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The Edge of Lori: Things are heating up

By Lori Bennett

Sports Columnist

NHL Noise

The third round of the 2021-22 Stanley Cup Playoffs is underway. On Tuesday night the Colorado Avalanche greeted the Edmonton Oilers to kick off the Western Conference Final, and it was the Avalanche who came out on top in a goal bonanza, with a final score of 8-6. On Thursday they were back at it, and the Avalanche dominated in a 4-0 win. The series headed to Edmonton for a Saturday night match-up.

After eliminating the Carolina Hurricanes in Monday night’s Game 7, the New York Rangers went on to face the well-rested defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The series got underway on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden and rest looked more like rust as the Rangers dominated the Lightning in a 6-2 win. Game 2 was set for Friday night at MSG.

With the second round in the history books, it’s time to pause and look at the four teams who were strong enough to make it to, but not through, the second round. What lessons can be learned from the eliminated teams?

The Florida Panthers were the first team eliminated, a sweep by the Lightning. After needing seven games to deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa made quick work of the Panthers. The lesson? Some teams are built for the regular season, and some for the playoffs. Florida made the regular season look easy, bringing such elite offense that they could play practical pond hockey night after night. But the playoffs require discipline and structure, and some actual defending, and the Panthers were completely unprepared for their weathered opponent.

There is a second related lesson – you need to learn to lose before you can learn to win. Winning may have come a little too easy for the Panthers, with no adversity to build the character necessary to gather 16 post-season wins. In the 2018-19 season it was Tampa who got swept by Columbus in the first round after claiming the President’s Trophy. They won the Cup the next two years. The Panthers can take a page from the Lightning book.

The second team to be eliminated were the Calgary Flames, and if there is a lesson to be learned here it revolves around playing to your identity.

Fans may point to a goal called back for being kicked in, but that’s not where the series was lost. From the first game against the Oilers, Calgary just did not look like themselves.

The Flames needed to play a tightly structured defensive game, limit chances, and minimize errors. Instead the series became a shootout, with the Flames defence leaking like a basket. In the end, odd man rushes killed them. Calgary’s best forwards simply could not compete with names like McDavid and Draisaitl, or even Kane and Hyman.

From the St. Louis Blues, the third team eliminated in the second round, we can learn that the margin for error is small when you are the underdog.

The Avalanche were the favourites heading into their series, and St. Louis needed all cylinders firing to stand a chance. Goalie Jordan Binnington made 51 saves in a Game 1 loss before leading them to a win in Game 2. An injury ousted him from the series, and then some poorly timed penalties along with an offensive dry spell for some key players was enough to seal their fate.

The last team to have their season end in the second round was the Carolina Hurricanes. We could talk about how they made exactly one deadline addition – Max Domi, a small, skilled but streaky winger who doesn’t over-exert himself on defence – when they needed a big workhorse who would drag his team into the fight, and maybe another goal scorer. Better additions may have helped win a road game or two along the way, and maybe even contribute on special teams where the Canes were potent in the regular season and impotent in the playoffs. There’s another lesson – special teams can make or break you in the post-season.

On the other end of the NHL career spectrum, the NHL Draft Combine took place this week in Buffalo. The Combine is one of the final opportunities for prospects to make an impression on teams ahead of the amateur draft. According to the NHL’s official website, 96 prospects were invited to participate in the event, including top prospects Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovsky and Logan Cooley.

The Combine consists of 11 fitness tests, including standing height, wingspan, standing long jump, bench press, pro agility test, pull-ups, and the Wingate Cycle Ergometer test. Prospect scores become part of the data set used by NHL teams to make draft decisions. The Combine is also an opportunity for face-to-face interviews between teams and prospects that have caught their interest for specific draft positions.

The 2022 NHL Amateur Draft will be held on July 7 and 8 in Montreal. The hometown Canadiens currently have 14 picks, including the first overall selection. Habs leadership met with Shane Wright for the first time on Monday. On Tuesday, GM Kent Hughes met with the media and compared the brief 15-minute interviews that take place as part of the Combine process to speed dating. The deeper dive takes place when specific players get a dinner invitation from interested teams. Hughes reported the Habs have not decided who they will select at number one.

Blue Jays Babble

Last weekend, the Toronto Blue Jays got things back on track with a four-game road sweep of the Los Angeles Angels. The Jays have been criticized for being too dependent on their power game, but it was a weekend of small ball that got them back to their winning ways.

The Jays had Monday off before greeting the Chicago White Sox for three games. On Tuesday, Alejandro Kirk had two homers in a 6-5 win. The Jays won 7-3 on Wednesday but lost starting pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu to injury. On Thursday afternoon, the Jays won their eighth straight with a final score of 8-3, on the strength of a strong pitching performance from Alek Manoah.

Having improved to a 30-20 record and holding second place in the American League East, the Jays were due to welcome the Minnesota Twins for three weekend games. They need to keep those bats hot if they want to gain some ground on the New York Yankees.

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