that caught my attention was what appears to be the closing of a window for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been a rock for the Lightning during their almost-a-dynasty run but, in this series, he was human throwing out a .875 save percentage over six games. Nikita Kucherov had six points in six games, and somehow was a shadow of himself. Victor Hedman played through injury and looked every day of his 32 years. After consecutive Stanley Cups, followed by last year’s defeat in the Final, this core has had a strong run. It will be interesting to see how GM Julien BriseBois manages the off-season

Raptors Racket According to NBA Insiders, the Toronto Raptors have already initiated their search for their next head coach and the search is expected to be thorough. Interviews have already begun, and the names of individuals they are expected to interview include current assistants, former head coaches, and coaches from the NCAA and WNBA. Masai Ujiri has indicated he is looking for a coach who can change the culture while relying heavily on young players and letting them develop.

Blue Jays Babble Last weekend the Toronto Blue Jays completed a surprising early season trade. After trading away young catcher Gabriel Moreno in the summer, the Jays were back in the market for catching depth. They found in in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, acquiring Tyler Heineman and sending infielder Vinny Capra the other way. Heineman was added to the 40-man roster and optioned to Triple-A Buffalo. Heineman is no stranger to the Jays, having previously worn the Baby Blue. He appeared in 10 games with the Jays last season before being claimed off waivers by the Pirates. This is a depth move for the Jays, with Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen the consistent fixtures behind home plate in Toronto.

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