By Lori Bennett
This week in the NHL it was an individual performance that stole the show.
On Monday night, April 4, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in Tampa Bay to face the Lightning, a potential playoff preview. The Leafs sent a strong message, with a 6-2 win and an Auston Matthews hat-trick that tied him with Rick Vaive for the Leafs all-time single-season goal-scoring record.
The Leafs were back at it on Tuesday, this time in Sunrise to face the Florida Panthers, another potential playoff preview. They lost the game and Matthews was held scoreless leaving him in a continued tie with Vaive. On Thursday they were in Dallas, and this was the night for record-making. Matthews scored two goals, his 55th and 56th of the season, in a 4-3 overtime win over the Stars. The 55th goal established Matthews as the Maple Leafs record holder for single-season goals. Matthews wasn’t the only one setting records.
On Wednesday night, in a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Ottawa Senators were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. For the fifth straight year the Sens have failed to qualify, setting a franchise record for longest playoff drought. Their last trip to the playoffs was in the 2016-17 season when they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Final by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who would eventually go on to win the Stanley Cup.
With the Montreal Canadiens already eliminated, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only Canadian team in the Eastern Conference that will compete in this season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The picture in the East, where playoff participants is concerned, has been all but sealed for weeks.
The Western Conference is still a little murky. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers will qualify for the playoffs and the remaining games will set positioning and matchups. Hopes for the Vancouver Canucks and the Winnipeg Jets are getting thin. At press deadline, the Dallas Stars held the second wild card spot with 84 points and two games in hand over the Canucks (78 points) and a game in hand over the Jets (76 points). Both teams are running out of road.
The Calder Trophy race for 2021-22 is gaining a little intrigue as the season winds down.
Centre Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks is on his way to a 20 goal and 50+ point rookie season. Defenceman Moritz Seider of the Detroit Red Wings is averaging 23 minutes a game as a rookie and is also on pace for 50 points. Lucas Raymond, the other Red Wing in the rookie race, has already surpassed the 20 goals and 50 points mark. One of these three guys is likely to take home the trophy for rookie of the year.
Two other challengers are worth noting in the final stretch. Michael Bunting of the Toronto Maple Leafs is also scoring at a Calder pace next to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Of course, with the season Matthews is having, a clever seal could score on that line.
The entire field might consider sending a thank you card to Cole Caufield of the Montreal Canadiens. After struggling to start the season, Caufield has been absolutely on fire under Interim Coach Martin St. Louis. It’s hard to fathom that Caufield would not be the leading candidate if the Habs had not faltered so badly straight out of training camp. It was Zegras that predicted in September that Caufield would score 40 goals this season. He may have been right if Caufield’s team had not tanked early.
The Toronto Raptors finished up their regular season this past week with a four-game homestand with games against the Hawks, 76ers, Rockets and Knicks.
As of press deadline, having come out on top against the Hawks and 76ers, they were in sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Playoff matchups will have been determined by the time you’re reading this, and the Raptors will be there.
Blue Jays Babble
The Toronto Blue Jays were active again this past week, making some final adjustments to their roster in advance of the season opener. They sent Catcher Reese McGuire to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Catcher Zach Collins. Both players bat from the left side, and McGuire is believed to be stronger defensively, while Collins is projected to have a higher offensive upside.
The important difference between the two was that McGuire cannot be sent down to Triple-A without being exposed to waivers. The Jays are expected to roll with Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk behind the plate, with Collins providing insurance off the bench or from the minors. Top prospect Gabriel Moreno is expected to claim the catching role eventually, perhaps as soon as mid-summer.
Toronto also released first baseman Greg Bird. Bird was signed in March but was not guaranteed an opening day roster spot by the Jays. He exercised his opt-out and will try to land a new team.
On Thursday the Jays announced their starting rotation for the 2022 season. Jose Berrios was announced as the starter for opening day against the Texas Rangers on Friday. He will be followed by Kevin Gausman, Hyun Jin Ryu, Alek Manoah and newcomer Yusei Kikuchi.
By now you’ve had your first taste of the 2022 Jays.